Steam, though it’s opened up considerably in the past few years, is still primarily known as a relatively gated market of games. Its creators at Valve have notably flirted with opening up the market further, and the current Steam Direct system replacing the previous Steam Greenlight system definitely feels like a step in that direction, but as I’ve written before, the market that is Steam is still a clumsy half-step between a fully moderated space and a more laissez-faire one.
This back-and-forth attitude might be most prominent with Valve’s treatment of sexual content in games, and last week that topic was once again brought to a head as multiple developers of explicitly sexual games found themselves receiving communication from Valve that their titles were in danger of being de-listed due to sexual content.
The period of fear was short-lived, as only a few days later Valve reversed their policies, stating that the targeted games would be subject to a re-evaluation after which they would likely be allowed back on the marketplace.
While the current threat of de-listing has passed, the question remains: Why is a marketplace that’s so central to the PC gaming market so loose with its policies?
Online marketplaces cracking down on sexual content is hardly unique to the games industry. Paypal is infamously intolerant of digital sales of sexual items, and as a valid payment processing source for Steam it’s not unreasonable to assume that pressure from the corporation might be causing Steam to reconsider their policies on sexual content in order to protect an important revenue stream.
The games targeted in this most recent round of threatened delisting were primarily visual novel games, and many more outwardly-facing sexual games were notably not targeted. One of the developers of House Party, a game that includes multiple scenes of dubious sexual consent and was not targeted in the crackdown, explained on twitter that they had worked with Steam to make sure that their game complied with Steam regulations.
Christine Love, developer at Love Conquers All Games, creators of 2016’s Ladykiller In A Bind (described on Steam as “An erotic romantic comedy about social manipulation, crossdressing, and girls tying up other girls”), talked to Paste about Valve’s regulatory patterns. “As long as they continue to have no policy about anything, and make decisions only based on whim, people are forced to try to interpret their actions and precedents like tea leaves and try to figure out what it really means,” she said.
Developers find themselves subject to these changes seemingly at random. Love continues: “There doesn’t really seem to be much to suggest that Valve knows what its own decisions and precedents even are. They’ve said many times explicitly that they don’t want to be involved in curation, and while I think they think that means some kind of free market idealism, it has the effect of being particularly vulnerable to the whims of whatever employee is taking action that day.”
It’s precisely these sort of volatile, unannounced changes that make Steam a complicated and often frustrating market to navigate. Games are multifaceted and it’s inevitable that some will touch on sex—whether as part of a storyline or as the express purpose of the game. Steam’s muddy and often confusing rules around what is and isn’t allowed on its platform are exactly what could bring a healthy development community to its knees. Just make sure you don’t show that in a game if you want to sell it on Steam.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.