Who Curates the Curators? The Canon According to Steam

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How do you find out about good games? You talk to your friends. Maybe you read reviews. You click on the sparkliest items on the splash page of your favorite digital storefront. You watch trailers. You look at screenshots.

If you use Steam to buy games, though, you already know that’s not enough. Today, Steam’s store contains over 3700 games, and the rate at which games have been added to Steam’s store has increased exponentially since the implementation of Steam Greenlight, which allows users to vote on which games will be added. Steam’s users have also increased in number from 75 million to 100 million just since January of this year. And now, as of this week, those users have something else to decide on besides their Greenlight votes: Steam users can choose to become “Curators”—essentially, they can post a public list of Steam games they’ve enjoyed, to which others can subscribe.

The current list of Curators, auto-sorted from most-subscribed to least, includes several well-known games industry members, from YouTube personalities to games journalists to game developers. These top Curators have unintentionally flattened out the idea of what constitutes a “taste-maker” in the games industry, a designation on which players will likely continue to disagree as the demographic of Steam users diversifies and increases. The microcosm of Steam’s most popular curators at this point in time, however, reflects where we are in games: When it comes to finding “the good stuff,” we’re still playing it pretty safe.

In the early days of Steam, Valve Software was the only “Curator” to speak of, and getting into Steam’s hallowed halls was relatively difficult. Indie game developer Mike Bithell recently wrote that getting Steam’s attention used to require any combination of “traditional PR, reviews, previews, trailers, endorsements, getting friends to email them on your behalf in a slightly nepotistic manner …” The results were likely not dissimilar to how radio stations used to select which music to play; hit singles weren’t ever determined by audiences, but rather by corporate interests and “who you know.” Nonetheless, listeners trusted their favorite channels to find “the good stuff,” and few people cared much as to how the sausage was made.

There never was any “radio” equivalent for PC games, exactly, but the Steam of the present day definitely resembles iTunes or Spotify more now than it did five years ago. Steam’s current system relies on a variety of factors to get games in front of consumers’ faces. If you’re subscribed to specific curators, their votes carry an influence over what you see on Steam’s splash page. Also, Steam’s own recommendation system relies upon looking over your current gaming library and suggesting similar titles to you, based on your interests. However, this system discourages the best kind of discoverability: the unexpected kind. So far, Steam has got a lock on making sure you keep playing the same types of games you already play, as well as on making sure that popular games stay popular. Games that play it safe and fit into current preconceived notions of what a “good game” looks and acts like will continue to hit the top of the spread, again and again.

This new system seems like it benefits both artists and consumers who just want to know what’s popular, but what it also does is potentially exclude games that can’t be easily classified. Also, Steam assumes that because I enjoy a particular genre of game, I won’t ever want to leave my playpen and learn about anything new. Currently, Steam has been hilariously unable to pin down what I like, offering me everything from hardcore shooters to cutesy, cartoony strategy games to gorgeous visual novels—so I’m not too worried about having a boring splash page. But I am worried about the games Steam isn’t showing me, of which there are thousands, with hundreds more piling on each month.

The way I remembered Steam in high school was as a tiny collection of games that seemingly “everyone” I knew played. “Everyone” played Counter-Strike; “everyone” thought Ricochet was a goofy way to pass the time at LAN parties; “everyone” knew Half-Life was totally bad-ass. We all had the same shared canon of games that “everyone” knew about—the same cultural references, the same collective memories, the same heroes and expectations for what those heroes looked like, how they would act, what they would be able to do. Since Steam had fewer games, this shared canon felt not only possible but expected. The very idea of having a Steam account and identifying as a “gamer”—especially a PC gamer, especially a hardcore gamer—suggested a familiarity with the same canon as “everyone” else in that self-identifying group.

The idea of this PC gaming canon continues today, even though it has gotten increasingly less meaningful; not only are there more games, but there are also more types of players and more genres. The idea of what constitutes a “typical” Steam user can no longer be expected or assumed. The new Steam curation system suggests an attempt at continuing to designate a “gaming canon”—the games that a collective “everyone” on Steam would agree on as being “the good games.” But my own definition of “good game” has changed. My thoughts on which games count as being part of the “canon” of Steam games have changed, too.

Looking at the current list of the most popular curators, it doesn’t look like the faces of gaming—or the types of games being made—have changed much yet. Even Greenlight, which relies upon users’ votes, has allowed games that can be easily classified and understood to succeed in greater numbers than the weirder games that challenge the status quo. So in some ways, Greenlight and the Curators’ system will not be so different, at first, from the old days of Steam when it comes to deciding what is popular. Expensive-looking shooters with gruff male protagonists will most likely continue to top charts. So will complex strategic games that allow you to build massive virtual armies and click on them until your fingers fall off. Those games will continue to be considered the games that “gamers” play, the “canon”—the supposed “shared experience”—with which we all are supposedly familiar.

What has changed, though, is that the landscape of Steam has widened—perhaps imperceptibly, right now, but I believe that change will be felt sooner or later. The idea of having a handful of “good games” that “everyone” should play every year seems laughable already—after all, “good” is subjective, and tastes vary. The idea that “everyone” who plays games on Steam has also played Half-Life (and thought it was “good”) no longer is true, nor is that even a logical assumption to make—and that’s fine. But since Steam is still relying almost entirely upon user votes—either via voting on Greenlight, or by subscribing to the most popular Curator, since the most popular Curators are at the top of the list, and so on—that “canon” of gaming will continue to reflect a particular type of gamer, at least for a little while longer. But I am curious to see how that “canon” will change, given that there are a lot of different types of votes for different types of games pouring in, these days.

Still, I worry about my own ability to find not “the good stuff” but, rather, “the weird stuff.” This is a problem that other art forms have had, and that the Internet has continued to exacerbate, by removing the barriers to entry. For example, obtaining the tools to record a song and obtaining the tools to create a game have both become significantly easier in the past decade; the Internet now suffers from a proliferation of both bad songs and bad games, although in addition to allowing artists who never would’ve had the opportunity otherwise to create great work. But how do we find those hidden gems, buried in so much chaff?

I don’t think user votes, or Curators, are quite the right answer to the problem that Steam faces, but I understand why they’ll have to do. Any system that relies upon voting and popularity will always implicitly encourage the status quo, but I don’t exactly have any better ideas. After all, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all of the others” (thanks, Winston Churchill).

I might like a “chaos” button that would randomize my storefront. Not that pure randomization would result in my finding “the good stuff” any more easily than a curated list—but at least then I wouldn’t feel like I was just seeing the same games over and over. Unless, of course, the recess of several thousand games that I don’t see on my storefront are all secretly just side-scrolling puzzle platformers. Then I could just blame all of you for voting for those on Greenlight.

Hyper Mode is an occasional column by Paste’s assistant games editor Maddy Myers. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric on the 5by5 Network.