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With Rape Day ban, Steam shows it’s not as “hands off” as it claims

<img src="https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/rday-800×450.jpg" alt="One of the few safe-for-work images of Rape Day offered on the game’s Steam page before it was taken down.”>
Enlarge / One of the few safe-for-work images of Rape Day offered on the game’s Steam page before it was taken down.

Since last June, Valve has claimed that “the right approach is to allow everything onto the Steam Store,” with only minor exceptions for content that is “illegal or straight-up trolling.” But Valve’s decision to block controversial upcoming title Rape Day from Steam shows its actual moderation policy is more reactive and restrictive than originally promised.

Rape Day attracted plenty of headlines over the last week or so for its pre-release description of a visual novel where you “control the choices of a menacing serial killer rapist during a zombie apocalypse.” Trailers and screenshots posted to the game’s (now-deleted, archived, extremely NSFW) Steam page show some very basic branching dialogue choices amid brutal static scenes of hardcore pornography and sexual violence.

Developer Desk Lamp said in a March 4 update that the game had been submitted to Steam for approval and that “the review process was taking longer than expected.” Yesterday afternoon, Valve posted a short blog post stating directly that “Rape Day will not ship on Steam”:

Much of our policy around what we distribute is, and must be, reactionary [Valve presumably means “reactive”]—we simply have to wait and see what comes to us via Steam Direct. We then have to make a judgment call about any risk it puts to Valve, our developer partners, or our customers. After significant fact-finding and discussion, we think ‘Rape Day’ poses unknown costs and risks and therefore won’t be on Steam.

We respect developers’ desire to express themselves, and the purpose of Steam is to help developers find an audience, but this developer has chosen content matter and a way of representing it that makes it very difficult for us to help them do that.

What are the rules?

Valve’s Rape Day statement is as notable for what it says as for what it doesn’t. For one, it doesn’t explicitly condemn the content in Rape Day, either generally or specifically. For another, it doesn’t argue that the game is either “illegal or straight-up trolling,” the two previously stated exceptions to its “allow everything” policy.

Depictions of rape and sexual violence are not illegal in the United States, as countless works of art and pop culture have shown over the years. “Straight up trolling” is more of a judgment call, but Valve has previously clarified that this generally applies to games that outright don’t work or are “just trying to incite and sow discord.” Valve has previously used this justification to remove games like AIDS Simulator and Active Shooter from Steam, the latter because it was “designed to do nothing but generate outrage and cause conflict through its existence,” according to a statement from Valve’s Doug Lombardi.

<a href="https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/as.jpg" class="enlarge" data-height="450" data-width="800" alt="While games like Active Shooter were rejected from Steam for "straight-up trolling," that doesn’t seem to be the case with Rape Day.”><img alt="While games like Active Shooter were rejected from Steam for "straight-up trolling," that doesn’t seem to be the case with Rape Day.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/as-640×360.jpg” width=”640″ height=”360″ srcset=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/as.jpg 2x”>
Enlarge / While games like Active Shooter were rejected from Steam for “straight-up trolling,” that doesn’t seem to be the case with Rape Day.

The developer behind at Desk Lamp certainly don’t think his game is a mere troll intended to “sow discord,” though. On the game’s website, he cites inspiration from horror books and psychological thrillers, saying Rape Day is a dark comedy about “subjective value systems” and “gaining the acceptance of the loss of control… Or maybe it’s me trying to work through my own trauma/PTSD.”

Desk Lamp compares Rape Day to games like Grand Theft Auto, suggesting that “you can’t reasonable [sic] consider banning rape in fiction without banning murder and torture. Murder has been normalized in fiction, while rape has yet to be normalized.”

“Of course if Valve changes their policy again, I will sell this game somewhere else but as of now it is perfectly within the rules,” Desk Lamp said in a news update on the game’s Steam page in February. That said, in a statement provided to CNET this week, that developer said, “I think I might agree with Steam that my game is not the right fit for a distribution site that is marketed at the general masses and children.”

Maybe Desk Lamp is being too cute by half, trying to come up with an easy justification for a game that’s only meant to troll the storefront. But there’s some reason to believe he was at least trying to create a sincere piece of expression here, however shocking or abhorrent it might be.

Valve gives a damn ’bout its bad reputation

So if Rape Day ins’t illegal or “straight-up trolling,” how should we interpret Valve’s decision to block its Steam release anyway? There are some hints in Valve’s statement on the game, which cites “unknown costs and risks” to “Valve, our developer partners, or our customers” in making the decision.

Valve doesn’t go into detail on what those risks might be. Maybe the company is worried about the risk of players merely being exposed to Rape Day‘s content, but that kind of “think of the children” positioning is a line Valve has never used in the past. Perhaps Valve is worried about legal risks; even an unsuccessful civil suit against the company for offering the game would be rather costly.

Just as likely, though, the real risk Valve is worried about is reputational. Before Valve’s decision, a Change.org petition demanding the game come off of Steam attracted nearly 8,000 signatures in just a few days. That’s a drop in the bucket in the Internet outrage machine, but it reflects an outcry about the game that was starting to hit mainstream news outlets and social media commenters who aren’t usually immersed in the game industry.

In announcing its new policy back in June, Valve argued that “if we allow your game onto the Store, it does not mean we approve or agree with anything you’re trying to say with it.” But as I pointed out in an op-ed at the time, that sort of we-don’t-have-a-position position doesn’t prevent Valve’s brand from being dragged down by Steam’s worst content.

“By allowing practically the most hateful games imaginable on its storefront, Steam offers an implicit endorsement that amounts to much more than just a place on the digital shelf,” I wrote at the time. “[Valve’s position] lets anyone, with any point of view, essentially tie themselves to the Steam brand, complete with the explicit benefits and implicit endorsements that come with it… By refusing to define its own values, Valve will be letting anyone and everyone try to define those values by tying their content to Steam’s storefront.”

What can you do?

<a href="https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/pp.png" class="enlarge" data-height="400" data-width="400" alt="When Apple briefly required the addition of undergarments in the iPad version of Papers, Please images, it had published guidelines it could point to justifying the decision.”><img alt="When Apple briefly required the addition of undergarments in the iPad version of Papers, Please images, it had published guidelines it could point to justifying the decision.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/pp-300×300.png” width=”300″ height=”300″ srcset=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/pp.png 2x”>
Enlarge / When Apple briefly required the addition of undergarments in the iPad version of Papers, Please images, it had published guidelines it could point to justifying the decision.

Valve’s newest attempt to thread the needle on this issue, it seems, is an argument that “much of our policy around what we distribute is, and must be, reactionary [sic]—we simply have to wait and see what comes to us via Steam Direct.” But the rest of the game industry shows that’s not true. Game console platforms, mobile app stores, and even competing PC game distribution services all have predefined guidelines outlining what kind of content is and isn’t acceptable for the games they sell.

Rather than simply taking a “waiting-and-see” position, these storefronts all proactively try to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable ahead of time. Those kinds of content guidelines are open to interpretation, of course, and there are plenty of edge cases for games that seem to skirt the line. But simply having a line in the first place helps prevent those storefronts from being merely reactive, as Valve claims it “must be.”

When controversial content wants to associate with these other storefronts, those platform-holders can at least point to their guidelines as justification for any decision they make. When such content tries to get on Steam, Valve can only be reactive, offering mealy-mouthed responses about unnamed “costs and risks.”

Valve’s ostensibly laissez-faire moderation policy for Steam games is becoming, in practice, more of a capricious, “I’ll know it when I see it” method of directionless, case-by-case decision-making. For Steam, it seems, there are now three types of content that are banned: illegal content; outright trolling; and an amorphous set of “content that makes us look bad.”

ARS T

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