This is a post in the series “When your Wholesome, Queer Game is Seen as Very Controversial” in which I’m circling around questions such as: How are we supposed to discuss topics like consent and sexuality with young people, if those topics are banned from almost every platform and hidden behind 18+ walls?
I’m using the process of publishing our dark, emotional, and erotic visual novel Knife Sisters as a starting point for this discussion.
One of the Last Taboos
Sex seems to be one of the last taboos in our society, which leads to us trying to separate it as much as possible from everyday life. (Some might argue that that is not the case anymore, that we are sexually liberated, and that sex is everywhere… and there might be some truth in that. But if you dig a little deeper, what we see around us is rather about living up to sexual ideals and following norms, than actual depictions of or discussions about sex.) When it comes to content, this separation leads to a big divide between the content that is considered ‘natural and safe’, and that which is sexually explicit (and somehow considered harmful). Due to being pushed towards the edge, outside of the norm, the sexual content tends to become more extreme in its expression (think mainstream porn).
In between those two poles, a large dead space appears. This space could have been populated with less extreme/explicit content that still includes sex as a topic, but since society (platforms, legislators, funding bodies etc.) will try to push the content into either one of the two poles, the space between gets abandoned.
Publishing an Erotic Game on Steam
I have this firm belief that this division is harmful, both for consumers and creators who want to experience and explore sex as a topic – and therefore I was happy when Valve in June 2018 announced they were going to open up the Steam platform to 18+ games. Because, without distribution, the content dies.
In the statement, Valve said that “we’ve decided that the right approach is to allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling.”
The challenge is that this problem is not simply about whether or not the Steam Store should contain games with adult or violent content. Instead, it’s about whether the Store contains games within an entire range of controversial topics – politics, sexuality, racism, gender, violence, identity, and so on. /…/ The harsh reality of this space, that lies at the root of our dilemma, is that there is absolutely no way we can navigate it without making some of our players really mad. – Erik Johnson, Valve
So, they concluded that the user would now decide whether they wanted to see sexual och violent content or not. (How they’d handle all the other topics they mentioned above is unclear.) Therefore, a Mature Content Survey as well as a Mature Content Description was added for each developer to fill out, to determine how their content would be filtered out, as well as described for users, when approved by Valve. In September, the first Adult Only game was released on the Steam Store.
That was the same month we published the Steam Store page for Knife Sisters, and filled out the Mature Content Survey ourselves. The process was easy, but pretty arbitrary, since it consisted of very few guidelines. And with few guidelines, there will always be ambiguity.
We interpreted the brief guidelines as that Knife Sisters would fall into the category Adult Only since it “contains sexual content that is explicit or graphic”. Explicit is the word that made us choose to tick this box – there are very few graphic depictions of sex in Knife Sisters, but there are explicit descriptions in writing. With no guidelines, it’s impossible to say exactly where Valve intended to draw the line.
Adult Only means Invisible
Being marked as Adult Only means that Knife Sisters will only be shown to people who are logged in (to prove they are over 18), and that have ticked a special box in their settings. What this actually means is that the game will get very low visibility. For many people, it will be as if the game doesn’t exist on the store at all, since the checkbox for viewing adult content is unticked by default. If you leave it that way, and search for the game, the game doesn’t show up in the search results at all.
Don’t forget to tick the box…
When a user who is not logged in tries to visit the store page for an Adult Only game, they will see an error page, with a small text saying that you have to log in to see the content.
I guess that many users will never really understand that those content settings are there, if this process is not given a little more thought, design-wise.
Steam is Doing the Right Thing – But in the Wrong Way
When Valve decided to allow 18+ content on the Steam Store and give the user the power to decide which content to view, I applauded their decision. I was happy that our game could be published there – because there are many platforms where it can not be sold at all. But they are doing it in a way that makes me feel they aren’t really standing up for their decision.
In Sweden, we have a saying that goes a bit like “to wear both braces and a belt”, which means that you’re taking so many precautions it starts to become ridiculous. To me, it seems like that’s what Valve is doing: They’re trying so hard not to offend anyone, that it comes across as cowardice.
Shying Away from Responsibility
Relying too much on the users as moderators can become problematic, if that means you’re shying away from responsibility – by simply handing it over to the users. Saying that we “allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling” is not enough (especially if you’re not going to stand by it); something that was proven when the publishing of Rape Day was debated. If Steam would’ve had a clearer content policy, and clearer guidelines, they wouldn’t have had to use a statement as lame as saying that “‘Rape Day’ poses unknown costs and risks and therefore won’t be on Steam“. (In my opinion, they could even have used their own trolling argument and said that “Rape Day seems to be made just to stir up controversy and test our limits, something we regard as trolling and that is not permitted on Steam”, but they didn’t… With a clearer content policy, they wouldn’t have needed to, either.)
I still think Valve has made the right decision to allow 18+ content on Steam, but there is a lot to be done to get it right. They need to evaluate the whole process of letting users become their own content moderators, as well as how well that is communicated. Functionality-wise, I think that when a user searches for an 18+ game by name, that game should be shown in the search results, but marked. When a user tries to view the Store page without the right permissions, they should see a stripped down version, prompting them to log in/change their settings, and not an error page. In the case when the content is not permitted, the same stripped version could be all you see.
Bridging the Gap
Allowing 18+ games onto Steam could be a step in the right direction toward bridging the gap between “regular” and “extreme” content when it comes to sex, and could open up possibilities for creators who wants to explore topics outside of the norm. But this needs to be more thought-through and based upon clearer values and guidelines. Otherwise, the risk is we’ll just keep repeating our old, boring, stereotypical ways of viewing the world.
I don’t want to be too harsh on Steam though, because they’re one of few platforms where we can actually publish Knife Sisters. Since the big war on internet sex started, fewer and fewer platforms online allow any references to sex at all. I do think Steam has chosen a better path than many others, but I hope their standpoint and guidelines will be clearer in the future.