A tale of two marketplaces

Well, folks. I had actually planned on writing about how recruiting truly diverse teams of writers requires actively removing barriers to entry. But instead, thanks to Gabe Newell and the legions of MRA asshats on Steam, I’m writing this instead. Blame the fedoras.

Anyway. Before I get into a detailed look at why Gabe Newell’s response to a flap over on Steam was both unethical and colossally bone-headed, let’s cover some necessary background. (Feminism is much like sci-fi in that infodumps are an evil necessity.)

Chapter 1: Steam Greenlight and indie game Hatred

Hatred isn’t a new game – it’s been in development for a while. But it wasn’t a game that many people had heard of before it got put up on Steam Greenlight two days ago:

Hatred, from unknown Polish developer Destructive Creations, was first announced back in October. Its trailer seemed to revel in the massacre of civilians with a kind of gruesome glee. The video drew comparisons to ultra-violent game franchises like Postal and Manhunt for its apparently amoral focus on gunning down innocent bystanders in violent detail. “This is the time for vengeance, and no life is worth saving, and I will put in the grave as many as I can,” the protagonist says in the trailer. “It’s time for me to kill, and it’s time for me to die. My genocide crusade begins here.” —Kyle Orland, Ars Technica

Charming.

Granted, it is true Hatred isn’t exactly the first game of its kind. Postal and Manhunt blazed that dubious trail. Still, given that the rate of mass shootings in the United States has tripled from 2011’s already pretty-fucking-high levels, it’s not too surprising that Steam stepped in and quickly removed the game from Greenlight.

…for about 24 hours, that is.

Late last night, Hatred re-appeared on the fan-voting section of Steam Greenlight, with all of its original comments and votes intact. What’s more, it seems like Destructive Creations received an email from Gabe Newell, apologizing for the decision to remove their game:

Hi, Jaroslaw.

Yesterday I heard that we were taking Hatred down from Greenlight. Since I wasn’t up to speed, I asked around internally to find out why we had done that. It turns out that it wasn’t a good decision, and we’ll be putting Hatred back up. My apologies to you and your team. Steam is about creating tools for content creators and customers.

Good luck with your game.

-Gabe.

Oh good. I’m so glad that Gabe Newell is committed to fighting for the artistic freedom of game developers to make games that paint entitled men who go on violent rampages as the hero. I mean, it’s not like mass shootings have exploded as a phenomenon since Postal and Manhunt were first released (1997 and 2003 respectively). And, you know, who needs to be concerned about promoting a cultural narrative that glorifies mass violence when there have been 278 American mass shootings up to this point in 2014? I’m sure that can’t possibly have any negative repercussions.

Even more disturbing are the comments that have been added since Hatred was reinstated that call for developers to add SJW NPCs that they can murder:

SJW

WHAT. THE ACTUAL. FUCK.

The first comment is actually a (particularly gross) description of Zoe Quinn – the unfortunate original target of #GamerGate. I honestly don’t have the bandwidth to marinate in that kind of bile, but it seems that there have been specific requests for other favorite targets of #GamerGate, including Anita Sarkeesian.

But. You know. FREEEEEEDOM. Or something.

Chapter 2: Drive Thru Cards/Drive Thru RPG and the #GamerGate card game

So let’s compare and contrast the above with DTRPG’ handling of an analogous situation that arose when MRA tabletop designer James Desborough used their self-publishing tools published a #GamerGate card game that purported to be “satire”:

One player takes the side of Gamergate, and the other is the SJW’s in this satirical look at the recent controversy.  Play either the “Social Justice Warriors trying to get away with egregious breaches of ethics before Gamergate can create enough of a fuss and social pressure to expose them, all the while flaming each other on Twitter, screaming for attention and being trolled hard.[1]

…riiiight.

DTRPG reacted swiftly and removed the game from its site. A few days later, the following update was sent to DTRPG publishers and was also posted to DTRPG’s social media feed. Their update addressed several points, including the merits of supposedly satirical works based on active hate movements (emphasis mine):

Normally, satirical works would be welcome on our marketplaces. However, we feel that there are situations where satire is inappropriate. For example, we do not think that a game released today that satirizes police killings of minorities in the USA would be appropriate. Regardless of how one feels about an issue like that, we feel that it is too current, too emotionally charged on both sides, and too related to real-world violence or death to make it an appropriate matter for satire.

Similarly, no matter how one feels about Gamergate, it is likewise too current, too emotionally [sic] frought, and too related to violence to be an appropriate subject for satire. Additionally, we considered that the violent element of the Gamergate issue has a basis in misogyny. For these reasons, we felt that this card game title was not welcome for sale on our site.

(The entirety of their post can be found here and is well worth reading.)

Chapter 3: Privately owned marketplaces and censorship

It’s interesting that both Valve and DTRPG raised the spectre of censorship in their responses to their respective situations. But it’s also unfortunate in that it helps promote popular misconceptions about what actually constitutes censorship.

Neither Valve nor DTRPG are in any way connected with any kind of government or governmental body. They have no power to stifle the free speech of a creator, because they don’t have any ability to levy sanctions against the creator of an offensive game. Nor do they have the power to prevent a creator from publishing a game via alternative methods, of which – it should be noted – there are many. (KickStarter, Patreon, IndieGoGo, etc etc.) Indeed, it has never been easier to be a self-published game creator.

Valve and DTRPG are simply companies that happen to own a marketplace where third parties are allowed to promote and sell their own games, in exchange for a share of revenue earned. They get to set the rules for that marketplace, because it’s their fucking marketplace.  Kicking someone out of their marketplace or pulling a particular product from their digital shelves isn’t censorship. It’s a private company discontinuing a relationship with a vendor.

To use a real-world analogy…

GenCon has a Dealer’s Room in which vendors may purchase space to set up a booth and sell merchandise. The Dealer’s Room is, essentially, an absurdly large private marketplace. (In 2014 there were more than 3000 booths!) Because GenCon owns the marketplace, they set rules as to what may and may not be sold in the Dealer’s Room. Some of these rules relate to the types of items that may not be sold (biohazards, live animals, rocket launchers, etc). Some of these rules relate to the content of items being sold. (No visible female nipples, no frontal nudity.)

For the most part, these rules don’t generate any controversy. Partly because vendors know that they can’t expect total freedom when using someone else’s marketplace to sell their goods. But also because those rules protect the interests of the vendors who choose to participate in that private marketplace.

Continuing with our analogy, let’s say that GenCon had no restrictions on use of their space and were happy to let you do anything, anything with your space once you had paid for it. And let’s say that you’re a vendor who sells products that meet the core demand of GenCon’s typical audience, and you have a booth. You’re looking forward to doing some solid business, but when you show up it turns out that the booth next to you is selling fresh-from-the-cow manure. And their booth is full of it. Hundreds of pounds of manure.

When you talk to them, they say that there is a demand for their product. And it’s true. The demand is small, and their traffic is pretty meager, but people do seek out their booth to buy their manure. But this puts you in a difficult position. You’re not the one selling manure, but you’re sure as hell going to be associated with it, and your products are going to wind up smelling more and more like shit the longer their manure sits right next to your booth.

Now some of your customers will be completely unfazed by the presence of the manure, either because they are dedicated customers with whom you have a long-established relationship, or because they have no strong feelings about manure. Some of your customers will be unhappy about the manure, but will still patronize your booth if they happen to be nearby. But some of your customers will decide that they don’t want to go near a tremendous mountain of shit in order to buy your products, and it goes without saying that you’re going to have a harder time attracting new business when many customers won’t even see your booth, they’ll just see the massive shit pile and go somewhere else.

However, this isn’t the case for Valve and DTRPG. Both companies have, to varying degrees, restrictions on what products they will allow to be sold in their marketplaces. Both companies have recently found themselves in the situation of having a publisher that wanted to use their marketplace to sell games that amounted to festering piles of shit. The difference is how they reacted.

DTRPG quickly stepped in, removed the manure from their marketplace, Febreezed the shit out of everything, and apologized to their vendors and customers. Whereas Valve initially removed the manure from their marketplace, then let the manure vendor back in and personally apologized to the shit-sellers for having the temerity to imply that perhaps some people would be unhappy about having a festering shitpile attracting flies in their marketplace.

Which just goes to show why DTRPG is a company I’m happy to do business with, while Valve/Steam is a company that I go out of my way to avoid patronizing, if at all humanly possible.

26 thoughts on “A tale of two marketplaces

  1. There is continually more and more I get annoyed with about Steam, but the convenience of their service is still enough to make up for it for me, especially for someone like me who plays on a Mac. Prior to Steam, I had Blizzard and whatever Aspyr managed to port over years after the PC release.

    All that being said, though, GOG is getting more stuff and the Mac App Store is improving a lot. Hopefully, at some point soon I won’t HAVE to use Steam to game. That’ll be nice.

    • Same here. I play on a Mac and though Steam keeps deciding to show me games I can’t play, it still makes it convenient enough to identify & filter for Mac-compatible games that I’m keeping it for the foreseeable future. I also agree that GOG is becoming amazing for Mac games, as later ports of earlier games often become cross-platform.

      I haven’t gone back to the App store since I first tried it when I first got my Mac. It was so full of garbage that I couldn’t easily find non-garbage. I distinctly remember seeing a 1.99$ “App” that supposedly could solve quadratic equations for you (you know, the thing you learn in grade 7 or 8 algebra) except it would crash if your trinomial had an imaginary root.

  2. Right now, I’m glad I decided to abandon Steam years ago (albeit for very different reasons). People really need to get over this idea that not carrying a product in your particular market place because you either object to the material or feel it would negatively effect the market place is not the same as censorship.

    Of course, that would prevent certain people from making extremely long rants about the subject and constructing rather paranoid narratives around the topic. However, I don’t mind paying that price and I feel most people wouldn’t either.

  3. Consider that Hatred, while awful, is much more honest than majority of other murder simulators that justify the mass slaughter by painting the targets as something inherently irredeemably evil.

    In Diablo, the player character is righteous hero who slays evil demons. In Hatred the player character, at least that’s what I am reading (between the lines) from the trailer, is a pathetic angry loser who murders innoncent people. I am no psychologist, but I think the former is more likely to cause spree killings than the latter as it glorifies and excuses its violence. I don’t really see any excuses or glorification in Hatred. It just shows the violence.

    Besides, many games allow murder on much greater scale then Hatred and nobody noticed. Crusader Kings 2 allows to wage war. Civilization series allow the player to drop nuclear weapons at cities and wipe out entire cultures. Sword of The Stars lets the player rain mass driver rounds and antimatter warheads on enemy colonies and then their homeworld untill every single of them is dead, commiting not only a genocide, but an omnicide.

    Now should Hatred be pulled from Steam? Eh, I don’t know, I can’t bring myself to play anything more violent than Transport Tycoon these days… but given the other content, I guess it fits right in and pulling it out would be a bit hypocritical.

    • While I see your point, I think you are ignoring some very crucial context. A game that glorifies someone going on a murder spree of innocents is not on the same level as a game with the same mechanics but is about relieving a besieged city from invaders, or about being a fantasy crusader diving into hell to defeat the First Evil, or whatever.

      Context matters, and that context is the reason most reasonable people are giving major side eye to Hatred when they wouldn’t for Diablo/Saints Row/etc. With Its tone deaf theme in the light of major happenings, its embrace of toxic attitudes already under question by the wider gaming world, and its immediate welcome by the unsavoury members of the community, it all points to something best pointed to as what not to do.

      The Transitive Property does not always apply to art. Art is not math.

      • You missed my point. Hatred shows mass killing for what it really is, a slaughter of the normal people, no excuses. Diablo tells you that these creaturtes you are killing are inherently evil demons that can’t be reasoned with, so you not only don’t have to feel bad about doing so, but also you will be admired by your fellows for it. The former is pretty much how it works in every war, every riot. The people you would be killing in any real life scenario are just as human as you are. Now, the latter doesn’t really have an analogue in real life, perhaps with an exception of farmer protecting his crops from ravenous locust swarm. When people start to percieve the world as the latter scenario, genocides happen.

        I am quite sure Hatred doesn’t glorify its protagonist. He even says in the trailer that his life is “nothing but cold bitter hatred”. Show me one human who honestly wants his/her life to be “nothing but cold bitter hatred”!

        • Diablo might not be the best example, as you are fighting literal demons from hell.

          Interestingly, the shift in moral discussion on portrayal of ‘greenskin’ races in fantasy games comes largely from the trend away from inclusion of goblins as manifest agents of fey, evilly aligned (re: satanic teind & fair-folk in folklore) monsters, toward being analogues for primitive and/or non-urbanized human culture. Keep on the Borderland is a very different scenario depending on whether the stand-off is viewed through the lens of Bros. Grimm Fairy Tales or de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

          • They might be demons from hell, but they are apparently capable of feeling fear and pain. Remember Gharbad the Weak? If not, let me refresh your memory:

            • I’m pretty sure that Gharbad the Weak was supposed to illustrate that you couldn’t trust the demons and they’d betray you given the chance. Plus, Gharbad could’ve just been lying.

  4. I suspect one of the residues toxic individualism is leaving in US (and WEIRD[1]) culture is this: the notion that one’s own special snowflake opinions are not universally welcomed is treated as a terrible imposition, and damn close to being a crime. How dare anyone else impede your individuality, after all. So just about any abridging of speech/behaviour/expression in any medium (be that through codes of conduct, moderation of comments, restrictions on sale, social disapproval, etc) by any body, no matter how private, is seen as being spiritually akin to organised government restriction on same. It is the perceived “freedom” to be as individual as possible, regardless of the reactions of others, which is being impinged on here – a “freedom” which has never historically been widely available, and which tended to only be granted to a highly privileged few.

    [1] Western, Educated, Industrial/Post-Industrial, Rich, Democratic – the group of cultures which are treated as the default.

    • The link between mass shootings and violent games like these are BS, I agree on that. Especially if you consider that probably The Entire World played those games and yet, suprisingly, the US is the only place where mass shootings happen with the same regularity as bad weather. If something is at fault, it is something more localized.

      I would agree to call this a cheap shot, but declaring this a baseline problems between gaming and feminism is a bit much now, don’t you think? Also dismissive Us vs. Them arguments don’t help anyone, especially because neither is this particular blogger Crowned Ruler of Feminism on the Internet nor are you the Chosen Representative of all Gamers Everywhere.

      The author is absolutely right about Steam or DTRPG right to indulge or remove anything they want on their platform. No, it’s not censorship. It’s Steam’s or DTRPG’s Football and if you decide to join for a game, you play after their rules or not at all. And yes, they may change their rules willy nilly. If you don’t like that, you are free to be the customer of another company.

      • [mod voice: I’m going to be entirely unapologetic about replacing abusive comments (like ones that justify calls for violence against feminists) with sarcastic memes. Sorry if that makes your comment make less sense, though.]

        There is absolutely a difference between saying “this is a thing that promotes a harmful cultural narrative” and “this is a thing that causes harm”. NOWHERE did I say that Hatred would directly cause mass shootings.

    • “If you are only going to continue to spew bullshit correlations that have been scientifically disproven and say people who like games are just violent criminals waiting to happen; we really have no reason to be respectful back, let alone listen.”

      Lel, sources bro – show us them thar scientifically proven, peer reviewed sources. CITATION PLEASE.

      “I don’t like it, so ban it” is the definition of censorship.”

      Um, NO, it’s not. You need to reacquaint yourself with the notion.

      • [mod voice: Thanks for calling bullshit, but I’d rather not engage with this particular line of nonsense, lest it suck oxygen out of a potentially useful conversation.]

      • [I know this is just going to wind up as more ammunition that FEMINISTS HATE SCIENCE or some shit, but fuck it. I said this was derailing, so I’m deleting the comment. (Meant to get to it sooner but I have been BUSY)]

  5. I really don’t like the dealer’s room analogy.

    A dealer’s room is a very closed space with a captive audience. People will visit the dealer’s room because they are already visiting the con. If you’re not in the dealer’s room, the people visiting the con have to go significantly out of their way to find you.

    In web commerce, there’s almost always an alternative at the speed of Google. In fact, this is truer for Steam than it is for DriveThruRPG.

    Steam is competing with Gamestop, the Xbox and Sony marketplaces, the Apple and Google app stores, plus anyone else who wants to start an indie DLC publishing house. It’s a big market, and one where, with every new game, Valve has to either pay extra to make it Steam-exclusive or be forced to compete with everyone else.

    DriveThruRPG has only one big competitor, Warehouse 23, and they don’t sell all of the same things. It’s also more of a rare book store than Steam; it’s more important to have hundreds of titles that may sell one or two copies than the latest, shiniest thing.

    I also wonder whether, both because of its “giant money-focused corporate” nature and the fact that it made its name on first person shooters, Valve might feel it has more to lose standing on this principle than DriveThruRPG.

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