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.