Image Courtesy Valve
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.That time of year has rolled around again: The Steam Summer Sale is here, and with it comes the deals on games that you might play at some point. It is the purest expression of the contemporary gamer’s ideal state of being. You spend a little money, you get more games than you are likely to ever play, and you get to swim in an ocean of prospective content.
So maybe this year it is appropriate to take a few moments to reflect on Steam sales, what they do, and how they impact the world of video games. Buying things in a sale is, after all, a choice. It’s worth thinking through what that choice means.Back in 2014, Ars Technica discovered that about a third of games in Steam libraries have never been played. This isn’t exactly surprising to me. I have somewhere in the range of 500 games on the Steam platform, and I’d be shocked if I was even hitting a 50% play rate. My Steam library is a vast quantity of objects piling up in the shadow of the belief that, one day, I will have the opportunity to work my way through all of them. It’s not true, but like all ideological positions, when the “truth” and what I believe and hope smash into each other, the latter seems to win out.Many of these games are the blockbuster games of the past few years. When a big ol’ action game hits the $15 mark, I think about actually trying it out. These superhero-starring punching games, the space ship simulators, and the first-person shooters with rave reviews scroll across my screen packed full of deals, and I believe that they are going to make some part of my life marginally better. And I grab them, not knowing if they fit into my life, on the hope that I might one day understand their place in the enthusiast discourse. Maybe I’ll enjoy them, too, and then I can occupy my own little place in the discussion apparatus centered on them.
Or maybe that’s what I used to think. The past couple years have been a slow change for me when it comes to sales, and it has to do with how the games on Steam have shifted. There is a lot of noise out there about the flood of low effort games developed and released on Steam. The dull hum of the word “asset flip” vibrates through games culture at all times, revving up to ringing shriek every time an object is discovered to be anything other than a pure bespoke object of artisanal craft.The change in what the Steam store offers has been a positive and significant time for me if only because it has clued me into dozens of things I wasn’t aware of before. I’m talking about The Last Time, Rituals, We Need To Go Deeper, and Phantom Trigger. A rogue article or a tweet linking to a Steam store page has, to some degree, delivered on the democratic market ideal of showing me things I might care about and then letting me buy them.
Many people decry this opening of the platform due to the increase of low-effort games that are apparently taking advantage of Steam users. While there might be some good stuff, a certain segment seems to say, it also comes with a whole bunch of bad things! But I have yet to be tricked into purchasing any sprawling first-person shooters or arena combat games with thousands of levels of duplicate content, the “asset flips” that are apparently ruining the platform and the entire endeavor of gaming itself. The openness of the market, contra popular opinion, has been pretty excellent in that it has helped me widen the number of games that I have been able to easily check out and then purchase.
This is also the damning quality of Steam as a platform. It has an immense amount of inertia, we are all stuck in it, and it preys on our laziness as consumers. Do I really need more games on Steam? Does the pile change shape if I add ten more things to it, even if they’re stranger or weirder than Hero Puncher 11? After all, this is a company that responded to its curatorial duty as a platform with a massive shrug. It’s a company that has allowed hate groups to proliferate across its platform.Steam has committed to the idea that it exists as an open platform without politics or ideals other than the continual pursuit of profit. It’s a maximal profit, too, that is as dependent on skimming surplus value off of trading cards and marketplace items as much as it is on profits from all of those $5 games I am hoarding during the Steam sale.The old Twitter koan about there being no ethical consumption under capitalism rings out here. Žižek emits a shriek that we should not try to imagine capitalism with a human face, by which he means that there is no possible way for any of this buying and selling should feel good or be valorized in any way. And yet when I head over to the itch.io Summer Sale, I can alter what I’m doing a little bit. I can still accrue more games than I can play, but the platform isn’t looping me into a massive ecology of consumption, card generation, and profit extraction. Similarly, if I head on over to GOG, I can dig through all the games I meant to play in 2002 but never had a chance to try out.
The event that is the Steam Summer Sale has a siren’s call to it. It tells me to grab all the things I didn’t grab before, to play the games I didn’t last year, but in the flurry of articles and tweets about all of the excellent deals, it’s hard to even entertain the question of whether I need those games or whether I should be using the platform at all.
There’s a shocking lack of discussion in the video game world of these sales other than to point out that they’re happening, and that says something about our priorities as a culture. We’re unbelievably happy to click the purchase button for a blockbuster game that we “missed” from two years ago without really thinking about whether we’re missing anything at all. The rush of hitting the button and adding to the pile of games seems more important that thoughtfully considering what we’re buying and why we’re doing it. Are we throwing money into Steam’s bank account just for the sake of doing so? And if we’re doing that, couldn’t we throw it at smaller creators doing just as interesting things?I’m not on a high horse here because I do it too. I’m blowing so much money on these sales, and my own rush to do that is what got me thinking in the first place. But it’s worth considering that if our choices as consumers, and in the case of Steam we are explicitly mere consumers, are limited down to choosing what we spend our money on, then maybe we should at least focus in on the things that might reward us. After all, Action Adventure Crowbar Fighter will be even cheaper in the next sale.You can follow Cameron on Twitter.
I’m not on a high horse here because I do it too.