Indie Hosting Platform Game Jolt Suddenly Bans ‘Porn Games’

Instead of explaining its unexpected policy change to longtime creators, Game Jolt has used social media to crack jokes and post GIFs.
An image of the Game Jolt logo
Image courtesy of Game Jolt

In the past few days, an untold number of developers received an email from the game hosting (and game selling) website Game Jolt, announcing the platform had, seemingly out of nowhere, “made the decision to no longer allow content that depicts, solicits, promotes, normalizes, or glorifies sexual acts, sexual solicitation, and sexual violence.” Their games have been kicked off Game Jolt, though existing players can access them for another year. 

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The website started in 2008 and was initially successful because it easily allowed independent creators to more easily share their experimental creations. It’s since made a push towards becoming a hub for fandoms to develop communities. Game Jolt clarified its stance on Twitter:

It’s unclear how many games have been taken down from Game Jolt during this purge, and the company did not respond to any of the questions Waypoint sent seeking clarification about the extent of the purge, what prompted the move, and more details about the policy, such as what the company means by removing a game if it “glorifies sexual acts.”

Update: Since publication, Game Jolt reached out with the following statement, albeit one that doesn’t offer a ton of clarity or explanation:

"While the roots of Game Jolt have been around hosting games, the site has grown to become more of a social media platform for the next generation of gamers. As such, Game Jolt recently implemented a policy that ensures games that feature explicit adult content will no longer be available. We are currently working with developers to make sure they have an opportunity to move their games to another platform, and are responding to any categorizations that may need to be reassessed."

The company has spent the last few days responding exclusively on Twitter with animated GIFs, snark, and general confusion. And it hasn’t spent that time explaining its own policy.

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“Most sex workers and adult content creators live paycheck to paycheck, so suddenly realizing that your income and userbase platform is being swept from you can be very serious,” said indie game developer Jennifer Raye to Waypoint, who publicly criticized Game Jolt over the policy. “Game Jolt making snarky replies, flimsy explanations, and memes about a sudden policy change that has real impact on people is, frankly, gross as hell.”

Designer Llaura McGee was one of the people who received an email from Game Jolt, informing her Curtain, a game that’d been on Game Jolt since 2014, was being removed.

A screen shot from the video game Curtain.

A screen shot from the video game Curtain.

Curtain is about the evolution of a relationship, one that eventually becomes abusive. Set in a first-person world of dancing pixels, it’s a story that pushes against the limited storytelling boundaries in video games—it’s scratching at hard truths about life. It’s not a “porn game.”

“When I went to the link for the game it was a 404,” she said, “which was the worst kick in the face. I couldn't believe this was done with no ceremony. It was great to have it hosted for sure, but Game Jolt’s reputation was built on the cred and the quality of the games they were now banning.”

At one point, Game Jolt featured Curtain on its front page, following an article in Polygon

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“Making a game about domestic abuse—especially a depiction of an LGBT couple—is fraught,” wrote Danielle Riendau, who would later become Waypoint’s managing editor, at the time. “If it didn't feel authentic to the experience, or completely honest in its intentions, Curtain could've ended up an insulting, painful failure.”

Going from promoting Curtain to removing it without notice is quite the about face.

McGee published Curtain on Game Jolt because getting a game published on Steam through the platform’s (now disbanded) Greenlight service was a challenging popularity contest, one in which, according to McGee, a Steam user said Curtain “raped their eyeballs.” She also published it on Itch.io, another popular service for hosting independent work that goes out of its way to attract and encourage creators to publish creations with, say, nudity.

Dismayed, McGee published their reaction on Twitter on Monday. 

The tweet generated enough ire that Game Jolt itself publicly responded, saying it “shouldn’t have been locked” and the game was restored. What the apology didn’t include was an explanation for how Curtain was caught up in all this. What metrics was Game Jolt using?

“It's not a coincidence that queer games and anything that isn't a ‘normal’ game get extra policed and are often ‘mistakenly’ banned,” said McGee. 

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Those Darn Nipples, a satirical arcade game about lining up nipples made for a game jam about trying to make games that don’t sexualize breasts, was also removed from Game Jolt.

Game Jolt’s response to Those Darn Nipples developer Hulk Handsome was a version of what they’d been saying the whole time: “we're a platform with a large audience of 13-16 year olds that have requested we remove these types of games from our platform.”

It’s true that Game Jolt has changed a lot over the years, keeping its foundational elements of hosting independent and niche creations, while pivoting towards ways of bringing in larger and established fandoms. The front page of Game Jolt right now does not feature games like Those Darn Nipples and Curtain, but it does feature Minecraft and Five Nights at Freddy’s.

Games like Minecraft and Five Nights at Freddy’s are certainly targeted at younger players, but Game Jolt has provided no evidence to explain and justify its shift, beyond citing “users.”

“Game Jolt is only half lying when they claim they're delisting Curtain because of ‘13-16 year olds,’” said designer Robert Yang, whose work has regularly and forcefully pushed boundaries with games like Cobra Club, a dick pic simulator. “Yes, the Game Jolt user base does have a reputation for being more conservative and gamer-y, which is one reason why I never really published my games there anyway. On the other hand, platforms cultivate their audiences and user bases.”

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Yang’s games have been regularly banned from streaming on services like Twitch.

These moves also come just months after Game Jolt raised $2.6 million to, as GamesBeat put it, “expand its social platform where millions of Gen Z gamers and creators share and discover content around their favorite video games.” The money was explicitly raised as Game Jolt prepares to move its social app out of beta on Google and Apple’s platforms, and Game Jolt moves into a more public role and has big money backers who will want results.

It’s specifically the Apple part that has people wondering if the two moves are connected, because of the extreme anti-porn stance the iPhone developer has for its popular App Store. The social platform Tumblr infamously performed its own pornographic purge in 2018 after Apple banned Tumblr’s app, which promptly resulted in Tumblr’s traffic dropping sharply.

“I wish Game Jolt the best of luck in their inevitable pivot toward pushing NFT gambling on children,” said Yang jokingly. 

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Game Jolt isn’t doing anything with NFTs—not yet, anyway. 

One of the few seemingly safe spaces is the one that, again, Game Jolt pushed the creators it was de-platforming towards: itch.io. And while itch.io has actively embraced those creators with open arms, one inevitability of the modern Internet is that, eventually, conservative institutions will come for sex workers and creators who make adult content. They’ll happily become popular using their labor, then ditch them when it’s convenient. That pressure may come from places like Apple or credit card processors or financial backers, but it will come. 

Itch.io founder Leaf Corcoran did not respond to Waypoint’s request for comment on how itch.io intends to resist such forces in the long term. 

“I'm also a bit resigned to the idea that the conservatives/forces of evil will win since they continue to hold all the financial levers,” said Yang. “The only leftist endgame strategy is to abolish all financial levers—but as Disco Elysium says, ‘0.000% of Communism has been built.’”

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).