On December 10th, James Earl Cox III wrote a piece for Gamasutra titled “The Fun is Over, We Have to Get Serious about Games.” In it, he explains what happened to his game You Must Be 18 Or Older To Enter, a game which was, up until recently, available for free on Steam. The game, which Cox describes as a “non-traditional horror game” that gets rid of the violent and stigmatizing trappings of the genre, was quietly removed from the Steam platform without his knowledge. The piece then turns into a kind of murder mystery. What happened to the game? And why was it removed?
In short, it was removed for being pornographic. It is, after all, a game about trying to watch porn on an ASCII screen sometime before the birth of the modern internet. It’s a game about ramping up tension around the feeling of doing something wrong, but Cox is careful to point out that You Must Be 18 Or Older To Enter is explicitly not porn. By virtue of its theme, it evokes the feeling of pornographic websites, but nudity is blurred and adult content is hinted at.
Cox’s piece uses this specific example of his game being removed to leverage a criticism against games culture. He points to a laundry list of what is acceptable and what isn’t on the Steam platform in order to demonstrate a hypocrisy in how Valve handles what they include and exclude from that platform, and he ends with a call for all of us to explore games beyond the violent fantasies that we continually entertain and promote:
We need to stop creating in the same narrow streams, and we need to encourage and support players, platforms, and everyone else to broaden their own tolerance for honest, serious, and experimental games, so we can collectively grow our understanding of what a game could be.
Cox is no stranger to the world of weird game development. I first became aware of him a few years ago when we were both making small, experimental games and putting them online to see who had a similar sense of humor. He ran #CloneJam, in which I was one of the people being cloned, and he even created a game jam that ran for three years. More recently, his “100 Games in 5 Years” project was profiled by Patrick Klepek here at Waypoint. He is, without a doubt, deep in a games culture that is committed to pushing up against the supposed boundaries that “games culture” has created for itself.
However, the speed at which Cox turns his argument into one about “us” (or the “we” in the quotation above) misses the degree to which this falls directly at the feet of platform holders. The operators of the Steam platform are making a decision about what “counts” as pornography and what doesn’t, and the way that that rule is applied (it’s rule #2, by the way) is critical for understanding what our games culture looks like.
Cox’s arguments won’t come as a surprise to those who have been following the work of other outspoken critics of contemporary games culture like critics Liz Ryerson or Lana Polansky, both of whom are incisive critics of games and the cultural context they exist in, or the work of thecatemites, who often bends contemporary game design back at itself to show the difference between what we expect of games and what they can do.
So Cox is correct in saying that “we” are responsible for the games culture that we create. You and I, and what we choose to talk about, promote, and critique, has a real material effect in the world. But what “we” don’t have is the ability to nuke a game from orbit and cut it off from access to (roughly) 67 million active players. When Valve makes a ruling about what goes and what stays, it is literally shifting the framework of what PC gaming culture sees as acceptable and unacceptable.
The story of You Must Be 18 Or Older To Enter being removed from Steam is important as a marker of where games culture is right now, as Cox suggests, but it is also yet another moment where a platform with an immense amount of power is holding a developer to an arbitrary standard that is clearly not being applied across sectors. This is less about pornography and what “we” find acceptable and more about the fact that “we,” whether that’s a YouTuber with a million subs or an independent game creator, have almost no power when it comes to Steam’s seemingly-arbitrary application of policies and procedures.
We can hop into a given Steam tag like “Nudity” and find a dozen games that are clearly in violation of the anti-pornography rule, and while pointing out that hypocrisy is fruitful, I think it might be more beneficial to simply say that Valve is clearly capricious when it comes to interacting with the content on their platform. As Motherboard reported back in October, Steam is chock full of Nazis and white supremacists. Valve is hands-off with Steam until they are hands-on, and there is no predictable way for a developer to understand when the wrath of god will be rained down on them. [Note: We reached out to Valve for comment on this article but have not received a response.]
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The larger a platform becomes, and the more inertia it has, the harder it becomes to put constraints on it. YouTube’s mass demonetizations with very little communication with creators about the causes of that demonetization are a part of that, as is Twitch’s banning of Robert Yang’s games from their streaming platform. These platforms operate like infrastructure but act like agile, quick-thinking startups. They make decisions, and they commit to them, often without much communication between the population of users and creators that generate the revenue that allows for these platforms to exist in the first place.
Like Cox, I believe that games culture should have a different set of priorities when it comes to how we understand the “mature” subjects of violence and sex. I also firmly believe that this cannot happen without platforms recognizing, and taking seriously, their role in setting the standards of what is acceptable within their platform and then remaining consistent to those standards of acceptability. If companies continue to play it by ear and evaluate on a case by case basis, then anything can be included or excluded based on the whims of whoever happens to be looking at the admin screen at any given point. Valve has to recognize that it is a steward of the culture, not just a facilitator, and until that happens we’ll see more cases like this one.