In late 2014, a game aptly called “Hatred” appeared on Steam’s Greenlight track. For those of you not into online games, Steam is the main online digital games store, and its Greenlight track lets gamers have a say in which indie games get put on sale. Hatred shocked even die-hard gamers with its violence and its amoral focus on murdering innocent civilians (with plenty of graphic detail), and it was pulled very shortly after. Sigh of relief. Even the trailer is truly disturbing, so much so that I couldn’t appreciate the graphics, which is always my favourite part of online games. (Okay, I did notice that it was in black and white, except for the blood – of which there was a LOT – and the explosions and the flashing cop lights. But still.)
Two days later, it was back again, and the Managing Director of Steam sent an apologetic email to the creators. Hatred rapidly accumulated enough votes to reach No. 1 on the list, made it onto the sales platform, and should be available for download any day now.
There are a lot of very violent games on Steam. It even has a tag for “violence” and another for “gore”. So where is the line? Why would some games sail through, and others get (temporarily) pulled? Steam isn’t disclosing their criteria. The Greenlight rules state that games “must not contain offensive material”. If Hatred isn’t offensive with its complete disregard for human dignity, I don’t know what is.
Back in 2012, the sexually explicit strategy game “Seduce Me” was removed, because of “offensive” content. So, senseless killing isn’t offensive, but sex is? Really? If the debate really is about what the word “offensive” means, shouldn’t we, the audience, be allowed to have a say in that?
Maybe we already have. When Hatred was removed, it had reached #7 on Greenlight’s list. That’s pretty high. Although it’s a fair bet that any ultra-violent game espousing genocide would probably, lamentably, find a following. Online, it’s not hard to find your niche.
So what, then, is the platform’s responsibility?
That question opens up the even bigger question of gatekeeping and morality. Valve, the platform’s owner, is a private company, and therefore should be able to set its own rules and enforce them as it sees fit. But, Steam dominates the online game market with a 75% market share, and over 125 million active users. When you reach a certain market share, do you not have a wider responsibility? Especially when you have the power to affect peoples’ psyche, to inure them to the shock of violence?
So, do we insist that Valve enforce moral values, even if it doesn’t want to, just because it’s powerful in its sector? If so, what moral values? Who decides? Who draws the line, and where? Should we insist that Amazon only sell “nice” books?
I find games like Hatred completely distasteful and damaging. But, games are an art form. Just because I don’t like it, or just because it has dubious moral values and a lot of blood, does that mean that it’s not art? Let’s say that Valve removes games because they don’t like them, or they don’t fit in with their values. How is that different from censorship? Should we allow private companies to dabble in censorship?
Personally, I think that widely used platforms should set standards. You could call it moral obligation, or you could call it common sense. Generating too much controversy will attract unwelcome attention from the regulatory authorities, the boycott lobbies and the class action lawyers. Being the “good guy” is generally is much more profitable than promoting bloodshed and pain. Some of us like those games, but the vast majority of us don’t. Extremely violent games will find another outlet. The problem with the Steam/Hatred controversy is that Steam does not have set rules as to what is and what is not acceptable. “Offensive” is way too vague a term. Removal of a game from the platform should be based on definite rules, which should be adjusted as the need arises. Adjusted, and published, so that other developers can also take design decisions based on those criteria. Removed games should be given a chance to tweak their design to comply with Steam’s rules, if they want to. If they don’t, there will be other, less mainstream, outlets. This isn’t censorship. It’s good business sense.
The game has not yet been released. When it is, I imagine that we’ll see even more controversy and outrage. Which will, of course, give it a huge amount of publicity, for free. This could well end up sending the message that, to stand out from the pack in a crowded gaming market, you need to shock. No-one will stop you. You’ll attract attention. You’ll get coveted press coverage. You’ll generate a lot of interest. That is actually even scarier than the game itself.