Curating Steam: Moral Complexity versus Automatic Norms

This is EXTRA CONTENT. Read the main article first.

This one proved to be pretty easy to write. As a response to a very specific series of events, it wasn’t hard to find the through-line or keep the scope tight.

Normally, I prefer to write posts that are more “evergreen” - ones that remain relevant over time rather than ones that can quickly become dated. But I felt like the universality of the underlying phenomenon here meant that the analysis and conclusion could still be interesting long after the dust settles on this particular controversy, so it seemed worthwhile.

I was very tempted to give the post more of a click-bait title (something like, “Valve Isn’t Being Irresponsible, You’re Just Being Close-Minded”) to make it more likely my voice would be heard in the current discussion, but that runs counter to the goal of continued relevance and is more likely to inspire anger than thoughtful reflection, so I decided not to go down that road.

There were a few areas I considered exploring further but rejected as out of scope. One was connected to the bizarre painting of the disagreement within Valve as a bad sign - healthy disagreement is a sign of ideological diversity and helps organizations avoid becoming echo chambers. At one point, I had written, “What are they supposed to do - fire anyone who thinks Hatred is okay or that HuniePop isn’t? Or maybe the other way around?” But upon reading it back, I realized I was letting frustration steer me into a distracting and non-central point, so I cut it.

Another worthwhile area to dig into - just not in this essay - is the one I mentioned very briefly that lack of moderation breeds toxicity. Concerns here are summed up by this representative tweet by Rami Ismail: “Shit, Valve, if your new platform content policy is the policy even the toxic hellfires that social media are slowly backing away from after years of troubles, that doesn’t bode very good for the content of your platform.” While Valve absolutely should keep in mind the lessons of Twitter and Facebook, curation is not the same thing as moderation and Valve’s blog post only talked about decreasing the former. In fact, it specifically mentions building new and better anti-harassment tools - the lack of which is responsible for the current state of social media, where the only recourse for those targeted for abuse is often to abandon the platform entirely. These ideas are important, but any real treatment of them would have at least doubled the length of my post while diluting the point I was trying to make. So, I left it for another time.

I also considered spending a bit more time on the idea that articles like the ones I quoted and linked to were ways to signal strong internalization of group norms and thus trustworthiness - that’s a pretty common reason to loudly criticize people you see as violating norms. But that ran the risk of making it sound like I was criticizing these journalists for saying what they didn’t mean. Explaining why that’s not the case (signals can be both honest and valuable) would have been a distracting retread of ground I’ve recently covered, so I didn’t go there. (I’m already not thrilled to be leaning so heavily on Robin Hanson again so soon, but he’s the only one talking about this stuff in such useful ways.)

While planning this post, I also saw another example of what appeared to be a close-minded reaction due to automatic norms. An essay linked on MetaFilter explained that some people find conversational interruption acceptable and others don’t, each view has advantages, things are fine as long as you’re talking to someone who shares your view, and there’s only a problem if an interrupter talks to a turn-taker and nobody realizes and adjusts. The very first comment on MetaFilter completely misses the point and says an interrupter is “just being an asshole.” The parallels seemed obvious and it amused me to see the principle in action elsewhere, but I decided it wasn’t worth tying into my post.

Finally, a related topic I didn’t get into at all is the question of why this sort of curation falls on an individual company in the first place. The questions here are broad and complex and I don’t have an informed position on them yet myself, but here’s some recommended reading. Over on Destructoid, Charlotte Cutts discusses Valve’s blog post in the context of games classification systems, but admits those are also outdated and inconsistent, apparently concluding that “Some platforms, like Steam, struggle and require external help. But I’m not sure the external help is there just yet.” Zooming out even further is this Medium post by Roya Pakzad about a panel discussion of who should be regulating online platforms in general.

That’s it for this blog post. Hope you enjoyed!