As people with more constructive things on their hands to do – such as giving Brazilian waxes to turtles – probably don’t know, there’s been a bit of a blowup in the gaming world this week as Valve Software (owners of the PC distribution powerhouse Steam) decided to yank a forthcoming game called Hatred from its community “Greenlight” platform. A day of outrage ensued, and as of 9:21 EST, it appeared as if Valve had reversed its decision and restored the game to Greenlight.
Hatred is the latest entry in a dubious tradition of shock games and invites the player to become a spree-shooter. Its developers, clearly banking on controversy-fueled publicity, released a trailer for it in October. Even after having played countless bloody shooters over the last couple decades, I found it pretty tough to watch. You can view it here, but consider yourself warned. The trailer depicts the unnamed player-character loading weapons as a voice-over talks about going on a “genocide crusade.” This is followed by in-game footage of several bloody executions of civilians on a neighborhood street lit by police cruiser lightbars. The narration is unpleasantly evocative of the video made by Elliot Rodger prior to his May 23 killing spree in Isla Vista, California.
The publicity gamble paid off for Hatred’s developers, an independent Polish studio called Destructive Creations. When they launched their Steam Greenlight page Monday, the game quickly amassed thousands of Steam users’ votes urging its publication.
Later that day, however, the title was pulled from Greenlight. In an email to the gaming site Polygon, Valve’s Doug Lombardi wrote, “Based on what we’ve seen from Greenlight, we would not publish Hatred on Steam … As such we’ll be taking it down.”
Cue Internet Sturm und Drang. “Freedom of speech [is] being stomped on by the folks at Valve,” said Stephen Williams, better known by his YouTube handle Boogie2988. Fellow YouTuber John Bain/TotalBiscuit criticized Valve’s decision as well, puzzlingly implying both that Steam’s market prevalence in digital distribution can “make or break” an indie game and that the “Streisand Effect” of the controversy would boost the game’s sales. Understandably, both Bain and Jim Sterling wondered why Valve has suddenly made the decision to executively curate its storefront in this specific case, when all evidence of the last couple years indicates they have very little inclination to do so.
As for Destructive Creations, they released a statement shortly after Valve’s decision, saying they still plan to release the game in the second quarter of 2015, and that despite being pulled from Steam, they view the “community support” Hatred received in its short life on Greenlight as a victory. Tuesday evening, Valve had apparently reconsidered, and Hatred was back on Greenlight.
The angry reaction to Valve’s decision took several forms, most of which were at least a bit misguided. To Williams’ “freedom of speech” point, he’s simply wrong – In the first place, the game was never censored; it simply was not going to be available on the largest digital distribution platform for PC. As with Target Australia’s decision to not stock Grand Theft Auto V on its shelves earlier this year due to depictions of violence, Valve’s decision to yank Hatred (and then subsequently restore it) is an example of a company exercising free speech. Other distribution platforms exist in both cases, and in Hatred’s case, even a ban from Steam couldn’t prevent its developers from selling it to willing buyers.
(It’s worth noting here that there isn’t even a discussion about whether Hatred will be stocked in brick-and-mortar retail stores, because it won’t be, ever, and everyone knows that.)
Things do get a bit interesting, conceptually, from here on though. Many commentators have pointed out that Steam happily sells Postal, Manhunt, and The Killing Floor (and many other over-the-top ultraviolent games). I’ll note here that each of the games mentioned (and they’ve been the most commonly-cited examples in this dust-up) were self-published initially. Regardless, they all found their way onto Steam with little or no mass moral outrage, and their relative loathsomeness to Hatred is largely a matter of opinion.
What’s puzzling me is why many (possibly most) people, including myself, have such a visceral revulsion to something like Hatred, but a very high tolerance for the graphic depictions of violence in other games. One idea is that “fantasy violence” – the kind you find in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor or Titanfall – is substantively different than “more realistic” portrayals of violence. There’s something to this, but at the same time I’m not bothered much by the more realistic depictions of very real violence in modern military shooters like Battlefield 4. This may be because even in these games, the violence you’re participating in is directed at enemies who are trying to kill you, and the kill-or-be-killed dynamic provides at least a fig leaf of moral grounding.
I approached my “line” for things like this earlier this year, when I participated in the closed beta for Battlefield Hardline (which is due out from EA in March). Hardline pits two teams of players against each other in the usual shoot-em-up style, but changes the formula into a cops-and-robbers scenario that looks a lot like Michael Mann’s Heat.
In a year where the militarization of police forces nationwide has been a source of massive concern, I found this experience miserable. They may have altered the mechanics since the beta, but the aim-down-sights, shoot-it-if-moves game dynamics of a military shooter applied to the police vs. criminals scenario was something I found incredibly chilling. I don’t object to its publication, but it won’t be a game I’ll be playing next year.
But it doesn’t bear to be completely relativistic about this. While there may be a lot of gray between Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare and Counterstrike, it seems as if there must be some bright line between, say, Battlefield Hardline and Hatred, the way there’s one separating Maxim or Cosmopolitan and the kinds of periodicals one expects to find in certain specialty shops with no windows on the outskirts of town.
The trouble is, nailing down the distinction is notoriously difficult – it’s the point at which Justice Potter Stewart could only offer, “I know it when I see it” about “hard-core pornography” in his concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio in 1964. And there are games out there that are the proverbial it – Japanese developer Illusion made a game called RapeLay that manages to be abominable on all levels, and which I urge everyone to never look up. Another game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG is available online, as is Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian.
As far as I am aware, there are no cries of “censorship” over these being unavailable on Steam.
And as far as the controversy over Hatred goes, we have a fairly happy ending for everyone involved: Nobody’s free speech rights were ever violated, and everyone who wants to play this horrible little game — which has received far more publicity than it merits — will be able to do so.
Update: Sometime around 2:30 a.m. EST, Hatred developers Destructive Creations posted a screenshot of what appears to be an email from Valve co-founder Gabe Newell apologizing for the game’s removal from Greenlight. It reads:
Yesterday I heard that we were taking Hatred down from Greenlight. Since I wasn’t up to speed, I asked around internally to find out why we had done that. It turns out that it wasn’t a good decision, and we’ll be putting Hatred back up. My apologies to you and your team. Steam is about creating tools for content creators and customers.
Good luck with your game.