A digital videogame storefront with some social networking features, Steam isn’t the most obvious home for charged political content. But just hours after the shooting, 66 Steam profiles took on the shooter’s name. Dozens more soon followed. At that time, the Christchurch shooter wasn’t the only terrorist commemorated by Steam users; hundreds of Steam pages referenced massacres in Parkland, Isla Vista, and Charleston.
Steam publisher Valve removed profiles referencing the Christchurch shooting after Kotaku reached out for comment on an article. But the fact that so many people—extremists, edgelords, or trolls—felt that they could profess these views on an over $4 billion platform with over 95 million active users says something unflattering about Steam.
Today, the Anti-Defamation League, a 107-year-old nonprofit founded to fight identity-based discrimination, released its report on “how the Steam platform harbors extremists.”
“It was disturbingly easy for ADL’s researchers to locate Steam users who espouse extremist beliefs, using language associated with white supremacist ideology and subcultures, including key terms, common numeric hate symbols, and acronyms,” the report reads. In a random search, researchers found hundreds of Steam profiles advertising Nazi or white supremacist imagery in their usernames, profile pictures, posts, or bio descriptions.
The ADL’s sample size is not significant enough to confirm that extremism is widely prevalent on Steam or more common than on other platforms. It does, though, underscore how little Steam has done to address a long-known issue. “It’s an effective platform for extremists, because there’s a very public acknowledgement of a lack of content moderation,” says Daniel Kelley, the assistant director of the ADL’s center for technology and society. “By the standards of 2020, their approach is super outdated and not in keeping with other companies in social media and games that are ramping up efforts to make their platforms respectful and inclusive spaces for all people.”
Steam is famously hands-off about moderating content uploaded to its platform. Although Steam’s community guidelines prohibit discrimination, “abusive language,” and “offensive content,” a 2017 Vice report revealed that groups with titles like Nazi Revolutionary Party, Hitler’s Nazi’s, and Zhe Nazi Followers of Razor_One persisted there. At the time, term “Nazi” returned 7,893 search results for Steam Groups. After similar reports from the Huffington Post and The Center for Investigative Reporting, Valve silently began removing extremist groups and profiles called out in the press. It wasn’t a total purge; even today, searching the term “Nazi” under Steam’s Community page returns more than 21,000 results.
Valve has had mixed results moderating the content of the games its users sell, too. The company posted a blog in 2018 justifying that permissive approach, saying that when it comes to the games on Steam, “the right approach is to allow everything onto the Steam store,” except offerings that are illegal or “straight up trolling.” The post argued that this philosophy let Valve focus more on “building tools to give people control over what kinds of content they see,” the digital equivalent of plugging your fingers in your ears. Some games did cross the line, though: In 2018, Valve removed Active Shooter, in which the player commits a school shooting, and in 2019 it removed a game called Rape Day, in which “you can rape and murder during a zombie apocalypse.”
“White supremacist subculture traffics in bigoted humor, shitposting, memes,” says Joanna Mendelson, the associate director for the ADL’s Center on Extremism. “All of this serves to normalize extremist ideology and hatred. You find that same subculture on Steam.”
The ADL report points to several notable extremists whose accounts included Nazi imagery or phrases, including the former leader of a small international hate group whose past Steam profile names made racist and neo-Nazi references. Although they had a “Community Ambassador” badge, according to the ADL report, their bio contained references to Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and other Nazi figureheads. Jarrett William Smith, a former US soldier who discussed killing antifa affiliates and pleaded guilty to sharing instructions on making bombs over social media, praised the mass-murder game Hatred, sold on Steam. In encrypted Wire chats obtained by the ADL, Smith shared images of himself playing as a Muslim persona and also suggested that “The most baste [based] is of course playing as Hitler." (Before its release, Steam briefly removed the controversial game, but Valve CEO Gabe Newell reinstated it himself.)
The ADL hopes to pressure Valve to adopt and enforce policies combating hateful content, engage with civil society groups and, most of all, offer increased transparency to third parties. Valve has a reputation as a black box, and throughout the course of its investigation, Kelley and Mendelson say, Valve did not respond to a single email from the ADL. Valve also did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.
There’s no strong evidence that Steam attracts or fosters more extremist ideology than any other online platform with a social media aspect. Yet in 2020, after the clear negative impact of lax moderation policies has led former “free speech” bastions like Reddit to overhaul their policies, vigilant moderation is becoming the norm. Steam is widely considered a utility of PC gaming. But treating it like a utility rather than a cultural node has led to a moderation philosophy that, Mendelson says, “desensitizes users to hate.” In its report, the ADL calls on Steam’s partners in the games industry to address concerns over extremism with them directly and suggests reconsidering their business entanglements.
“We’re seeing white supremacist ideology percolate in these living online communities, and they’re helping to shape this hateful narrative and also creating a connection between extremist adherents,” she says. “Not enforcing responsible policies on their platforms signals an acceptance and encourages others to possibly share similar content. We need to address the root of the problem.”