Steam Reverses Stance on Censorship, Banning Games That Feature “Child Exploitation”

Steam Reverses Stance on Censorship, Banning Games That Feature “Child Exploitation”

Steam is pulling games with adult content featuring characters that look like minors in a new wave of censorship across the digital games platform.

It seems like just week that we were reporting that Steam was demanding the removal of “sexual content” from games. And while Valve partly reversed on that decision following healthy community backlash and pushback from developers, it looks like the company is digging its feet in again. According to reports, Steam has begun removing games with young-looking characters under the principle of “child exploitation.”

News comes from a bombshell statement on the cross-dressing yaoi, Catholic school-based VN Cross Love’s Steam community page. Titled “Welp, We’ve Been…Banned?” the game’s lead developer said that their listing was unceremoniously removed:

So uh, yeah. Apparently we’ve been banned from Steam for some reason. Not sure what to say. We’ve reached out to them for an answer and if we can do anything to rectify these changes.

Developer Top Hat Studios would then go on to share the receipts backing up the claims this was removed. In an email to the studio, Valve said they were unable to ship the game because it features “themes of child exploitation”:

However, Top Hat Studios is far from the only team affected. Following the story, Kotaku’s Nathan Grayson noted that similar games like Hello GoodbyeMaoMao Discovery Team, and Imolicious (all school-based visual novels) have had their store pages removed in the past couple of weeks. All of these games varied in other themes, some of them not even featuring NSFW content on their Steam release.

The crux of these bans would seem to be NSFW content related to characters described in-game to be over 18, but visually looking far below that age. This would include games which take place in high school, but also games that are outside of it.

While Valve can pick and choose the developers they publish on their platform, the obvious question is does the rationale hold water — is this “themes of child exploitation” and is it being applied evenly.

According to Kotaku’s reporting, developers have different ways of bringing the 18+ age into the story at large. On one hand, many developers choose to have a simple disclaimer at the beginning of VNs saying that all characters in the game are over the age of consent. On the other end, some games (including Cross Love) go to greater lengths to include multiple references of the characters’ age. For instance, there will occasionally be plot points and script nods to the ages of characters in non-ancillary ways. According to developer Top Hat Studios:

These scenes aren’t there to be artificially shoehorned in, and while they do exist as further proof of characters’ ages (beyond the disclaimer in the beginning that explicitly states them as being 18), the real reason they’re there is to further many of the themes in the story.

Speaking from a point of legality, the question of young-looking girls in digital content has come up outside of this Valve discussion. Court cases (most notably Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition) have touched on this issue of whether “computer-generated image or pictures… that is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in” NSFW content. The Supreme Court has come down saying that limiting this kind of content is to abridge “the freedom to engage in a substantial amount of lawful speech.”

However, like any freedom of expression argument, Valve is a private company and permitted to make its own rules. While many content creators were hoping that the new Epic Game Store could become a bastion for AO content, Top Hat Studios has mentioned that those talks were unsuccessful:

Unfortunately Epic Games has stated they will not allow AO content on their platform, which is definitely disappointing to us.

Ultimately, developers looking to publish NSFW content do have the option to self-publish or to go to other storefronts like Itch.io and Nutaku. But doing so is missing out on one of the largest (and perhaps monopolized) PC gaming markets. While this is currently only hitting more-obscure visual novels, it’s unclear if this will extend to other more popular titles like the Senran Kagura series which definitely have characters that fit into the prohibited description. For example, Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is a game that we really enjoyed, but does have a notable character and sequence that Steam may not like with these new rules.

It’s unclear whether this is the beginning of Steam reinstituting a ban on AO content, or if their new rules will only extend as far as school-based settings with characters that look like minors. Regardless, this is a move that only hurts developers moving forward until more detailed restrictions from Valve get made available.