Drawing clear lines and definitions around obscenity, pornographic content, and art has always been a complicated business. The current guidance from US Supreme Court on the matter of obscenity is “I know it when I see it,” a standard that relies more on intuition than specificity. For online platforms and distributors, it’s equally murky territory — and one where ambiguity can have real consequences, particularly for smaller creators.
Steam, the largest online distributor of video games on the planet (which puts it in the running for largest distributor, period), is no stranger to these concerns. While nudity is seemingly permitted on the service, pornography is not — a fuzzy distinction that has led to confusion and inconsistent enforcement of their rules for years, particularly around smaller games that feature sexual content.
The latest development came last Friday, when several developers of visual novels, along with similarly aesthetically themed anime games, said they had received email notices from Steam that their games had been reported for pornographic content, and they had two weeks to remove it or the games would be removed from the platform entirely. Several developers expressed surprise, particularly because they considered their games to be sexy, but not pornographic.
Two days later, the same creators received another email, equally as baffling: their content would not be removed after all. Have a nice day. Which raises the question: what exactly is going on over at Steam? (Valve has not responded to multiple requests for comment by The Verge.) The notices and their retraction not only raised more questions about Steam’s irregular application of vague rules, but about their particular focus on visual novels, a genre that is especially vulnerable to this sort of content-based censorship.
Originating in Japan during the early 1990s, visual novels are interactive experiences created from static images and written narrative, often offering choices to the player that shape how the story goes. They are typically focused on interpersonal dynamics, which has made them one of the few places in games where complex romantic and sexual narratives have been able to flourish.
This is a double-edged sword, however, particularly in relation to Steam’s rules and the current perception of visual novels within the games industry. The genre is still very niche in the West, with large-scale localization only beginning in the past few years. Before that, most titles that did come out — largely simple, easy-to-translate visual novels with heavy sexual content — weren’t necessarily representative of the genre as a whole, which also deals in drama, romance, science fiction, horror and many other kinds of storytelling. Because of the erotic bent of the offerings made available in the West, however, the whole genre is often perceived as pornography and not much else.
”There’s a stigma that we’re growing out of,” says Peter “Taosym” Rasmussen, an artist and the owner of Lupiesoft, a Western visual novel development team whose game Mutiny!! received a takedown notice from Valve. “It’s based on what gets translated into English from Japan. Typically those are the games that they expect to sell the best, that have extremely high niche appeal. And porn has extremely high niche appeal.”
The pigeonholing of visual novels as porn isn’t the only perceptual issue facing visual novels; because of their limited gameplay, visual novels are also often dismissed as “not real games” by mainstream gaming fans, an assessment some developers say has been echoed by Steam itself.
“I’m honestly not sure how much Steam knows or cares about visual novels,” says John Pickett, director of public relations for MangaGamer, a publisher of localized visual novels that also received a takedown notice. He says that when MangaGamer first approached Steam to get the company’s products listed — prior to the now-defunct Steam Greenlight system that put indie games on the service up to community vote — their visual novels were rejected “because ‘they aren’t games.’” After Steam Greenlight launched and MangaGamer reentered its titles, “they passed through to full approval relatively quickly (within a year),” says Pickett. “Valve did express their surprise to us when they saw that our visual novels had passed — they never expected people to be interested in them at all.”
While the market for visual novels remains small in United States, with only a marginal sampling of Japanese VNs getting localized, a burgeoning indie scene has emerged in the West over the past few years. In particular, LGBT creators and audiences have been drawn to the genre, seeing it as a space to explore romantic and social dynamics in a non-heteronormative setting.
”The LGBT scene has really latched onto this genre really strongly,” says Rasmussen. “That’s probably the best thing about visual novels. They’re difficult to make — they require writing, and music, and all that stuff to come together — but technically they’re not hard to start. You can make an absurdly cheap visual novel.”
But getting games on Steam and keeping them there has been a long-running issue for creators of visual novels and other games with sexual content. When Steam launched Steam Greenlight in 2012, a pipeline theoretically designed to let creators put their games on Steam with little friction, some games were pulled from the platform with little notice or clarity about what sexual content had been deemed pornographic. In subsequent years, developers found ways around these restrictions by censoring their material, often with additional downloadable patches that removed the censorship after the game was installed — though Steam later banned this practice as well. In 2017, prominent visual novel developer Christine Love had significant difficulty finding a home on Steam for Ladykiller in a Bind, a BDSM-themed visual novel that did eventually release, though not without significant back and forth between Love and Steam.
What makes all of this frustrating for creators who want to avoid takedowns are Steam’s guidelines for sexual content, which are vague and often difficult to parse. According to the Steam partner rules provided to developers, the related restrictions are “pornography,” “content that is patently offensive or intended to shock or disgust viewers,” as well as adult content that is inappropriately labeled and age-gated.
Exactly what this means — and what triggered the recent takedown notices for visual novels, or their retraction — remains ambiguous. And for creators, this inconsistent application of vague rules can create the impression that any sexual content is potentially a problem. While porn is notoriously hard to define, for the Supreme Court or anyone else, that’s not a clear standard for creators to rely on, especially when crossing the invisible line means potentially losing one of the most lucrative revenue streams in the gaming world. It’s the sort of hit that could spell financial doom for any small creator, regardless of genre.
The newest batch of takedown notices from Valve still came as a surprise, especially for Pickett, who had recently spoken to representatives of Valve at the Steam offices on behalf of MangaGamer and visual novel developers in general. Pickett hoped to clarify the content issues on the platform, specifically to prevent their visual novels from receiving unexpected or avoidable takedowns.
“We stand by our assertion then that content of [our] game is not pornographic, but an earnest and tasteful exploration of sexuality,” wrote a representative on the MangaGamer website. “We went to great pains to run the game’s content by Valve representatives —including sending along every potentially questionable graphical asset along with advanced builds of the title — to ensure that that feeling was mutual. The game would have never appeared on the platform if we had not confirmed with Valve representatives that they did not feel the content was pornographic and was appropriate for the platform.”
Then about two months later, “they backtracked on that completely” with the recent takedown notices, says Rasmussen, who has several games represented by MangaGamer. And while the notices were retracted and didn’t result in the removal of any games, Rasmussen says it still felt like a betrayal, and worries that it might drive some developers to avoid expressions of sexuality in their work altogether. “I know a lot of people who have said, ‘maybe we’re just not going to make sexy games anymore.’”
MangaGamer has since sought additional distribution platforms for its work, and plans to sell its visual novels through GOG. “We have to diversify the platforms that we’re using out of necessity, because we know now that Valve cannot be trusted because they went back on their word,” says Pickett. “They directly promised our community one thing and then… contradicted that. They’ve actively hurt us when we were acting in good faith towards them.”
Part of the issue may lie in the history of Valve itself. The company began in the mid-‘90s as a video game developer, and moved into the content distribution game when its distribution platform, Steam, became a major success on the PC. But the transition from primarily a developer to primarily a distributor — and one so successful that it has become one of the most significant gatekeepers in the industry‚ has not always been an easy one, and the things that made the company successful at the former aren’t always an advantage for the latter.
Valve is a famously opaque company, whose corporate structure is often described as being “flat”, without traditional hierarchies or team organizations. Valve says this fosters creativity and innovation, but the lack of traditional management can make it difficult to get answers out of the company and find information on who is responsible for what, or how decisions are made internally. In addition, many of Steam’s curatorial processes are algorithmic or community based, meaning that it’s rarely clear who or what within Valve or the Steam system is making any given decision.
This offers little insight into why Steam decided to threaten these games in particular with removal, or why it subsequently changed course. Regardless of the intentions or motivations at the company, however, its takedown notices were read as affirmations by opponents of sexual content. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, which spends much of its time lobbying against sex work, the “public health crisis of pornography,” and art it deems “pornographic,” celebrated the news of the takedown notices on Twitter, declaring them a ”victory” for the organization.
Valve’s behavior is reminiscent of similar moves by Apple, whose vague guidelines and capricious censorship around “pornographic content” — they once temporarily banned seminal indie game Papers, Please from their store for nudity, as well as the award-winning indie comic book Sex Criminals — have made the App Store a precarious place for smaller game developers and creators working with sensitive or mature content. That’s what’s most disturbing about this sort of unpredictable enforcement: Not only that it threatens the finances and artistic expression of creators, but it threatens the most vulnerable creators, especially those trying to make a living through small audiences in niche and misunderstood genres. “Visual novels are the easy target,” says Pickett.
Compared to larger studios who have more regular communication with Steam and large, vocal audiences for their products, smaller independent creators are far more vulnerable — and working with any erotic context under these conditions can feel like risking their livelihood. This sort of chilling effect can impact the entire industry by narrowing the diversity of titles available to the average player, and limiting the innovative and storytelling potential for small, independent games that dabble in any depiction of human sexuality to find their way to audiences.
”The issue is, [Valve] isn’t going to remove The Witcher or Grand Theft Auto or anything like that from Steam [despite their sexual content],” says Rasmussen. “We’re the smallest kind of demographic without any kind of lobbying power. We can’t influence Valve to leave us alone.” While we still don’t (and may never) know exactly why Steam sent and then retracted those takedown notices, it has left many visual novel creators even less confident about what sexual content is acceptable on the platform, and more concerned that their work will unexpectedly be categorized as pornography. That’s going to hurt visual novel developers the most, but it’s going to make things worse for the vitality and diversity of gaming at large, too.