Steam needs better tools to deal with toxic users

"Kill yourselves you degenerate freaks."

"kill yourself faggot."

"I hate n***ers"

These are comments I've read on Steam Community forums, user reviews, and in Steam Groups. As Steam grows, many indie developers are facing the increasing mental anguish of having to deal with toxic, hateful behavior in their Steam communities. And without better moderation tools and a more proactive stance from Valve, Steam is becoming a pretty shitty place to be.

Yesterday we published a survey of 230 Steam developers, conducted by indie dev Lars Doucet. The survey highlights the biggest issues developers have with Steam, and of those issues, one of the largest is the inability to stem harassment and toxicity that seems to be swelling on the PC's largest videogame platform.

The State of Steam survey asks developers a number of questions with the goal of distilling feedback into a few key areas. That feedback is turned into 10 actionable issues, with the hopes that Valve will respond and make changes to better benefit developers on Steam. Of those 10 items, number five is "The Steam Community feature needs better ways to deal with toxic users." Of the 222 developers willing to share their opinions publicly, 147 feel that Steam needs better tools to combat toxic users and trolls and 63 were neutral. It's a small polling size—just two percent of Steam's estimated 10,000 developers—but the message is clear: right now, it's hard to fight toxicity on Steam. 

"Toxic users really need to be dealt with more directly and quickly; many devs I speak to are growing frustrated with how Valve deals with them right now," reads one of the anonymous comments from a developer who participated in the survey.

"I think consumers come first, though developers also should have some methods to deal with toxic users better," reads another.

Poison Control 

Valve relies on 42 people to help police a community of over 125 million.

While lacking moderation tools are becoming a problem across many areas of Steam, developers feel it's of particular issue on the Community forum boards. Each game has its own forum board where developers can engage with their users to troubleshoot or discuss their game. Ideally, it's a great place for any developer to interact directly with their audience. But developers are left to moderate their own boards with some assistance from Steam's own team of moderators—30 volunteers and 12 Valve employees. That means Valve relies on 42 people to help police a community of over 125 million

It's clear, then, that most of the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of developers to moderate their own communities—but is that fair? "In general, I think there have been enough toxic experiences with our game that the current tools and policies do not cover well," a survey response reads. "As the userbase and number of games increases, dealing with moderation for Valve will become a greater challenge. Better tools are important, but having Valve use its power within the system to address the behavior of its customers would be even better. Taking a proactive approach in dealing with habitually abusive users or user groups, so that small indie devs don't have to be the bad guy, would be incredibly helpful."

The State of Steam report contains multiple comments from developers who use the term "toxic" to describe interactions with players. Reading them, I wanted to know what these encounters are actually like. Are some Steam users being genuinely hateful, racist, or malicious? Or is the term being used to describe having to deal with an irate customer who is unhappy with the game they've purchased?

I decided to randomly reach out to several developers on Steam. Of the emails I sent, only two have replied so far, but I'll update this story with more comments as they come in. Both developers asked to remain anonymous to prevent more toxicity and harassment. The first developer I spoke with is creating a multiplayer FPS. They said, "I haven't experienced any situation where I was unable to control harassment. If it's in the forums I just ban them."

The second developer isn't so lucky. Their game has prominent themes of homosexuality, and since launching recently they've been a constant target for homophobic and hateful users.

The above image is a selection of Steam Community forum threads that this developer had to remove. The one in Hebrew is a reference to Yishai Schlissel, an Israeli who stabbed marchers during the Jerusalem gay pride parade in 2005 and in 2015. "In addition, positive reviews were immediately downvoted by a few hundred people right when the game launched and comments harassing the reviewers themselves can be found under their critiques," they told me over email. This isn't the first time a developer has had their user reviews bombed by those looking to voice an agenda.

I took a look at this game's user reviews to see what I could find. It's not pretty. "As far as real science goes, homosexuality is a disorder, a very rare one (don't believe the jewish media) that is not natural in any way," writes one Steam user. In another comment they write, "Since being gay is a mental illness that means every fag you know is in fact mentally unstable." 

Both of those comments are now weeks old, as they require official Steam moderators to delete them.

Within their Steam Community forum, this developer explains that they have tools to ban users and delete threads. But the problem is that, for indie developers already drowning in responsibilities, Valve is asking them to wear one more hat by having to police their own communities on its platform. "I don't have staff that can delete these comments while I'm [away], so sometimes I can wake up to a bunch of them at once," they tell me. "Other users can flag posts as well, but sometimes it can take a while for a Steam mod to come around and delete something."

"On launch day and the days following, it was a bit hectic trying to delete a slew of these posts while also trying to address legitimate questions about the game. The tools were adequate once the game was off the new releases page and subsequently the number of drive-by comments decreased. At the beginning though, it was a little overwhelming when over half the posts to the discussion board had nothing to do with the actual game and were basically their feelings about homosexuality."

When asked what tools they'd like to see Valve implement to better help manage communities, this developer said they would, understandably, like to see tools to moderate comments on their user reviews.

Community watch 

The developer I spoke with isn't alone in feeling targeted by hateful players, either. "Actually, I don't want a Steam forum at all," reads another anonymous comment from the State of Steam survey. "Mine are completely toxic, alienating to any player that looks at them, and as a small developer I do not have the resources available to moderate them. It would be better if they were gone rather than existing solely as a vector for people to harass me (and for other queer players to see this harassment). Having them blocked off to people who don't own the game might also be a good alternative."

Perhaps the biggest issue is that there is little consequence for the behavior of these users. While developers can ban them from accessing their forums, these toxic individuals can simply find new targets to harass. One solution would be for Valve to begin implementing Steam-wide bans for repeat offenders instead of asking indie developers to board up their doors and windows and hope that they'll eventually leave them alone. Another would be, as the above anonymous developer suggests, having the option to opt your game out of having a Steam Community forum.

But if you've been paying attention to the discussions around Steam, you'll already know this issue isn't just affecting the Steam Community forums. There are other parts of Steam awash with hate speech that developers can't moderate, even if they wanted to. Motherboard recently published a report finding a troubling number of hate groups both in its Curators program and in Steam Groups, where anyone can create a group around a particular theme.

Recently, some users opened Steam to find the Curator group "dank memes for faggots" featured on the front page. Motherboard asked Valve to comment on why or how a Curator with such an obviously inappropriate name was featured on the front page, but received no response. That's just a drop in the bucket, though. When I go to the Steam Groups page and search for the n-word, I find 4,528 matches. Searching for "faggot" turns up 12,355 groups. Pretty much any slur you can think of will have a Steam Group associated with it.

I don't want a Steam forum at all. Mine are completely toxic.

Anonymous

"The 'Rules and Guidelines For Steam: Discussions, Reviews, and User Generated Content' clearly tell users they should not 'flame or insult other members' and they can't post any content containing 'racism' or 'discrimination' but it appears that Valve is not able to enforce these guidelines," wrote Motherboard's Emanuel Mailberg.

It's becoming clear that Valve's hands-off approach to moderating Steam and its community is opening it to a wide selection of hateful, racist people who use the platform to harass other users and developers alike. These developers are the first wave of defense against that tide, and without better tools and a more proactive effort by Valve to weed out toxic users, everyone on Steam suffers.

This problem isn't exclusive to just Steam, you don't have to look far on Reddit or Twitter to find the kinds of abysmal, toxic individuals who flourish under conditions of anonymity and lack of consequences online. Fortunately, Reddit is starting to clean up its mess of nazis and similar hate groups, and has found that far from the task being impossible, the positive effects can be almost immediate. What is ridiculous is the notion that Valve should continue to monetize a community consisting of a hundred million players but shirk the responsibility of dealing with them onto small indie developers and 42 moderators.