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The least likable developer on Steam may have hit the limit of its permissive moderation

Screenshot from the videogame Domina, toga clad individuals overlooking arena battle.
(Image credit: Dolphin Barn)
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Dolphin Barn's gladiator management sim Domina lost any appeal it may have had when, starting last May, its developer began inserting screeds against "soft" men and LGBTQ people (opens in new tab) into the game's patch notes and forum discussions. The game's official account has been banned on both Twitter and Bandcamp, with the individual having previously equated support for trans youth with pedophilia (opens in new tab) on the former platform.

Now the developer says he's been temporarily banned from posting on his own game's Steam forums, although he can still publish Domina patch notes, the latest of which (opens in new tab) accuses Valve and Steam Support of being "cowards." Meanwhile, Domina's "Mostly Negative" recent reviews are full of references to the developer's views, the game's forums are a battleground, and Dolphin Barn's recent banning shows Steam's typically laissez-faire moderation turning its attention to the game.

Dolphin Barn posted a screenshot via his personal Twitter account (opens in new tab) showing a message explaining the ban: "This is the second time that one of your posts violates our Discussion Rules and Guidelines, specifically insulting or flaming another user. We're also noticing a trend with abusive messages sent when banning players from your hub."

Following a request that the user adhere to community guidelines, the message touches on the developer's actions against negative steam reviews, and a potential avenue for Valve/Steam to escalate: "We also want to make it clear that you should not reverse Steam moderator decisions or enable rule violations in your hub. Future disregard for our rules and guidelines could jeopardize our business relationship." At the time of writing, Valve has not confirmed the details of its communication with Dolphin Barn.

A quick perusal of the game's recent reviews touches on one of the developer's sticking points with Steam moderation: that it's being impacted by "fraudulent reviewers" and that his efforts at flagging those reviews are being impeded by moderators from Steam. Most of those reviews cite the developer's well-publicized anti-trans screeds, though some seem to be criticizing the game for classes and features available in Domina's beta branch being made paid DLC in the live version⁠—a potential wrinkle to the review moderation question.

Overall to recent reviews of the gladiator sim Domina, with the recent reviews being overwhelmingly negative

(Image credit: Valve, Dolphin Barn)

The comments on several negative reviews, meanwhile, include fans of the game spewing vile invective about trans people. Again, whatever merits Domina may or may not have had as a gladiator management sim, that doesn't seem to be anyone's concern at this juncture.

Valve's stance on storefront moderation has been that it won't police content unless it's illegal or "straight-up trolling." (opens in new tab) That stance has been somewhat unique in the tech sphere, as companies like Twitter and Facebook adopted more heavy-handed moderation policies in the face of online harassment and disinformation. 

Previously, Valve removed school shooting FPS Active Shooter (opens in new tab) on the grounds of trolling and customer abuse. Domina perhaps presents a different challenge for delisting based on that precedent, as the game itself is less at issue⁠—though the developer's usage of patch notes as a vehicle for invective perhaps presents more of a grey area.

This is a fascinating edge case of a strange individual pressing at the boundaries of a largely permissive system and only receiving grassroots pushback until now. We've reached out to Valve for comment and will update if we hear back, and time will tell if the company takes further action or if Domina's developer will continue reaping diminishing returns from a years-old indie game and the outrage cycles surrounding his psychosexual patch notes luridly ruminating on gay and trans peoples' genitalia and sex lives. 

The game's latest update communicates a certain defeatist tone: "At this point, it is doubtful that Domina will receive future updates on Steam," though Dolphin Barn's activity this past year and change doesn't leave me inclined to believe we've heard the last of him.

In a contrast to the moderation quagmire surrounding Domina, Nexus mods' removal of a homophobic Spider-Man mod with the simple message "We don't want to and won't argue this with you (opens in new tab)" offers a refreshing contrast, with institutional moderation refusing to give a bad-faith actor the benefit of the doubt.

Associate Editor

Ted has been thinking about PC games and bothering anyone who would listen with his thoughts on them ever since he booted up his sister's copy of Neverwinter Nights on the family computer. He is obsessed with all things CRPG and CRPG-adjacent, but has also covered esports, modding, and rare game collecting. When he's not playing or writing about games, you can find Ted lifting weights on his back porch.