Last month a small news story broke in the gaming press. It was just a one day story. The kind of thing that is reported and forgotten as soon as EA or Activision’s latest disaster hits. It certainly won’t be recalled as any kind of significant event in gaming last year. With all the controversies of 2017, from the usual broken games and mediocre AAA titles to the rapid expansion of offensive monetization strategies Valves decision to remove “You must Be Eighteen Or Older To Enter” from Steam was a small story, affecting a small game with a small audience.
This week let’s examine the ever evolving mystery that is Valve’s curation (or usually lack thereof) of the Steam store. I wanted to write about this as soon as it happened but had a difficult time organizing my thoughts into a coherent argument. Several weeks later and I’m still having that trouble so this may ramble but hopefully we end up somewhere interesting.
You Must Be Eighteen Or Older to Enter IS a game about pornography and sexuality and the footage in the linked video will feature squiggly lines that upon close examination turn out to be pornography rendered in very crude ASCii graphics. We’ll also be looking at games that are violent and explicit so....fair warning on that. The linked video features violence (it’s got video games in it. Video games are violent) and some sexual content that is all tame enough to appear on YouTube. If any of that stuff is something you’re uncomfortable seeing, you’re probably a joy at parties but should read the article and not click on the video.
You Must Be Eighteen Or Older To Enter is a tiny little game with very niche appeal. It’s a text and ASCII graphics “horror” experience that examines the terror of discovering pornography and ones own seemingly random and confusing adolescent sexual desires. It’s the kind of subject matter that’s impossible to imagine even a small indie developer examining. It’s market, for a variety of reasons, is very small and it produced very little coverage in the press outside of some pieces examining it’s themes and commending it for trying to use games to explore adolescent sexuality.
There was no controversy. There were no Fox News segments dripping with outrage. Prior to Valves move very few people had even heard of the game. Here is what Valve had to say about removing the game. “.....” Nothing. Valve had nothing to say about removing the game. Several writers asked Valve to comment and got silence back. Not even the standard corporate PR doublespeak “We’re examining this and will get back to you.”
So what did David Cox, the games developer, hear from Valve? Nothing. Cox found out the game had been pulled from steam, after two months on the store, when a customer emailed in confusion after not being able to find the title.
After reading of Valves decision I decided to play the game. It’s a free game and, truth be told, while it’s reviews were all very positive it’s not a terribly engaging gameplay experience. That’s not what it was designed to be. Instead it’s something that was designed to explore an experience that most of us have forgotten. And to it’s credit it does manage to capture the feeling of looking at pornography as a young kid better than any other medium possibly could.
The game has you sitting at a computer flipping through porn sites while no one is home. It’s best played with headphones as you’ll be prompted with sound cues like a car pulling into the driveway or a door opening at which point you’ll need to decide whether to keep looking or to turn off the computer. There’s an undeniable tension that builds as you click through the different portals. It manages to create anxiety and by creating that anxiety it asks the player a question. Why is this scary?
It’s the kind of art that’s produced as a result of an auteur. Films, novels, poetry and music often are the result of a focused artistic vision because the vast bulk of the creative process takes place in the mind of one or a few committed persons. But commercially viable video games require immense investments of labor and capital to create. This necessitates a fully collaborative creative process. Most of the best mid to big budget games effectively use corporate management structures to help streamline production into the most efficient form possible. And there’s no denying that the state of the art of video games has been helped immensely by being married to business and management best practices. Games have exploded in technical proficiency so quickly that trying to replay titles from even six or seven years ago can be difficult. Games are dealing with a constant state of improvement in a way no other art form does. The only real parallel would be the experience of watching movies at the dawn of cinema when the art form went from silent films to full color in a few decades making the classics of the early days of film obsolete.
But that focus on large scale production and cutting edge technological innovation comes with a cost. Games have become expensive to make and need to sell tremendous numbers of units to make a profit.
And in order to make a huge profit games have to appeal to as large an audience as they can. This means nobody can be offended. No boundary can be pushed, no story can turn someone off.
In short, games can’t make people uncomfortable. And art almost always makes people uncomfortable. I’ve said in other videos that almost all of the best selling games have no moral gray area. They all feature easy to hate villains and almost never have you questioning your actions. Rare is the game that leaves the player feeling like anything other than the worlds most heroic person.
Outside of The Last Of Us and The Witcher 3 I can’t think of any hit games that have any moral gray at all. And that’s fine. I don’t need every game I play to be art and if Valve wants to make it so that they don’t sell anything that makes people uncomfortable, hell it’s Gabe’s rodeo.
I’d be much more comfortable with Valve pulling You Must Be Eighteen if they had a longstanding corporate record of not selling games with objectionable content. Only... there are dozens of games for sale on Steam that feature fairly graphic depictions of sex. By pulling a game because somebody (it sure would be nice to know who and why) at Valve decided it was pornography Valve is making a statement that they are attempting to curate their store to not have products that offend people.
Except, of course, Valve is notorious for believing so firmly in a libertarian free market that their storefront is now absolutely flooded with barely functioning garbage. Valve doesn’t believe in curating. They believe in letting the consumer decide. Hell, Jim Sterling owes much of his success to Valves absolute refusal to pay someone to weed out the trash on their storefront.
SO why wouldn’t they let the consumer decide here? Is You Must Be Eighteen so objectionable that it can’t even be distributed on Valve? Does Valve try to not sell games that are disturbing? Hardly. Lets take a quick look at some games for sale right now on Valve.
There’s the classic that Jim Sterling highlighted, Milky Boobs. A game about shooting bikini clad women with a “milk gun” to cool them off when they get too hot.
There’s Rocket Girl. A side scroller that seems to exist only to have a bunch of ridiculous scantily clad women on screen as well as eventually produce this subtle cover art.
There’s Gay World. A game that has you playing as a cop and arresting people based upon they’re orientation. Don’t worry you arrest straight people too so that makes it ok despite operating on the quite incorrect premise that all gay people get about in bondage gear. Or that all people into bondage gear are gay for that matter. Or, most importantly, the fact that up until a couple of decades ago gay people actually were arrested in this country and still are in several countries to this day. The world still has several countries that have laws on the books that include the death penalty for being gay. SO maybe this isn’t all that funny after all.
There’s Alexa one of many many “dating simulator” visual “novels” that are basically games about choosing all the correct dialogue boxes so that you hopefully arrive at the win state of the game. Sex. Which is totally how sex works in the real world. Out on the dating scene today you build up sex points by purchasing items and flattering people until you’ve accumulated enough SP to trade for sex.
There’s Hot Pool a puzzle game that has you arranging people at your hot tub sex party by orientation. If you put a gay person and straight person near each other they turn red. With anger I assume.
Of course there are all the Leisure Suit Larry games. I’ve heard these have sex scenes somewhere but I cant confirm that. I tried playing several of these as a kid. But the whole point and click adventure genre makes me angry. SO angry I turn red without even sitting next to a gay person.
Inevitably I hit a point where I’d have no idea what to do. At which point I’d give up and watch a scrambled version of the old HBO series Electric Blue like a normal kid. With practice and a little imagination it’s possible to reverse engineer the scrambled images in your mind.
And just dozens more. Oh yeah. There’s a game called Panty Party which is a kind of third person shooter where you play as a pair of panties and shoot other panties while anime panties yell menacingly at each other in Japanese. I don’t think that really belongs here. I just wanted to show people it exists because it’s hilarious.
That’s just a sampling of the most obvious titles but content that can be objectionable isn’t limited to the relatively small selection of “Adult” themed games on Valve.
The Witcher 3, which is the very rare AAA game that can be called a work of art, has several extremely graphic and well done sex scenes that absolutely would have been considered porn when I was growing up in the 1980s .
Several of the GTA games have downright disturbing sexual content, much of which is the kind of stuff I’d not want any of my kids playing and I’m basically the most permissive parent ever. My one hard rule is don’t die. Everything outside of that is up to their discretion.
Mass Effect is notorious for having sex scenes including the controversial for about 3 minutes inclusion of same sex couplings. And a tremendous percentage of games feature hyper sexualized character models.
Sex sells. Sex sells to me. Ilike sex too. And there are an awful lot of games that feature sex scenes that a significant percentage of Americans would classify as porn.
You Must Be Eighteen isn’t an amazing game but it is is an interesting game. It’s a game that wants you to ask yourself some questions about why looking at porn, something every single person who plays the game has done, makes you uncomfortable while brutally murdering other humans, something hopefully very few of us have done, doesn’t.
That’s fertile ground for art. War and violence is also fertile ground for art, but only if the violence makes us ask difficult questions.
Destiny, a game I absolutely loved, is a game with great mechanics, amazing music, fantastic graphics and convincing animations. But it’s story is a pointless pile of cliches and about as far from art as it is possible to get. It isn’t even a competent piece of action schlok. But the lore of Destiny is full of art. The Taken King expansion contained a lore entry called the Book Of Sorrows which was the holy text/origin story of the Hive, an enemy type players had been killing, for very little reason, for a long time.
The lore contained in those entries “humanized” the Hive in a way no other enemies had been. We learn of the Hive’s origin, their powerlessness and how they eventually turned into a hostile race by making a Faustian bargain with an evil power as a way to protect their own species from destruction at the hands of other more powerful races. It was compelling, moving and excellent.
So why wasn’t this information anywhere in the game? Bungie clearly has talented writers working for them and gave them the freedom to craft a history for one of the games main enemy races. Why wouldn’t they use that in a game that featured two entire expansions and raids featuring that same race?
The answer is because Destiny is a game that needs to be sold to everyone. A game that has to be sold to everyone, including kids, can’t have villains that are anything other than unspeakably evil things that need to be killed. If the enemies in a game aren’t unspeakably evil you might not feel really good killing them. This is how a need to sell units interferes with the creation of an interesting story. Because interesting stories are very rarely black and white.
My recent Wolfenstein 2 analysis ended with a section talking about how uncomfortable the level of graphic violence in that game made me. And not because it was a work of art meant to make me question my actions. It bothered me because dismembering Nazi’s and exploding them into a fine mist was supposed to feel good. As if racism can be turned into giblets with a shotgun. Doom has the same level of gore but didn’t bother me at all because those are literally demons from hell. Wolfenstein has you vaporizing soldiers. And the history of WWII shows that almost all Nazi soldiers were conscripted. If you’re interested in a long examination of that check out the video.
GTA V’s has indiscriminate violence against civilians. Assassins Creed games have you just murdering hundreds of nameless guards and dudes. Call Of Duty games usually don’t even pause to consider the possibility that the enemies you’re killing deserve anything other than destruction. Games are dripping with violence and nobody has a problem with it. And Valve sure as hell doesn’t have a problem selling it. What does it say about us as players that companies don’t bat an eye selling us games with realistic graphics where we kill hundreds of people so that our characters hands become literally covered with blood but draw the line at a game that has hazy depictions of pornography something that almost everyone, literally almost everyone, has seen.
Now I obviously don’t have a problem with violent games. Just like I don’t have a problem with porn. What I do have a problem with is corporate cowardice and a lack of accountability. Valve has become THE gate keeper for gaming. If a game doesn’t get on Steam it’s not going to sell or succeed. This leaves us in a place where Valve has tremendous power over what we do or don’t see. If Valve sold everything, I’d be fine.
If they had incredibly strict standards where overly sexualized or extremely violent content wasn’t allowed on the store I’d be fine.
But when the company that is most in control over what games will and will not be played lets all sorts of questionable sexualized content and ridiculously violent content to be sold in it’s store I get a little uncomfortable when they suddenly decide that one particular game is something I shouldn’t even be allowed to decide to play or not.
I’ve got two daughters and a son. If I had to choose to let my daughter play one of Milky Boobs, Rocket Girl, or You Must Be Eighteen Or Older I think that’s a pretty easy choice. Boys and girls are bombarded with outlandish sexual imagery all the time but almost no honesty or context to be able to process that imagery.
Milky Boobs will have an effect on my daughter. Rocket Girl will have an effect on my daughter. I just don’t know what that effect is and I’m not sure I could even have a productive conversation with her about either of those games. I could have a conversation with my kids about You Must Be Eighteen Or Older To Enter.
It troubles me that only one of these games is no longer availiable on Steam and it’s the one that pretty clearly is an effort to actually communicate something about the mystery of sex and desire and shame while the ones that are there to titlate and obscure continue to be availiable.
If you’re going to pull a game it seems to me you owe the developers, and especially your customers a well thought out, reasoned, logical explanation for that action. And if you’re explanation boils down to because porn is bad mkay. Then you need to explain how all the other things I’ve shown isn’t bad.
We live in a culture with an incredible tolerance for violence and 17th century attitudes towards sex. This game was developed specifically to explore that dichotomy. David Cox said this about the game “...a non-traditional horror game without violence, death, monsters, nor using mental illness as a scapegoat. You Must be 18 or Older to Enter is a horror about being a kid in the 1990s and looking at porn for the first time.
“Occasionally press would reach out to us to talk about the game, and I would often use the opportunity to promote sex positivity, discuss my desire to subvert the harmful genre tropes of horror... I like to call it a tangible horror game; a frightening experience many people agree is ‘too close to home’.”
Again, the game isn’t some masterpiece. Play it yourself. It’s an interesting exercise, quite clearly legally NOT porn and something that certainly deserves to exist on a platform that has no problem selling games like the ones we’ve shown here.
Valve owns it’s platform and makes a gazillion dollars not making games so they have every right to sell what they want. Still, it would be nice if the
ultimate PC gaming gatekeeper could look it’s customers in the eyes and explain itself. It would be even better if Valve could look itself in the eye and realize that by pulling this game they took a stand. They said that extreme gory violence is appropriate for sale but this game isn’t. They said that juvenile garbage that doesn’t even have any gameplay merit has value but this game doesn’t. They said a few squiggly lines that look like porn is so terrible it can’t even be given away to customers who want it but Milky Boobs has enough merit to profit off of it’s continued sale.
Most of all this demonstrates just how much influence the companies that sell us our diversions have over us. Valve decides what you get to play. And I’m not sure they deserve that kind of power based on their works.
All right thanks.
Pliny The Welder is a part time chimney sweep and full time president of the Electric Blue Preservation Society. He has previously commented upon his extreme age. As such the above reference to him growing up in the 80's perhaps confused readers. Rest assured the above statement is correct. He grew up in the eighth decade of the first century AD. His interest in the HBO soft core porn show Electric Blue was an adult endeavor. Plus we never really stop growing up. Unitl we die. Then we stop growing up.
He’d be quite grateful if you read his other articles, watched his Youtube videos or followed him on Twitter.