Last week, the indie game Firewatch suffered a Steam “review bombing.” Developer Campo Santo ordered Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg to remove a Firewatch video after he shouted a racial slur elsewhere. In response, angry fans pushed the critically acclaimed game’s score from an overall “very positive” to a more recent “mixed” reception, against PewDiePie’s wishes. Firewatch’s reviews are still generally excellent, so this controversy hasn’t necessarily hurt Campo Santo. But review bombing and similar attacks are a long-standing issue for developers, making Steam a less useful platform to buy and sell games. Given that Steam holds massive sway over the PC gaming market, that’s a real problem.
Yesterday, Valve seemed like it was finally addressing that problem, posting a long explanation of a new review feature. As it turns out, the company’s fix for review bombing is to foist responsibility on customers. Nathan Grayson at Kotaku has fully laid out the practical tweaks Valve is suggesting, but essentially, there’s a new chart that tracks a game’s ratio of positive to negative Steam reviews over time. As Valve puts it, “as a potential purchaser, it's easy to spot temporary distortions in the reviews, to investigate why that distortion occurred, and decide for yourself whether it's something you care about.”
I’m not sure what’s supposed to be “easy” about this system. If a casual customer clicks on the reviews for Firewatch and sees the recent distortion, they have to dig through posts to see whether it’s a game-breaking bug or an unrelated review-bombing. When I checked last night, the most recent comment said Campo Santo “took a stand” against PewDiePie over racism, and the highest-rated said the developer was “childish and thin-skinned” with no further explanation. Valve is asking for a lot of off-platform detective work here, especially for the many people who barely know who PewDiePie is. If customers have to stop and look up answers, they may as well ignore Steam and head straight to Google for reviews.
Moreover, the whole system is temporarily poisoned. Review bombers can make sure buyers only see negative feedback in the “most helpful reviews” section, and short but genuine-seeming reviews could just be subtler attempts at manipulation.
Steam is a storefront, and by its own admission, brute-force review bombs don’t “accurately represent” the likelihood that an average buyer would be happy with a game. Some people have defended review-bombing as the equivalent of a boycott, citing cases like a mass-downvote of Skyrim over adding paid mods. But posts about paid mods are on-topic complaints about something that affects a buyer’s gaming experience, while accusations that a certain game killed Half-Life 3 are not. And even a few righteous, ideological protests wouldn’t justify leaving a broken system in place.
Valve puts forward a reasonable solution: temporarily freezing reviews. If there’s a real problem, the company’s post reasons, the score would still dip when the freeze lifted. If not, would-be bombers’ immediate fury would pass without incident. Then, Valve demolishes this logic with a terrible justification.
But if we lock reviews on a product for a short period of time, what does that mean exactly? Are players no longer able to post reviews at all during that time? Or should they be able to post them, but we ignore them for the purpose of calculating the review score? In the end, we didn't like the way this ultimately meant restricting the ability for players to voice their opinions. We don't want to stop the community having a discussion about the issue they're unhappy about, even though there are probably better places to have that conversation than in Steam user reviews.
Well, yes. If a segment of game reviews are not effectively functioning as game reviews, there’s not much point in accepting them. But it’s telling that between “disable all reviews” and “ignore all review scores,” Valve never mentions moderation.
Statistics site Steamspy estimates there are around 17,500 games on Steam right now, and review bombing likely affects only a tiny fraction; with automated detection, that’s eminently manageable compared to even a small social network. Valve could check to see if a distortion was related to the content of the game, or a classic review bombing — the result of, say, a dumb Twitter feud. A moderator could proactively sift out content-free or unrelated posts until the distortion evened out, the way they already evaluate flagged spam or abuse. If Valve thinks that’s too hard, it shouldn’t ask customers to do the same thing.
Patrick Klepek at Waypoint attributes Valve’s do-nothing approach to “platform capitalism” in which companies like Valve simply create places for commerce or conversation and wash their hands of the results. Kotaku’s Grayson points to a fetishistic faith that if people are badly manipulating data, the answer is to add more data.
I think these are both right, but there’s another dimension as well: companies co-opting free speech rhetoric to justify bad products. Valve outright admits that review sections aren’t a good place to hold certain conversations, and that better options exist. (Games already have their own Steam discussion boards, for one thing.) But it invokes one of the internet’s most beloved principles by insisting that players should be generically allowed to “voice their opinions” and “have a discussion,” even when it’s irrelevant to a specific, structured forum. In some idealized capitalist model, Valve would see review-bombing as a bug that made customers less satisfied and fix it out of pure self-interest. But why bother, when it can just say that dissatisfaction is better?