Valve is adding a customizable profanity and slur filter to Steam’s chat system. The feature is now available through the Steam Lab beta program, with plans to make it a universal option soon. It filters a default list of commonly used “strong profanity” and slurs for “racial, religious, ethnic, and other identifying groups,” but users can choose to add or remove specific words or upload full block lists of terms.
Steam already censors offensive language across its public platform, including in forum posts and reviews. It’s also implemented an optional profanity filter for specific games, including Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Destiny 2. The new feature works across Steam’s chat service as well as supported games, and its block lists offer more options than simply enabling or disabling the filter.
The feature notably isn’t actually blocking the profanity or slurs, it’s just letting individual users personally avoid seeing them, while they’ll appear normally to people without the filter. “We do not want to censor users in chat, but rather, empower them to choose what they see from others,” writes Valve in a blog post. That’s consistent with Valve’s overall approach to moderating Steam — it accepts a wide range of games on its storefront, for instance, but urges users to filter their recommendations while shopping.
Valve may also add the feature to “more forms of user-generated content” in the future. It’s also leaning on users to help organically improve its system by uploading their own filter lists. That might help catch the endlessly evolving terms that trolls use to get around those filters. The current list was apparently built from “a large sample of in-game chat,” and Steam says it can remove around 75 percent of offensive language by filtering “variants of the top 5 most commonly used strongly profane or hateful words.” The number of variations is extremely high, though: “over 56 percent” of the profanity and slurs in its sample were variants of “f***” (presumably “fuck”), and another 10 percent were variants of “s***” (presumably “shit”).
Valve argues that outright banning words like slurs would cause collateral damage, noting that marginalized groups have reclaimed words that are considered offensive in most contexts. On the other hand, it means that if someone is verbally abusing you in a multiperson chat, other people may still see what they’re saying.
Steam’s strategy of letting users pick what they see hasn’t always worked. Developers expressed frustration with a lack of moderation on discussion boards, for instance, eventually prompting Valve to take a more hands-on approach. Valve says its language filters are in beta so the team can receive feedback on how well they work. “The purpose of this experiment is to understand whether the tools we provide successfully empower users to control the chat content you experience on Steam,” reads the announcement.