It's Complicated: Steam's Relationship With Sex

By Julian Benson on at

Valve has a problem with four-pixel penises. Specifically the dongs descending from the dads in Showering With Your Dad Simulator. It’s a game where you play a child trying to find his father in a public shower. You need to run the dad who most resembles you to win; stand with the wrong dad and you lose the game.

As you’d expect with a game about public showering, it sailed through Steam Greenlight. That’s when Valve got in touch with its developer.

Those four-pixel penises were against Valve’s guidelines. It doesn’t want any nudity in images in the Steam Store.

“I didn't anticipate the level of nudity in the game being an issue at all originally,” Ben M, the game’s developer, told me over email. This is the first contact he had had with Valve in the four months his game had been on Steam Greenlight.

Ben M’s solution has been to pixelate the pixel penises, a change he’s a fan of: “I kinda dig it [...] it adds mystery. There could be anything behind that mosaic filter.”

Within the game proper the penises remain completely unaltered.

Oddly, Valve has also turned a blind eye to the uncensored wangs in Rust. “Valve never really had a problem with the nudity in Rust,” Garry Newman, founder of Facepunch Studios tells me. “It's not something we discussed with them or they talked about. I guess because the nudity in rust is inconsequential. It's not sexual. People just wake up with no clothes on. The one thing that happened was that we had an age-gate on our game's pages. Which is fair enough I guess.”

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Newman always thought it was weird that “It's OK to show peoples’ heads being blown off with a shotgun, but people feel weird when they see nudity.” It’s one of the reasons the team included penises: ”to face this issue head on.”

Since the game’s release that disparity between attitudes to sex and violence came out in some of the comments the team received from players. “We got a lot of comments that people wanted to play with their kids so wanted to hide the nudity, so we added a censorship option,” Newman recalls. “It's kind of weird that people don't mind their kids seeing extreme graphic violence, but draw the line at 24 triangles representing a cock and balls.”

But Newman also made the point that sex and nudity are two different things, explaining that “sex games not appearing on Steam is akin to porn movies not appearing on iTunes. It's censorship, sure, but maybe it's not the right market.”

Within a week of Steam Greenlight launching Valve had to draw a line on sex games. No Reply Studio’s submitted their erotic dating game, Seduce Me, to Steam Greenlight. The game featured nudity and sex scenes. It wasn’t there for long before Valve halted the game’s campaign.

Speaking to us at the time, Valve’s chief spokesperson Doug Lombardi said "Steam has never been a leading destination for erotic material. Greenlight doesn't aim to change that."

Steam Greenlight’s guidelines say:

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And, following Seduce Me, the Greenlight Terms of Service made explicit that games featuring “Porn, inappropriate or offensive content” could result in a ban from the Steam community store.

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Yet, despite those terms of service, and Lombardi’s statement, in the three years since it launched Greenlight has opened Steam’s doors to games featuring sex. Dating sims similar to Seduce Me have started to appear on the Steam Store: Nekopara Vol. 1, Huniepop, Cho Dengeki Stryker, all feature sexual content and erotic images, albeit in censored form.

For instance, last night I bought Discouraged Workers from Steam Early Access, a game that passed through Steam Greenlight. It features no nudity on the Store Page, though it is clear that it has sexual content in the game. And about two hours in you’ll find extremely graphic images. The genitals themselves have been blurred but that does little to detract from the graphic nature of the images.

Even in censored form, this seems to be the sort of image that three years ago would have caused Valve to ban a game’s Greenlight campaign.

And, once a developer gets its game onto Steam it seems it’s free to return it to its uncesored state. So, while Valve won’t supply uncensored erotic games, Huniepop’s developer is free to post a thread to its Steam Forums detailing how players can install a patch that returns the game to its uncensored form.

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Most the erotic games available on Steam have a similar thread in their forums.

So while the front gate to Steam Greenlight is still barred, Valve seems to be OK with letting games with erotic and sexual content onto the store in censored forms and then letting the developer provide tools for players to access the uncensored version.

Valve is allowing a broader spectrum of games onto its store and this may result in attitudes to sex in games changing. Players may become more open to it because there are more games featuring it.

However, this backdoor acceptance is causing problems for developers who want to make games which don’t treat sex as an inconsequential extra. In the examples above, the sex scenes can be initially censored and the mechanics of the game are largely unaffected. For Robert Yang this isn’t possible.

Over the past year Yang has created a series of games that explore sex not as a side-show but as the central focus of the game. Hurt Me Plenty, Succulent, and Cobra Club are all highly sexual games and sharing them through Steam is a challenge.

Cobra Club got unilaterally banned from Twitch, so I have little hope of getting it on Steam,” Yang told me, talking about his game exploring dick pics.

Echoing Newman’s statements, Yang said: “It's silly though, because Rust has nudity and penises, but it has violence and open-world shit so that makes it OK? People make a lot of Rust's randomly assigned skin colour and penises, but at its core, it's still mostly a Day-Z-type of open-world survival thing about resource accumulation and violence. But if someone makes a game where sex is actually important to the concept -- BAN THIS SICK FILTH, right? That's games culture's attitude about sex, it's not allowed to be the ‘main mechanic’, it always has to be a diversion or a sideshow, which is a really quaint prudish limit on what's supposed to be the ‘greatest artform’ of the 21st century.”

Yang has managed to get one of his games through Steam Greenlight, however. Stick Shift is the third game in Yang’s series exploring sex. In it you play a character driving a gay car (seriously). You job is to give it a wank. Yang simulates sex between you and the car with how you handle the gear stick. You can stroke up and down the shaft by dragging your mouse forwards and backwards. And, when the car’s ready, you click and drag the gear stick up a gear, increasing the pleasure your character and the car are enjoying. It’s simple but effective, making you actually engage in a simulated sex act instead of simply watching it.

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Stick Shift is the only game from Yang’s sex series that he felt confident submitting to Steam. “Stick Shift was a very deliberate choice for Steam,” he explained. “It's all innuendo with no actual human nudity. There's no rationale for banning it or censoring it; you'd have to ban Trackmania as well.”

This is the only surefire way to have a game implicitly about sex pass through Steam’s approval process. After Valve banned Seduce Me back in 2012, developers submitting sex games run the risk of being banned from Steam Greenlight altogether.

It’s that risk which has, so far, prevented Obscurasoft from submitting the finished version of Coming Out on Top to Steam Greenlight. The game is wonderfully funny gay dating-sim about a character coming to terms with and exploring his sexuality.

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“I submitted a very early, PG version on Greenlight three years ago, to test how Steam players would respond,” Obscurasoft told me. “I got comments about fixing the art, so I went back to the drawing board and redid the entire game. In the middle of developing the full, adult version with newer art, there was news that an erotic game called Seduce Me was pulled from Greenlight on the basis of its sexual content. I guess it was deemed ‘offensive.’

“At that point I didn't bother with Greenlight anymore. [...] What was the point, anyway, if it was just going to be pulled?

“What's surreal is that Coming Out On Top is this lighthearted sex comedy in the vein of American Pie or Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The sex is graphic, but it's depicted with what I feel is a lot of sweetness.  And yet this is somehow more offensive to Steam's policies and to certain people in the US.than something where you're blowing someone's head off. Instead of just, you know, blowing them.”

Instead of the backdoor route to the Steam Store, Obscurasoft would like to see more open changes to how Valve operates Steam. “While Valve should police content as they see fit,” she tells me, “I love the idea of an age-gate to allow the sale of uncensored adult games, tagged and labelled accurately for their players. According to some research, the average age of a gamer is 31. It's amazing this industry is still treating the bulk of gamers like they're pre-teens.

“As far as easing up on erotic content in general, my feeling is that since there’s a huge profit incentive there, accompanied by the facts that they’re not a publicly traded company, their customer base is largely going to be OK with it, and they’re big enough to not have their bank get cold toes for selling erotic content, then yes, they could do a lot of good and bring corporate attitudes more in line with popular sentiment. They’re in a unique position to lead the way in this regard. What’s most likely, though, is that their policies will trail public opinion and the acceptance of nudity and eroticism in gaming will be a long, slow process.”

However, Yang explains why Valve might be hesitant to endorse erotic games. “It's actually really hard to sell anything with realistic sexual material in it, anywhere. PayPal reserves the right to seize your account if they suddenly decide it's the wrong kind of sex, and Stripe won't even process any transactions.”

According to Paypal’s Acceptable Use Policy you can have your account frozen if you use it for “certain sexually oriented materials or services”. Which is vague enough to be frightening to a massive digital storefront.

It could well be then that Valve’s hands are tied on the issue, which would explain why these backdoor routes to getting erotic games onto Steam are appearing. If Valve openly endorses and sells erotic games it may fall foul of Paypal, one of its main ways of paying in the Steam Store.

Hopefully, as more games become available attitudes will change, because when sex games are pushed off onto the sidelines it imbues it enforces a strange taboo on sex. This is especially strange, as the developers I spoke to point out, when you take into account gaming’s infatuation with violence.

Until then, you’ll need to get your sex games direct from developers – or in censored form.