Steam’s New Tag System Allows Abuse, Raises Concerns
Custom tags created by users on games appearing in Valve’s Steam digital download portal already run the gamut from being descriptive and helpful to abusive, or just plain weird.
The new Steam Tags Beta, which went live Wednesday, allows users to “tag” games with various phrases that are then searchable, with the most popular tags appearing for all users. The idea is to make games more easily discoverable, according to Valve’s FAQ on the feature. Users can search for games by player-created tags to find titles they might enjoy, and Steam leverages the tags to recommend games to users based on the games they already play.
For the most part, the tags already added to the system in its first 24 or so hours of life are largely helpful. User-created tags expand beyond Valve’s default categories to inform about games that leverage humor or a certain design aesthetic, include elements like procedural generation or permadeath, and more. Most tags are applied factually, noting elements of games, their Metacritic scores, and the like, allowing for quick browsing or the ability to see lots of a certain kind of game at once.
But as one might expect when anonymous users are given an ability such as the tagging system, not all the tags are helpful or factual, and many don’t add anything to discoverability on Steam or to information users might want about a game. Tags on the game page for Gone Home, the story heavy experimental exploration game that was a critical hit last year, center on things that have been contentious about it — namely, the debate that it’s “Not a Game,” that it’s a “Walking Simulator,” and that it’s “Feminist.” (Steve Gaynor of Gone Home developer The Fullbright Company declined a request for comment for this story.)
Other game pages and their tags go further. The page for Fez has included tags such as “choke on it” and “choking hazard,” in reference to statements by creator Phil Fish (those tags no longer appear on the page as of this writing). Others in the “most popular” tags list for Fez include “Diva Dev,” “Garbage,” “Overrated” and “Bad.”
Fez and Gone Home may be two particularly visible and easily cited examples of tags that carry negative criticism in place of Valve’s intended purpose for the system, but they’re far from the only games getting similar treatment. Other games that are experimental or could be considered contentious, such as Dear Esther, have received tags such as “0/10″ and “Pretentious.” Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery bears the tag “Hipster Garbage” — search that term and it’s the first game to pop up, in fact (Fez is fourth of four).
The situation is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, some developers have been known to stifle criticism about their games in Steam forums and elsewhere by using the control Steam gives to game creators over what content is featured on their game pages. That’s impossible for tags, for better or worse. In answering the question, “What if I don’t agree with a tag that has become popular for my game?” in its Steam FAQ, Valve responds with the following:
“Tags can be a good indicator of when there is a mismatch between how you perceive your game, and how your game is perceived by customers. Often this is simply because there is some piece of information regarding the game that customers feel is missing from the store page.”
That’s not much help to developers who feel they’re being abused through tags or their games slandered, however; players can add tags to games with abandon, and if those tags become popular, developers are stuck with them. That’s both good in cases in which tags can be used to warn players off from bad, broken games, and bad when abused by Internet mobs. Several independent developers voiced concerns on Twitter and elsewhere that experimental games, games made by minority developers, games dealing with contentious subjects, or games made by people who have spoken up about certain topics, could see angry users descend upon them to foist unfair, hurtful or abusive tags upon them. The Tumblr blog Actual Steam Tags is already compiling lists of more egregious tags on games.
And at the moment, users can tag games that are not yet available, and games they don’t own, making potential abuse even easier to perpetrate.
Valve says in the FAQ that the tagging system is still in beta and will be “tuned” over time.
“We need to get some data into the system before it will be fully optimal,” the FAQ reads. “That means the initial categorization of items might be a bit off until we see what kind of tags are becoming prevalent and tune the system for the best results.”
But it’s also obvious that not only is the tagging beta still in extremely early phases, but even elements that Valve points to are not yet fully working. For example, the FAQ states that swear words will be filtered out of tags, but users have either found ways around those filters or the filters aren’t in place at all, as several tags include the words “f–k” and “s–t.”
It’s still so early in the life of the Steam Tags system that its tough to say what effect, if any at all, tags may have on games and game sales. Abuse of the system is already taking place both with simple trolling — the page for Final Fantasy VII carries a major story spoiler in its tags, for example — and with harsher language. The tag system clearly has its upsides as well, however. In any event, it seems Valve will likely need to start making changes to the system sooner rather than later.
Valve had not responded for requests for comments and clarity about the Steam Tags Beta at the time of publication.