"With Rockstar Games releasing The Ballad of Gay Tony, will Valve ever include a gay character in any of their games?"
That was the gist of a thread created on the official Steam forums several weeks ago. It's a pretty innocuous question; developers these days are increasingly including same-sex content in their titles, from the eponymous Gay Tony to the two bisexual characters in Dragon Age: Origins. It's an inclusion that just a short decade ago would have been absurd, but with the increasing visibility of LGBT people in popular culture, it's inevitable that gay individuals would look to see representation in other media outside of television or film too. Innocuous question or not, however, the thread itself was quickly locked and hidden from public view by one of Valve's volunteer moderators, a fate that almost every other discussion of LGBT topics on the official Steam forums ends with, as well.
Sadly, this policy appears to have been in place for a few years. Poster "Muffy" voiced his frustration on this subject in the forums early in November, and several other users chimed in to say that this sort of thing has been going on for a while. Adding insult to injury, the word "gay" itself is automatically filtered into a series of hearts, the same way that the forum software treats other swear words. Valve is certainly allowed to moderate their forums however they choose, but this policy brings to mind a similar issue that affected the Bioware forums earlier this year.
In a discussion on the forum for upcoming MMOG Star Wars: The Old Republic several posters began to complain about a similar form of automatic filtering over the word "gay," with the issue really coming to a head in a thread discussing the possibility of LGBT relationships in the MMOG. Bioware's Community Manager Sean Dahlberg's statement on the matter was an unfortunate, "As I have stated before, these are terms that do not exist in Star Wars," and threads discussing the matter were routinely locked and deleted. In the end GLAAD approached Bioware over this and they decided to remove the word from the automatic filter and reinstate such discussions with an apology.
In Bioware's case, the issue came up as an attempt to actually prevent discrimination; none of us are strangers to the fact that "gay" is thrown around as an all purpose adjective for something someone dislikes. Teenagers call homework "gay," missing class "gay," getting a detention "gay." Gamers call getting ganked "gay," asking questions "gay," and losing "gay." We can wax poetically over whether or not this is something justified in getting offended over, but in Bioware's defense, their forum policy was intended to curb such negative use of the word in order to not marginalize gay players. Unfortunately it ended up having the opposite effect, with gay players feeling insulted that their identity was put on the same level as "fuck" or racial slurs. It also made it difficult to actually discuss the issue itself when so many posts had words starred out.
I can't say whether or not this is the same rationale for Valve's forum policy. I contacted them in November when I first heard of this issue, and though I was told my message had been relayed to Doug Lombardi– Valve's Vice President of Marketing– for comment, so far I haven't received a reply. Similarly, I contacted a few of the volunteer moderators to ask the same question and none of them chose to respond either. It's difficult to have an engaging discussion about this topic when one half of the party chooses not to reply to concerns, and it's even more unfortunate that similar threads on their forums about this have been closed or deleted, with some posters even banned for bringing the subject up in the first place. And ironically, the automatic filter extended to private messages as well; I had to space out g a y to prevent half of my message from being turned into hearts.
It's not difficult to see why Valve may have chosen to filter this word; a cursory look at their forums provides a wealth of threads that are graceless in composition. One locked thread detailing an alleged Xbox Live gamer banned for disclosing that she was a lesbian in her profile got a 48-post thread on the Steam forums before it was locked by moderator "Ultima V|RUZ" with a comment of, "I really hope someone reported this thread." The sentiment of other posters is that the moderators there are homophobic, and whether or not this is the case I can't quantify, but such is the difficulty when there is no place to freely question the actions of someone who has the authority to remove you from their service entirely. I would venture that homophobia is not the root cause here, but an attempt at maintaining civility that unfortunately is getting lost in translation.
If the objective is to reel in homophobic players using "gay" as a pejorative, there are better ways to do this than approaching a nail with a jackhammer. Filtering the word only pushes gay players into a corner where they feel ostracized, as Bioware learned with their own incident. Unfortunately the better routes require more pro-active moderation; editing the posts of users who harass others, working with the userbase to explain that homophobic behavior isn't allowed, and escalating the issue as necessary. Filtering "gay" and locking "gay" threads only serves to reinforce the perception that the homophobes are correct, and only serves to alienate a portion of your customers. Poster "Stick" said that this issue is partly responsible for why he hasn't used their forums in a few years and in my own perusal for backstory for this article I don't have a hard time understanding why. I can only hope that in the future Valve chooses to rescind the automatic filter and take on a more assertive role in policing their forums from homophobic speech. At the very least, some clarification on their existing policy would be nice, as an explanation on their stance would be much more helpful than responding to questions with silence.