Actually, maybe it is about ethics. Maybe some people need to understand how nuance is important on that matter. Cut back to a few days ago, when developer Unknown Worlds Entertainment, the makers of games like Subnautica and the highly popular Natural Selection 2, received a threatening mail. In it, a person from the Original Curators Group on Steam blackmails the company with the following statement:
(sic) Ok “hugh” I will change now my personal review to negative. And write to all our mods and admins to do the same. We will also delete every positive review for your company, and every single curation of your games.
I will mention the bad pr work in our new reviews. Have a nice one.
This message that was sent on June 2 is the end result of a fairly normal request the developers received on April 8, sent by one Adrian Köhler. The Original Curators Group, an influential band of over 16,000 Steam users, contests the fact that this message is essentially strong-arming a company for goods to stay in their favor, much like mobsters ask for “protection money,” lest something happen. Accidents, like streams of negative backlash, happen all the time. It’d be a shame if it suddenly befell Subnautica as well, see? As perspective, Steam user SalzStange posts a statement with the additional mails sent by the group, though the “whole story” may not work as beneficial as one may think. A follow-up starts nice enough, but then gradually gets into more hostile territory:
(sic) What is wrong with you guys!?
You do not answer.. your pr guy do not answer!? This is more as unprofessionell!
This follow-up comes right before the aforementioned threats effectively trying to ruin a company for not playing nice with the Original Curators Group. In fact, the above clip even managed to take out the ominous statement: “You made me angry,” like some cartoon villain. For reference, I personally see rejection mails nearly every week, when contacting companies over coverage, assets and so on. It’s frustrating. I doubt I’ve ever told them I would ruin them.
A response from the developers prompts the following response from the Original Curators Group:
We already changed some reviews and curations. We will not work with you anymore.
Remember that statement, because the following messages come after the organization’s blackmail attempts come to light. In a first mail to the developers, Adrian Köhler mentions:
(sic) I did not changed a single review or curation and I did not wrote to one of my curators, admins or mods. I did exactly NOTHING against you. Just a angry email;)
There’s a lie in there somewhere in that smiley-capped backpedaling. Either they did or they didn’t change anything, but they’ve claimed both, so one is untrue. Köhler hammers on the facts, that no one is looking at the facts and perhaps let’s not overreact, by which they mean post one tweet, without any proof. As we continue this fragmented article, there’s reason why I write in a rare personal tone; opinions. There’s one indication I’ve learned of people who absolutely aren’t sticking to facts do, which is dropping the term “facts” as much as possible, because their word is void of meaning. Simply claiming the term is sufficient, in that person’s belief. A second mail to the company provides much more of the same “prove it” attitude, claiming that since the group’s curation is still positive, there is no actual consequence to the initial blackmailing. Their Subnautica curation, still featured on the game’s front page, states:
“The dev team do not responsed to our questions, but the game is still good. Verdict 7”
That’s the idea of a recommendation, in whatever grey area that exists. Hell, the last message even lumps in “this is just free speech,” just to absolutely cement they have no idea what they’re on about.
To be technical about it, this whole incident is indeed free speech, in the same way that being able to make threats is a freedom. In an equal manner, the above communication is blackmailing and punishable by law, not just by Steam’s grace. The mere fact that the developers aren’t taking this to a local authority is already a blessing for Original Curators Group, let alone what reputation might be affected. Here’s the difference:
Threats are real the moment they are made. This is manifestation.
Now, I’m not a lawyer and don’t pretend to know the finer points of the law, but maybe looking up the definition will be enough to make that clear. Threats do not need subsequent actions to become threats. Not following through, in fact, makes a threat just that specific term and doesn’t transform it into an even worse crime, such as blackmailing, which would be when stating the alteration of reviews and curations. Whether or not those are also falsified doesn’t make them less of a crime. An attempt to ruin someone for failing to pay off certain goods doesn’t need to have come to fruition for it to be illegal; it just makes it worse. Original Curators Group’s participation in freedom of speech is their ability to incriminate themselves of serious crimes. Unknown Worlds Entertainment’s freedom is taking this as far as they would want to take it. And, again, any normal person would take this further and no one would blame them. Likely, this is more of a time and effort thing for the company, as making games takes a lot of both.
Since then, more evidence against the Original Curators Group has emerged, courtesy of the Euro Truck Simulator creators, such as a Steam chat conversation where user SalzStange prevents negative reviews from being posted, stating:
“if they give us gamekeys to test a game, and write a positive review if we like it
of course they do not want a neg review
Yo ucan delete this shit”
This is one of the most classic examples of what the current trend in “ethics” in gaming constitutes; getting paid off for good coverage.
Let this be a reminder that Steam’s curator system is very much a business opportunity. Trust me; I’ve fought some battles with both publications and publishers alike on the matter; likely anyone in my position has. It’s not fun. For instance, I told one of the sites I work for that I won’t just recommend every single thing we review to boost our numbers, instead only promoting the items I think are best suited for exposure. If not, the publication was (and still is) completely free to scratch off my work and start as they see fit, when I’m not in charge of curation. You’ll also see me link to a full review on my Steam reviews whenever possible, leaving a shortened version on the page itself for those who don’t want a ton of words. Youtube clips are a standard on reviews. Some like that, some don’t and we just need to accept that. Steam curation is indeed a grey area, ready to be monetized for those who choose to use Steam’s promotional value for profit. Crimes aren’t that morally ambiguous, let’s be clear on that one.
While the Original Curators Group still exists, it’s likely a good idea to report a violation on their Steam page, which can be found on the bottom right.