Reece Rogers on the critical dynamics of the video game marketplace Steam and our changing sources for game reviews.
Steam, a popular video game distribution service from Valve, has cultivated a community of active reviewers whose influence continues to grow. The community can choose to be kingmakers, turning indie darlings like Valheim and Loop Hero into multi-million dollar successes. But don’t get on their bad side, or your project might get brigaded with negative reviews and sloughed off into the ether. The Steam platform is democratizing video game criticism, but at what cost?
As a child, I remember reading the reviews in greasy copies of Game Informer at the doctor’s office. Our family only had a Wii console, and the magazine’s reviews stoked my jealousy of friends at school who had access to devices like the Xbox Box 360 and PlayStation 3. The publication was initially conceived as an internal newsletter for a retailer in Minnesota, and grew in popularity when acquired by GameStop. Subscriptions were offered as part of the customer loyalty program. At peak circulation, the magazine sold more copies than Playboy.
These days, our sources of video game criticism have changed. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, many Americans experienced prolonged periods of isolation. They became more attached to digital communities and accustomed to online marketplaces. Discord, a multimedia chat app, fundamentally changed how members of the gaming community interacted with each other, not only while playing but also during their daily lives. Video game reviews written by critics for a physical magazine sold in conjunction with a physical retailer became even less relevant.
Digitization is rampant, both in games and criticism. Players have fetishized physical gaming objects for decades and many express understandable concerns about the longevity of digital purchases. In the future, a collector’s market will persist for copies of physical games that evoke nostalgia or an aura of scarcity, but the overall sales will likely favor digital releases. As a marketplace, Steam is in a position to capitalize on consumers growing more comfortable with ephemeral purchases and digital content.
When you post about a game on Steam, the number of hours that you have played at the time of the review is featured right below whether or not you recommend the game. Members of the community can mark your review as helpful or unhelpful; the more helpful reviews are prominently displayed on the game’s purchase page, influencing possible purchases. On its website, Steam encourages you to “discover helpful authors” and follow a user who “is great at writing reviews or shares your taste in gaming.” Instead of texting a friend for suggestions or reading a journalist’s review, Steam wants to inform you at the point of purchase which game is best with the assistance of user-generated reviews, like a vertically integrated Yelp for video games.
A platform for gamers to express their opinions en masse is ripe for unintended consequences — in fact, it can be weaponized. In the aftermath of the gaming YouTuber PewDiePie using the N-word on a livestream in 2017, the studio behind Firewatch, a game he played in a previously recorded steam, issued a DMCA takedown of the video. After this confrontation, fans of PewDiePie retaliated against Firewatch by targeting their Steam review score, lowering the community consensus from very positive to mixed. More recently, Nier: Automata was inundated with negative consumer reviews due to quality discrepancies between the Xbox and PC versions of the game.
Reviews were added to Steam in 2013, the same year that Letterboxd, a social network for movie reviews and watchlists, was opened to the general public. I find myself using Steam to track which games I’ve played this year and record my contemporaneous reactions in the same way that my friends who love movies keep public tabs on their entertainment consumption through Letterboxd. Media criticism is no longer siloed off to professional tastemakers, and consumers are eager to catalog their individual interpretations of culture.
Steam gives users more autonomy to participate in the discourse surrounding video games, yet the platform retains a hand in the curation process by offering discovery queues, through moderation, and placing certain reviews from the community on the store’s homepage.
Critics at video game publications often feel compelled to answer whether or not you should buy what they are covering, unlike movie critics who contextualize media and don’t always give direct recommendations. Players who just desire guidance for their purchases now have easy access to this information on Steam, from other players. The shifting power dynamic is not an abjection of professional criticism as much as it is an opportunity for culture writers to examine video games through a broader lens and with more nuance — in other words, not just telling us if we should spend money on a game. — By Reece Rogers