Saturday, September 12, 2015

Thoughts on the OBS Offensive Content Policy

I've been reluctant to make any formal comments about the "Offensive Content Policy" that OBS (the company that runs and, which I use to sell my own products) until there was an actual policy upon which to comment. But last Wednesday, the company published its policy on the official company blog and sent an email to publishers with (a different version of) the policy, and now there's some real "there" there to react to.

I'm only going to quote what I feel are the salient portions of the full policy. Those interested in reading the whole thing can do so at the link above.

At the outset, I am compelled to point out that yes, of course, as a private business OBS has the right to sell or not sell any title they wish. That is not remotely the point, although their near-total domination of the gaming print-on-demand sphere gives their policies a weight which might be compared to three of the big cable news networks deciding not to cover a particular political candidate, because their viewers raised a fuss.
What is the process for flagging offensive titles?
Step 1: Customer reports a product.
Step 2: A human being at OneBookShelf does a cursory review to determine if the title should be temporarily suspended from sale or not. Either way the product is put in queue for review.
Step 3: A more thorough review of the product in completed. If deemed not offensive the product is whitelisted. If deemed potentially offensive then...
Step 4: We have expanded internal review and discussion with publisher possibly resulting in publisher retraction of the title or banning of the title.
I confess I'm not a fan of the proposed process. It relies way too much on the subjective intervention of an OBS staffer, and is therefore ripe for abuse. Having a title turned off for a couple of days while it's being reviewed can literally cost a publisher hundreds, or possibly thousands, of dollars. By definition, one OBS staffer is going to have a different opinion about what is ban-worthy than another one. Are some subjects and words simply off-limits completely? That's what it seems like; rape is not to be tolerated, even if the game is about punishing and killing the rapists. As if banning a word will stop the reality. If not, we are relying on some subjective evaluation which is inherently unfair. If my hypothetical product is flagged, and I get the libertarian OBS staffer (is there one?), I could emerge unscathed, whereas if I happen to get the one who spent the fall of 2011 at some Occupy Wall Street protest, I could be toast.

That sort of uncertainty is death to a publisher. Or any business, for that matter. Again, remember OBS's position in the market. Realistically, they're the only game in town.
Will a title be turned off automatically if it is flagged?
No, just because a title is flagged as offensive, it will not be automatically turned off. Only the administrators of the site can toggle the title to private. This process will send alerts to our staff for quick review. If our staff sees a product that is problematic, they will temporarily suspend it for further review.
This is a good thing. It prevents the sort of "I hate you so I'll try to hurt you any way I can" abuse that many publishers feared. But I'm not sure it's enough. I would like to see a requirement that an attempt to flag a product can only be made by someone who has actually purchased the product. Not only would that make the system far less open to abuse, and be more objective (rather than subjective), it would also allow for the identification of the person doing the flagging. It also would allow for the potential ignoring of flagging requests from people who have a history of flagging things frivolously. I asked about this, and was told it's under discussion.
Will you be giving scrutiny to certain topics?
We're going to give extra scrutiny to products that include rape, real world racial violence, torture, sexism, homophobia, and crimes against children. However, we will also be reviewing products reported for other reasons as needed.
This part worries me. Why does this list of left-wing Politically Correct identity politics grievances get priority over, say, religious-based terrorism, selling body parts of unborn babies, anti-police violence, or class warfare? I'm not arguing that those items should be added to the list; I'm saying that the mere existence of a specific list of potential ban-worthy items carries with it a certain political slant that reflects the predispositions of its creator. In this particular case, a very definitively left-wing slant (which some would argue isn't politically slanted at all, which is part of the problem; "progressive" does not equal "objective"). And that last item on the list is pretty much aimed directly at Carcosa. Just sayin'.

But there's another factor that must be brought up, even though it's not explicitly mentioned in the policy.

The simple fact of the matter is that OBS, and specifically it's president Steve Wieck, has already caved more than once in the face of pressure from SJW's on social media. The first time I'm aware of was when Gamergate the Card Game was published (ironically, as it committed no crime other than to make fun of both sides of the Gamergate controversy). I interviewed Steve Wieck about the incident on this very blog, and he flat-out said that the publisher wasn't given any chance to appeal the decision to ban the game, nor was he consulted during the decision-making process. That does not bode well for the new policy.

Incidentally, that points out a bit of disingenuous wordsmithing on OBS's part. In the email that went out to publishers, they explicitly say "At this time, we have not yet banned an RPG title." This is technically true, but omits the fact that they did, in fact, ban a card game. Shame on you for that sort of misleading word-parsing, Steve. I'm not surprised that part didn't get published in the blog post.

The question becomes, as they already have a history of caving into political pressure on social media, what guarantee do publishers have that, even after a title has been "whitelisted", there won't be a continuing campaign to apply pressure to OBS, which eventually results in the title being re-evaluated and banned? The answer is that there is no guarantee at all. If Fred Hicks, or Cam Banks, or some other prominent SJW, decides he doesn't like a title, or an author, or a publisher, or an artist, then he already knows all he needs to do is keep jumping up and down about it, and OBS will roll over and show him its jewels. They've done it twice do far. No reason to think they won't do it again.

The mere fact that OBS is rolling out this policy points to the fact that they're absolutely willing to compromise their editorial discretion in favor of caving into the forces of Political Correctness, or at best the Heckler's Veto, at the expense of the principle of Free Expression. This is just putting an official cover to a policy that says, in essence, "complain loud enough and we'll pull what you don't like off our website."


John said...

So would the correct time to open a competitor with a hard no-censorship policy be now, or later?

Joseph Bloch said...

I'm going with "now".

Will Arnold said...

Beginning with the sixth to last paragraph, hell yeah. Good post.

Sean Robert Meaney said...

Frankly my offensive content policy is: A judge declared what they published a criminal offense.

rainswept said...

You scored across the board.

OBS has deficits in both credibility & judgement that render it incompetent to execute this policy in a practical sense, never mind the ethical quagmire of censoring what is effectively art.

Joe England said...

The Gamergate Card game is sad considering nobody said a word when Drivethrucards tweeted about David Hill's gamergate card he released after the Grim's

Steve Wieck said...

Thanks for posting your thoughts Joseph.
The "have not banned any RPG titles" language is mine not Meredith's. She took it from something I posted. I disagree that it is disingenuous. When I discussed our reasons for banning the GG card game I was clear on the point that one of the rationales was that it was a card game (where we have little market share) not a RPG (where we have more market share). That may make little difference to those who are 100% ideologues on this issue, but it makes a large pragmatic difference to us.
In the recent case of ToR it was entirely the publisher's decision, free of any coercion from me, to pull the title. Feel free to ask the publisher directly if you suspect that I'm being disingenuous on that.
In my recent blog I listed a few sensitive topics and said "and others". We then had a number of people message us asking "you didn't explicitly say [other sensitive topic X], so you must not care about that!?". Meredith expanded the list of explicit topics slightly in her more recent post. As you illustrate above however, that still does not include every hot button topic in our society. It would be tiresome to try to list them all, so at some point we have to say "and others" and move on, letting people's common sense do its job.
Any art form can include creations that deal with sensitive topics like "rape" and that creation not be offensive itself (examples are numerous, maybe The Accused with Jodie Foster is one [though I have not seen it in a long time]). Some creations though can deal with topics like rape in such a gratuitous and glorified manner that the creation does become, in my opinion, offensive content.
I'm not going to discuss all of the measures we are taking to mitigate abuse of our report feature, but having an existing customer account on site will be the least of them.

Joseph Bloch said...

Thanks, Steve. I've corrected the attribution for the quote from Meredith to you, although I stand by my characterization thereof. If being in favor of free expression and against politically-motivated censorship (whether by government or market-dominated private enterprise) makes me a "100% ideologue", then it's a label I will accept with pride.

TexasGM said...

This is depressing. Here we have yet another example of the continuing politicization of everything. You can't drink a cup of coffee, eat a chicken sandwich at your local food court, or vote for this year's best science-fiction novel without running into humorless ideologues demanding that you conform your whole life to their politics.

Now it's role-playing games. Ugh. It's enough to make a man seriously consider taking holy orders and going to live as a hermit on some mountaintop in Idaho.

Ivan said...

"If being in favor of free expression and against politically-motivated censorship (whether by government or market-dominated private enterprise) makes me a '100% ideologue', then it's a label I will accept with pride."

It's a bit disingenuous to position yourself as free expression crusader when you add such substantial caveats to you characterization of your position (only against "politically-motivated" censorship; only applies to "market-dominated" private enterprise -- whatever either of those terms mean).

Just curious how much work those caveats do. Does Ma's Family Bookstore have to carry "Killbots VIII: the Slaughtering" or risk your ire?

Mighty Fighty Robots said...

@Joe OBS is the largest game in town but not the only one. Steve Jackson Games offers digital games ala OBS through the E23 section of the Steve Jackson Games website. Granted, it doesn't have near the number of offerings as OBS and I admit I don't know if SJ Games has a 'No Offensive Content Will Be Allowed' policy but it may be an opportunity for SJ Games to pick up some of OBS's business if OBS's policy starts honking enough people off. Plus the last time I checked, E23 doesn't watermark the buyer's name and order number on the pdfs. This alone smacks of win.

@Ivan Market-dominated private enterprise relies on the product's market (buyers mainly, but also sellers since you can't buy a product if it isn't sold and vice versa) and the free enterprise system (aka capitalism aka the means of production are owned by private entities aka businesses are owned by individuals or groups of individuals and not governments) to determine what is and isn't produced and sold. It is exchange between individuals without government interference. There is a blog by an economics professor named Jack Chambless (Thoughts on Liberty, Economics and Life) that I highly recommend if you are interested in reading more.

Joe correctly points out that OBS is a private enterprise and is correctly saying that OBS's decision to create a 'No Offensive Content Allowed' type policy is a private decision - not a government mandated decision. This by itself is fine.

The problem with the policy is that there is a lot of politically progressive political correctness-type 'we have to protect everybody's feelings and if someone drops a loaf in their pants after hearing a hateful comment, not everybody is able to carry a carton of diapers around with them at all times' overtones to it. My bias against political progressivism exists because it is the nature of political progressives to use the power and force of government to tell people how to live and run their own lives. Bad idea. Really bad idea if you stop and really really think about it. Plus why stop at using the government to enforce your views, when you can bully your way through private enterprise and tell people what they can or cannot buy, sell, read, listen to, watch, play, build, drive, eat, talk about, etc.

If there was no policy at all, this wouldn't be an issue. Frankly, having no policy is the best solution period, IMHO. If a song or tv show is 'offensive,' you change the channel. That's what I do and have done. But don't gripe about how 'offensive' something is and expect the seller to bow to your whims and stop selling 'offensive' stuff. Vote with your wallet on that front and leave well enough alone.

Herb Nowell said...

Joe, I was glad to see you bring up GamerGame the Card Game in response to the last paragraph. That sent off my alarm bells as well. It did not help that it was clearly under pressure from a publisher (via their web guy) and then the same publisher tried to have it all ways when Fred Hicks say, the pressure wasn't authorized or policy but that OBS did the right thing and if they hadn't Evil Hat might have had to reconsider.

I'm less worried about the general public than that precedent. Steve's explanation above does not help. They have a policy in RPGs because of market share but card games where they don't have market share. How much of that RPG business is Evil Hat? Do Evil Hat's worries get more review than, say, BRW Games, because Evil Hat moves 10x the product? How about WotC's given they have an entire branded OBS site as well as being on RPGNow and DTRPG?

As for DRCards market share, at a recent gaming con here in Atlanta (home of OBS), Andocon, a couple of designers pointed out the utility of OBS cards for new people looking to get into card games. My response after Steve's comments above is now, "well, maybe" depending on the approval of Fred Hicks, et al, on their card games.

Finally, there are Cards Against Humanity expansions aplenty on DRCards. How do they survive the offensive comment. After all, CAH has had card describing physical violence against named persons (read any of the Glenn Beck cards) but did appologize and pull the "passable transvestites" card as crossing the line. With plenty of CAH expansions left at OBS I think your concern that only what certain kinds of people find offensive (combined with the Fred Hicks/Evil Hat example) will be subject to review.

Something a conservative leaning, third quadrant (see Pournelle Chart), Eastern Orthodox Navy veteran finds offensive will almost assuredly lead to a response amounting to, "deal with it".

Just as my Evil Hat purchases have gone down (still haven't bought Dresden Vol. 3 despite being the kind of fan that takes the vacation day when a new novel releases so I can read it) and my Tor Books purchases are flatlined (not hard as only one thing on their schedule appealed to me admittedly) my OBS had gone down when an alternative was possible (hard in RPG space) since the GG card game was pulled. This only strengthens that trend.

Herb Nowell said...

@Steve: It would be tiresome to try to list them all, so at some point we have to say "and others" and move on, letting people's common sense do its job.

A PR hint...selecting only topics that garner large offense to one segment of the social political spectrum and then claiming, "hey, we said 'and others'", is going to lead people not in that segment to think the "and others" applies a lot more whatever else that segment thinks of and not what people outside that segment think of.

What you have allowed, especially any CAH expansions, only reinforces that opinion.

carmen sbordone said...

That system, while ok(it doesnt automaticallly suspend the product just for being flagged), still open to abuse. One disgruntled gamer can spend a day or days flagging one publishers products for review over and over again......with no recourse.

DM said...

Why not