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 RPGNow.com and DriveThruRPG.com, 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."