Steam has long allowed hateful content on its platform.
On December 7, 2017, William Edward Atchison shot and killed two people then himself at Aztec High School in Aztec, New Mexico. After the shooting, The Daily Beast discovered that Atchison had an active life online, posting on various alt-right and extremist websites such as The Daily Stormer.
He also loved video games. We know this because, according to The Daily Beast's reporting, he was an active user on Valve's popular digital storefront Steam, where he reviewed 77 video games. Motherboard independently confirmed this Steam account belongs to Atchison through both an acquaintance and records of his online activity on Pastebin. Some of his Steam reviews are simple—“extremely boring,” he said of Borderlands 2. Other reviews reveal his hateful ideology as plainly as his posts to The Daily Stormer.
“It was revolutionary for [its] time,” he wrote of the Nazi-killing first person shooter Wolfenstein 3D back in 2015. “The problem i have with it is the fact that you spend the entire game killing germans - killing white people." The review then goes on to defend Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany's systematic extermination of Jews.
Atchison's profile is an example of a larger problem that Valve—the company that owns and operates Steam—doesn't want to talk about. Steam, which in 2015 Valve said had 125 million active users, is filled with hate groups, and Valve is doing little to stop them from spreading their hateful messages, including explicit calls for violence against minorities.
When we first found it, Steam had already banned Atchison's review of Wolfenstein 3D, which means it couldn't be modified but it was viewable. Users couldn't see it if they looked at the game’s page, but could still see the review on Atchison’s profile, and we were able to interact with it. At the bottom of the review, Steam users could give a thumbs up, thumbs down, or a smiley face—indicating whether the user found the review helpful, unhelpful, or funny. On Atchison’s two banned reviews, we could still say they were funny, but not whether we found them helpful.
In addition to Atchison’s “banned” reviews, Steam has also left up his screenshots and uploaded artwork, which is a catalogue of extremist views. On Steam, users can post both original artwork and screenshots of their in-game activities. Atchinson did both often since 2011, and his screenshots were mostly pictures of swastikas, anti-Semitic propaganda, and other assorted far right imagery.
On Monday, we reached out to Valve to ask if it planned on removing Atchison's account and posts, which were all still up at the time. We did not hear back, but it appears that Valve removed Atchison's main profile page a few hours after we emailed the company. The majority of his racist images and writings were still on the site until Wednesday morning, when Valve appeared to have wiped his presence from the platform almost entirely. At the time of publication, we could only find one of his images on Steam: A screenshot from the game Garry's Mod that was arranged to look like the lynching of a black man, on which Atchison commented with the n-word.
Again, many of Atchison's posts were on Steam for years.
Atchison’s Steam footprint is part of a larger pattern. As detailed in The Daily Beast story, he posted about Columbine and other school shooters across the web, extolled the value of Nazi ideology, and typed out veiled threats against the government.
That Valve didn't remove the racist rantings of a school shooter from its platform for years is not surprising given the company's hands-off approach to moderating Steam. As we reported in October, Steam's community pages are filled with explicitly racist, homophobic, and otherwise hateful groups.
Valve didn't respond to Motherboard's request for comment for that article either, but it did remove the specific groups we highlighted after publication. However, there are still many racist groups on Steam. One easy way to find them is to simply use the term "Nazi" when searching for Steam groups, which at the time of this writing returned 7,930 results.
Some of these groups publicly call for violence against minorities. For example, the "about" page for a Steam group titled "Nazi's 2.0," which was formed in October 3 and has 23 members, says its members want to kill Jews, black people, transgender people, and other minorities.
Internet companies have responded in a variety of ways since white nationalists reentered the public consciousness during the 2016 US presidential elections. In August, Cloudflare, a major internet security firm, took the radical step of denying its services to the Nazi site The Daily Stormer, effectively kicking it off the internet. Even Twitter, which has long been criticized for allowing Nazis to do as they please on its platform, nominally took steps on Monday to ban accounts associated with hate groups.
But these groups are still on Steam, and it's not clear what Valve plans to do about it, if it plans to do anything at all.
When Motherboard published its story about hate groups on Steam in October, many readers responded by saying we were exaggerating the problem. Many of the self-titled Nazi Steam groups, these readers argued, were just kidding.
As we've argued before, hateful messages masquerading as "just a meme" are still hateful messages. More importantly, as Atchison's case shows, some of these users are dead serious, and Valve is allowing them on its platform.