Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Offensive Content Policy

At DriveThruRPG, we see a huge variety of content published and sold on our marketplaces. Something not broadly known to visitors on DriveThru is that we entrust most publishers to upload their new releases and activate them for sale without anyone at DriveThru reviewing the title before it goes public.


Over fourteen years of operations, with tens of thousands of roleplaying titles activated, thousands of RPG creators have demonstrated that this trust-based system works quite well; the vast majority of publishers will not upload offensive content and make it public on DriveThruRPG. Ours is a wonderful hobby.


Because this system has worked so well for so long, over a huge volume of products, we have had no need to create a content guideline for what we will not sell on DriveThruRPG due to its offensive nature.


Further, in the case of roleplaying games, especially new games put out by independent creators or new companies, our marketplaces are a key distribution channel. If we were to ban an RPG product, the de facto result is very much like censorship. That fact causes me grave concern, for if we were to create a content guideline that all publishers on our store must follow, and then ban titles that do not meet those guidelines, then we would be playing dictator with the RPG art form, and that is a role I am acutely uncomfortable playing.


Having grown up in the U.S. Bible Belt, where attempts to ban books from school and public libraries were common, and given my various experiences with distribution channels as a publisher at White Wolf in the early 90s, I have had a lot of firsthand encounters with attempts to ban content.


There is, however, a growing problem we face as a marketplace. A few RPG creators have designed content in the recent past that people have viewed as disturbing, distasteful, or depraved. For example, we recently and understandably received a lot of criticism for selling an RPG supplement entitled "Tournament of Rapists."


I'll say a few words about that product and then move on to the broader topic of how we will handle offensive content on DriveThruRPG.


Hearing the title “Tournament of Rapists,” one is naturally repulsed. Sometimes the purpose of art is to make us feel revulsion, though, so we shouldn't judge a book by its title alone. In this case, though, reading the brief cover copy or product description the author entered on DriveThruRPG to explain the contents of the book does nothing but amplify that revulsion and call into question if the subject matter is being treated at all appropriately. So, naturally, people asked us various versions of the question, "How on earth can you have that for sale on your marketplace for even one minute?"


The answer is this:


1. As I mentioned above, this product was uploaded and activated by the author. No one at DriveThru pre-screened the book.


2. When we were first alerted to the offensive nature of the book, I used administrator privileges to download and skim through a copy of the book. At its core, the book was an adventure supplement where the goal of characters was to stop demonic entities who were perpetrating sexual violence and murder. The rapists were clearly the villains to be stopped, something that I believe many critics of the book could not have known from the book's title and vague description.


Still, other aspects of the book, such as its title and description and some of its content, were written in a way that were not well-considered treatments of the subject of sexual violence. I personally found the book offensive, but as I’ve noted, I am not comfortable letting my viewpoint serve as the gate-keeping standard.


Again, 1) rapists were villains in the book and 2) I chose to accept offensive content over becoming a de facto censor. In doing so, I made the mistake of not suspending the title from sale immediately, pending further internal review and discussion with the publisher.


3. Another factor that weighed on my decision was the fact that, when uploading and activating the title, the author flagged the title as adult content. Books with the adult flag do not show up on our marketplace to visitors. A user must be logged in to a customer account on our site and have changed the default "no" adult filter to "yes" before she can see adult flagged titles anywhere on site. And for the record, "adult" in this context refers to more than just sexual content; it means any kind of content with material that requires adult discernment.


My philosophy has been individual choice, not my choice. My expectation has been that gamers who choose deliberately to see adult titles have the mental faculties to decide if a title they see is appropriate or not.


Therefore, I let the title remain active for sale while I reached out to the publisher to discuss the title.


4. The publisher was on vacation, so we did not catch up with one another by phone until near the end of the weekend. We had a professional dialogue about the book, the type of dialogue where people listen to each other and try to understand where each other is coming from and work toward constructive outcomes. The publisher then discussed the book with the author, and they decided to withdraw the book from sale. In my opinion, having real dialogue and expecting the best, not the worst, in other people leads to better outcomes. Unrelenting anger and the desire to punish divides and polarizes people, as can be seen from some social media discourse on games today.


To the broader issue of the content we will sell on DriveThruRPG going forward, it is time we change the approach we have used for the past fourteen years. This most recent incident has shown me that our previous approach worked only because publishers in the past simply hadn’t  uploaded such offensive content. However, that approach carried us too far in the wrong direction.


It's time for us to have a policy on rejecting offensive content. I understand that many feel this is too long in coming, that our prior non-policy of “censorship is unacceptable" was tantamount to shirking our responsibility to help keep the RPG hobby inclusive. I am solely responsible for the prior policy, not the other staff at OneBookShelf. I accept that criticism and apologize for not being a better steward.


What should our new content policy be?


Some people believe there are bright line rules that, when crossed, make a title something our RPG hobby is better without. As I recently and profoundly failed to explain on Twitter, I do not agree there are such bright line rules, or at least not nearly enough bright line rules to serve as a guide.


In first drafting this blog post, I made a fuller explanation with examples of why I don’t think bright line rules work for deciding what content is offensive or not. I removed all of that because I don’t want my intentions in doing so to be misinterpreted again. Suffice to say that the U.S. Supreme Court could not create bright line rules for what constituted pornography (leading to the famous statement, "I'll know it when I see it."), and similarly I don’t think we can create such rules for offensive content.


I also think the more exacting we make the guidelines, the more fine points we include on content treatment, the more the guideline risks becoming shackles for the rpg art form and the more bad actors will attempt to game the fine points of the policy.


Amazon's policy on offensive content is incredibly short:


“Offensive Content: What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect.”


The problem here is that such a statement gives little guidance to publishers and authors, and thus Amazon's rulings on banning books seem rather arbitrary. Publishers who offer content on our marketplaces will understandably say to us, "We can't invest in creating RPG titles only to have DriveThru arbitrarily ban them, so if you're now banning titles for offensive content, give us guidelines for what titles you will and will not ban."


To which, I have to say, "I hear you, but I don't know any better way." A work often has to be considered as a gestalt to know if it is offensive or not.


So, going forward, our offensive content policy is simply going to be this:


Offensive Content: We'll know it when we see it.


I will be the final arbiter of what OneBookShelf deems offensive. I will tend to err toward including content, even when it challenges readers and deals with sensitive issues, so long as it does so maturely and not gratuitously.


Any title in which racial violence, rape, torture, or a similar subject is treated as a central feature will naturally be subjected to increased scrutiny.


Everyone draws their own line on what is offensive differently, so I understand that any judgment OneBookShelf makes will always have someone who disagrees with it.


A few final topics:


1. We will continue to be reactive, not proactive, on judging new title releases. Historically, 99.99% of publishers' content has been inoffensive. Being able to activate their own titles for sale with our marketplace tools gives publishers additional control over their release marketing timing and generally gets RPG products to market more quickly. We will not constrain those 99.99% by introducing a required step where OneBookShelf staff reviews every title before it goes public just so that we can catch the .01%.


Such a review process would also add a large expense to our operations, which translates eventually to higher prices for customers.


What we will do, though, is code more customer-facing options to allow customers to report potentially offensive content to us. That way, customers can help us identify the offensive .01% of titles that much faster. If a reported title looks questionable, then we will suspend it from sale while we review its content internally, and we will speak with its publisher to determine the fate of the title on our marketplace. Our default will be to suspend titles rather than our prior default of letting titles stay public.


To be clear, we need to code, test, and deploy this new reporting feature. It is not live now.


2. Once the reporting feature is live, we will review titles already on the marketplace that are reported by customers. There will be no "grandfathering in" of past content. Where we find offensive content on site, even if we have permitted it in the past under our prior policy, we will remove it. We are no longer a wide-open marketplace, and some publishers may need to find a different place to sell some of their content (or all of it, if they decide to leave DriveThru entirely).


3. I doubt the industry will see the “Tournament of Rapists” title again, but if the publisher decides to make changes to the product and wishes to sell it on DriveThru again, it will then be subject to this new offensive content policy.


4. We will be reviewing the use of our adult flag, including what content we expect to carry that flag and how we communicate the use of that flag to publishers and customers.


I appreciate all of our customers and publishers who were patient while we sorted these issues out and who gave us the benefit of the doubt as human beings trying to do the best thing. Like everyone, we sometimes make mistakes along the way.


Steve Wieck
CEO
OneBookShelf / DriveThruRPG