By: Jennifer Huddleston and Juan Martin Londoño
This year the E3 conference streamed live over Twitch, YouTube, and other online platforms—a reality that highlights the growing importance of platforms and user-generated content to the gaming industry. From streaming content on Twitch, to sharing mods on Steam Workshop, or funding small developing studios on services such as Patreon or Kickstarter, user-generated content has proven vital for the gaming ecosystem. While these platforms have allowed space for creative interaction—which we saw on the livestreams chats during E3—the legal framework that allows all of this interaction is under threat, and changes to a critical internet law could spell Game Over for user-created gaming elements.
This law, “Section 230,” is foundational to all user-generated content on the internet. Section 230 protects platforms from lawsuits over both the content they host as well as their moderation decisions, giving them the freedom to curate and create the kind of environment that best fits its customers. This policy is under attack, however, from policymakers on both sides of the aisle. Some Democrats argue platforms are not moderating enough content, thus allowing hate speech and voter suppression to thrive, while some Republicans believe platforms are moderating too much, which promotes “cancel culture” and the limitation of free speech.
User-generated content and the platforms that host it have contributed significantly to the growth of the gaming industry since the early days of the internet. This growth has only accelerated during the pandemic, as in 2020 the gaming industry grew 20 percent to a whopping $180 billion market. But changing Section 230 could seriously disrupt user-generated engagement with gaming, making content moderation costlier and riskier for some of gamers’ favorite platforms.
An increased legal liability could mean a platform such as Twitch would face higher compliance costs due to the need to increase its moderation and legal teams. This cost would likely be transferred to creators through a revenue reduction or to viewers through rate hikes—resulting in less content and fewer users. Further, restrictions on moderation could lead to undesirable content and ultimately fewer users and advertisers—leading to more profit losses and less content. Ultimately, platforms might not be able to sustain themselves, leading to fewer platforms and opportunities for fans to engage. Platforms such as Twitch already face these problems, but for now they can determine the best solutions without heavy-handed government intervention or costly legal battles.
The impact of changing Section 230 goes beyond video content and could impact some increasingly popular fan creations that are further invigorating the industry. For example, the modding community, composed of gaming fans that modify existing games to create new experiences, often uses various online platforms to share their mods with other players. Modding has kept certain games relevant even years after their release, or propelled games’ popularity by introducing new ways to play them. Such is the case of Grand Theft Auto V’s roleplaying mod, or Arma III’s PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds mod, the inspiration of games such as Fortnite and Call of Duty: Warzone.
These modified games are often hosted on platforms such as Steam Workshop, Github, or on independently run community websites. These platforms are often free of charge, either as a complimentary service of a bigger product – in the case of Steam – or are supported purely by ad revenue and donations. Like streaming platforms and message boards, without Section 230 these services would face increased compliance costs or be unable to remove excessively violent, sexually explicit, or hateful content. The result could be that these new twists on old favorites never make it to consumers, as platforms are unable to host these creations and remain viable as businesses.
Changing or removing Section 230 protections would upend the complex and dynamic gaming environment on display during E3. It took decades of growth for gaming to establish itself as the new king of entertainment and it has defended itself from a variety of technopanics throughout the years. Pulling the plug on Section 230 could mean “Game Over” for the user-generated content that brings gamers so much fun.