How YouTube censorship hurts independent developers like the team behind Weedcraft

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When developer Vile Monarch teamed up with indie publisher Devolver Digital to create a management simulation game based on the legally hazy world of the burgeoning US marijuana industry – pun intended – they didn’t really know what to expect. As Devolver’s Mike Wilson points out, the game that would be dubbed “Weedcraft Inc” was not just the studio’s first foray into commissioning a game from scratch based on a concept of their own creation, but their first. entry into buttoned game- genre of business simulations. For Vile Monarch’s Scott Alexander, who served as a writer on the game, a marijuana mogul game was a no-brainer.

“The best tycoon games present you with a messy, convoluted world, and a bunch of interesting levers to pull that affect the world in different ways,” says Alexander. “When we looked at the marijuana trade in the United States, especially as legalization spread state by state, it looked like one giant, complicated, interesting mess, that is, the situation ideal to build a tycoon game around.”


Despite the game’s admittedly controversial subject matter, both men say the teams behind the game have never sought to court controversy in an effort to raise the game’s profile in today’s crowded indie climate. Instead, as Wilson puts it, that kind of headline-chasing you might get from recklessly pursuing pot-smoking stereotypes or actively promoting drug use might lead to a bit of short-term buzz, but the resulting pushback from the marketplaces offering this game would kill its prospects over time.

But despite their efforts for what they considered a thoughtful marketing campaign, Devolver and Vile Monarch were shocked to see Weedcraft videos and streams quickly demonetized by the powers that be on global platforms like YouTube and Facebook ahead of their exit. While they had faced an uphill battle to get the game known to the world from the start because of its subject matter, it was the first time they felt the full weight of the corporate giants who now govern. the game world.

Prior to this, the team had focused their efforts on proving that Weedcraft was more than just a silly name for the legions of tycoon fans who expected a superficial take on a high-profile theme. “[Before release], we expected more controversy, to be honest,” says Alexander. “Reporters were generally pleasantly surprised to find that we had created a grass game that had real depth and didn’t rely on Cheech and Chong or stoner Snoop Dogg stereotypes in its presentation.” But now that content creators both small and larger than life were missing out on their hard-earned scratch due to the aggressive policing of these platforms, the conversation has changed.

While some might argue that the ensuing controversy caused many journalists to spotlight the game, boosting its selling profile, Wilson pushes back against that characterization with vigor. “The net result is definitely negative,” he says. “The big streamers who have been demonetized will mostly not be making videos anymore, and a lot of other streamers have moved on to Twitch, where they have a much smaller audience. Some YouTubers are afraid of losing their Google Premiere status. from the quality of the streams before the demonetization, it’s obvious that it would have been a big game on YouTube, which is more PR than we could ever afford to pay.

Overall, Wilson describes the effect as more disconcerting than upsetting: YouTube might view these videos as promoting the use of illegal drugs, but he cites the “artistic and educational content” provision of their content policy, which , in his view, should allow gambling to escape this kind of punitive oversight.

Since the game sparked some form of conflict early on, people of a certain mindset might argue that Vile Monarch and Devolver should have expected these enterprise platforms to fight back, especially since a large part of their audience is made up of children under the age of 15. the age of 13. Predictably, Wilson and Alexander reject this argument for a variety of reasons. While the drug remains strictly prohibited at the federal level in the United States, Alexander points out that more than 200 million of the country’s 330 million people live in a state that allows some form of legal marijuana, and recent public polls show that two-thirds or more of the population supports widespread legalization of the popular plant.

Even putting that popular support aside, in Alexander’s mind, the most popular art on display on YouTube isn’t appropriate for kids, including billion-dollar games like Red Dead Redemption 2. and Grand Theft Auto. “Art is not a field exclusively for children,” he says. “RDR2 and GTA are not for children, yet they are streamed with impunity. Even if we have to “think of the children!” we would argue that many games feature far more antisocial behavior and messaging than Weedcraft, a game about the subtle moral undertones of capitalism that offers a sort of MBA-lite education. »

Wilson largely echoes these concerns, especially when it comes to making a splash in the steady wave of high-quality indie releases that crash onto Steam’s shores every week. He cites the viral clip of bloodless billionaire Elon Musk smoking marijuana on Joe Rogan’s popular podcast as an example of what he sees as YouTube’s hypocrisy on the issue. “YouTube’s own policy covers arts and education material, and it’s full of music videos glorifying weed…these Weedcraft videos don’t do any of that,” he says. “And streamers have almost all been very clear from the start that they don’t smoke weed and don’t condone it. You would think that if they were concerned about protecting young people, Red Dead Redemption would be a best target But no, because money and violence are kings in America.

Given that the average age of a PC gamer is well over 30, and extreme violence is endemic to the medium, it seems somewhat silly that YouTube is cracking down on this particular game so aggressively, for whatever reason. But despite the challenges, Wilson says the game has done “very well” commercially, and both entities plan to support the game as long as people continue to play it.

Both Wilson and Alexander optimistically predict that the controversy will look strange in five to 10 years, when the US government finally gets around to repealing the century-old cannabis ban that fuels the country’s skyrocketing incarceration rates and deeply racist school. pipeline to prison. But until then, Wilson says platforms that host gaming content need to shake off traditional American discomfort with “adult content” and catch up with the industry that powers it.

“Having this conversation happen makes us more determined to continue to remind gamers and the industry of the senseless hypocrisy around monitoring anything deemed ‘adult’ other than extreme violence, which for some reason, continues to be A-OK,” Wilson said. “This medium is largely for adults, and games like this are more like selling a documentary on the subject than selling or promoting marijuana.”

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