Twitch just keeps on changing, following its 2014 acquisition by Amazon. Yesterday, the streaming service announced that it would no longer allow streaming of adults-only games, which primarily includes titles rated AO by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). The list of AO-rated games is rather small with only 26 titles, including games like Manhunt 2, Thrill Kill, EF - A Fairy Tale of the Two. This follows the company's previous update of its Rules of Conduct in October of last year, which stated that streamers couldn't go topless or wear sexually-suggestive clothing.
Many believe Twitch's change in policy is due to the upcoming release of Destructive Creations' Hatred. That game has seen its share of controversy, having been removed from Steam Greenlight due to its content and then returning to the service at the behest of Valve founder Gabe Newell. Regardless of the reason, Twitch doesn't want to see AO titles on its service.
"Previously, we made game-specific decisions about which games would and would not be available for broadcast – sometimes due to overtly sexual content, sometimes due to gratuitous violence. This is unsustainable and unclear, generating only further confusion among Twitch broadcasters. We would like to make this policy as transparent as possible," said the company in a blog post.
"Today, we're updating the RoC with regard to Adult Only (AO) games. Simply put, AO games are not welcome on Twitch. Please refer to the ESRB's Ratings Guide and list of Adults Only games for more information."
Oddly enough, while the ESRB is only a North American ratings body - Japan has the Computer Entertainment Rating Organization (CERO) and Europe has Pan European Game Information (PEGI) - these rules extend across all territories Twitch is active. If a game is rated AO, regardless of the content guidelines in your country, you can't stream it on Twitch. This does not cover games that were once AO, but have since been released as Mature-rated titles, like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy.
"While the ESRB ratings apply exclusively to US titles, our policy extends to versions of these games in all territories," adds the company. "Generally, if the US version is rated for Adults Only (18+) or has an equivalent rating in your territory, you should not broadcast that game on Twitch."
The ruling does raise questions about unrated titles and certain genres like visual novels. The full Rules of Conduct state that users can't stream titles that have nudity or sexually-explicit content as their core feature, but things are still fuzzy. Sakura Spirit for Steam, a sexually-suggestive visual novel translated and published by Sekai Project, was previously prevented from streaming. In contrast, sister title Sakura Angels and games like Senran Kagura, Criminal Girls: Invite Only, and Go! Go! Nippon were previously allowed to stream, even if there are currently no streams available on Twitch. Recently-released visual novel Starfighter: Eclipse is in the same grey area, offering sexually-explicit content in its endgame, like many other visual novels. The Witcher 3 features nudity as well, but currently has over 13,000 viewers on Twitch.
Twitch has clarified its rules, but the question of "where's the line?" is still relevant. Especially with the number of unrated indie titles coming out via services like Steam Greenlight, this is going to be an ongoing problem.
And that's before you get to fans calling these new rules censorship. It is not within the classic given definition, as Twitch is a private corporation allowed to do with its platform as it see fit. It is no different than us deleting a comment that goes against our Rules of Conduct. This is a softer, more nuanced area. Do you fight for the right for a work to be available on Twitch's platform, or for Twitch to do what it feels is right with what it's created? Depending on how it's framed, a person's feelings on the matter may change.
I don't have a problem with Twitch changing its Rules of Conduct. The company can do whatever it wants with its platform and users are free to jump to YouTube or Hitbox for their streaming needs. That said, I do think it's a bit odd, considering that the service could provide age-verfication tools for Mature-rated content and the line between Mature and Adults-Only is rather thin. More importantly, the company needs to better clarify what's allowed on the service and what's not, as opposed to the current "I know it when I see it" method. Clarity is something that's helpful for everyone involved.