Steam: The Social Gaming Platform

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Posted on 13 Apr 2013 14:15

Steam: The Social Gaming Platform

By Kenichi Yamamoto
April 12th, 2013


In this report, I will analyze whether or not Steam fits the definition of the term "Discourse Community" by observing various forum posts and features within the Steam client. Using these observations, I hope to link these details to the six characteristics that Swales outlined when he defined the term, giving a detailed analysis of how each feature or quality fits the characteristic. Then, I will briefly discuss my results and use them to evaluate whether or not Steam really is a discourse community.


Steam, which began as a simple way of updating a popular shooting game known as Counter-Strike, grew into a bustling community of nearly five million members who interact and communicate together every day. Through the use of its simple, easy to understand interface, Steam allows gamers to communicate in ways that would be otherwise unachievable in a traditional console setup, giving it a social factor that makes it truly seem like a unified community rather than just an online game store. John Swale’s, who initially coined the term discourse community in his work, “The Concept of Discourse Community,” outlined six defining characteristics that separate groups of individuals from true, interactive communities. By finding key traits and information that would justify Steam as deserving the title of a discourse community, I hope to show that gaming doesn’t have to be a lone affair but rather a group effort between individuals of a common interest.

Furthermore, I hope to dispel the illusion that gaming is simply a solitary, lonely hobby and that interaction between members of a gaming community can both greatly enhance the experience as well as increase one's interest in video games. Since Steam's large community encompasses a variety of individuals whose passion or hobby involves games, I believe that there exists a large amount of potential interaction between members of the community due to common interests, and that by recognizing and utilizing the methods by which Steam allows players to communicate, Steam-based games can foster communication in the same way a public forum such as Reddit can.


In order to organize my ideas and gain a better understanding as to how I should approach my research of Steam, I broke my research process into four distinct stages, which are:

• Observing
• Categorizing
• Analysis
• Linking

The observing stage involves scanning different forum posts, Steam features, news posts, and ideas that could potentially yield information that would be beneficial to use in my project. The information gathered, which could range from a simple word or name of a service to large posts of game guides and walkthroughs, could then be further broken down into the different subcategories that Swales used to define the term discourse community. I called the next process categorizing as it involved me mostly evaluating where a certain piece of information would fit the best in one of Swale’s six defining categories. Sometimes, an idea or feature may have been found to be useful but rather unexplainable as to how it would fit in an overarching category, as was the case with me attempting to use a game’s voice-chat feature as a form of communication. Since it only involves specific games and doesn’t serve as a consistent form of communication, I had to leave such ideas out of my project since they would ultimately cause issues in the next stage, which was the analysis section. In this stage, I would try my best to prove or come up with reasons as to why this information is useful in this category. For example, when I was trying to prove the use of the Steam Greenlight feature, I could easily come up with reasons why it would be considered a form of feedback, such as the fact that it allowed users to interact directly with the games they liked and could inform Steam as to what kinds of games users are most interested in, allowing Steam to better cater to their community’s primary interests. Thus, I could gain a sense of why this idea or concept was important and how is suited for a certain category. Finally, I would link the idea to the overall picture and see how it would support my primary idea of how Steam is a discourse community, thinking of ways it would combine with the other facts I had listed to achieve this end goal.


The six following categories are the specific characteristics that Swales stated a discourse community must have in order to be considered one. Though these different traits can be considered vague, they serve as an essential means of evaluating whether or not Steam is a discourse community since they provide a general idea of what a discourse community should be like as well as a template I can use to organize my findings. The six categories are as follows:

1. A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common goals.

To get a sense of what players truly look for when playing a game, I began to examine several Steam games known as Warframe, Team Fortress 2, Anodyne, Cave Story +, and Bastion. Using these five games as reference points, I went to the community hub of each game, which is basically a forum in which those who have purchased the game can ask questions/give feedback on certain parts of the game, in order to observe the similarities in player goals each game possessed. Looking at the various topics different individuals created, I found that most if not all of the posts were made with the sole intention of beating the game, with roughly eight out of every ten posts being about asking for help in a particular point in the story or a question regarding how to achieve a goal necessary for completing the game. The remainder of the posts I saw involved players offering to team up with someone else in a multiplayer game, or consisted of a walkthrough/guide made by players who have already beaten the game. Though each of these posts from these game communities might vary greatly in their intentions, they all share the common goal of ultimately completing the game.

2. A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.

The community hub, again, served as a major proponent for the way Steam players interact with one another when playing a certain game. Official game updates and content, as well as important announcements regarding the game, can be seen on the main section of the community hub, giving members of each particular game community a means by which they can receive updates on the status of the game. Furthermore, sales and other special promotions advertised by Steam, as well as news on Steam in general, can be found on the main page of Steam under its own subheading. This is particularly useful to Steam players who often wait to buy their games during a Steam sale, in which many games are anywhere from 60% to 75% off. Thus, regular announcements through this medium allow members to keep up-to-date in the various activities involved in Steam as well as in their own respective Steam games.

3. A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.

A major means by which users participate in order to make Steam a better experience is a program known as Steam Greenlight. In this program, games made by indie game developers who lack the funds to publish their game on Steam are submitted in order to be rated by those within the Steam community. Those who are interested in the game and would be willing to buy it would vote for it, and those who dislike the game would explain their own reason why they game is bad, including advice for fixing/changing the game before the greenlight period for the game is over. This allows users to give specific feedback as well as decision as to what kinds of games they would want to see be produced, allowing users to play an active role in shaping Steam’s game library.

4. A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.

Since Steam is involved in the business of selling games, I initially thought that the only means by which Steam communicates in order to further its aims is by promoting their top-selling games through advertisements and giving status-updates as to what they are doing to improve the Steam experience. However, I have found that Steam utilizes a specific kind of interface, known as the Steam overlay, in which those who are playing a particular game can immediately open up a semi-transparent window in which players can read updates, chat with friends on Steam, as well as overall engage in various Steam-related interactions. This genre of communication allows players to connect with friends as well as browse guides/forums without having to exit the game or change windows, providing a unique genre by which players can interact with Steam while still enjoying their favorite games.

5. In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired some specific lexis.

After lurking through different posts and looking at the Steam UI overall, I have found several words or phrases that may not possess the same meaning to someone who isn’t a dedicated member of Steam. One such phrase is a means of advertising known as “Midweek Madness.” This phrase, which would undoubtedly confuse non-steam players, basically refers to the discount of a Steam game on Wednesdays. This deal usually expires the next day, and can involve the selling of random titles for discounts of 50% or more. “Greenlight” is also another specific lexicon that refers to the community approval process an indie game must go through in order to get a spot on Steam’s game roster, since they only want to advertise games that the community would be interested in as well as support good game developers who lack the resources of a major game company. Lastly, the term “workshop” might invoke thoughts of wooden workbenches or small repair shops to those unfamiliar with Steam, but in reality, the Steam Workshop refers to a player-run modding community in which prospective players can create and upload their own modifications to a particular game, giving users the ability to customize the way they see their own game without affecting the rest of the gaming community.

6. A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

Many of the players I have seen on Steam vary in terms of how long they have been a member and how active they are. Since the company who runs Steam, Valve, has been around since 1996, many members who have joined at the beginning of Steam’s initial launch possess an intimate knowledge of how the Steam community works as well as specific items/experience on popular Steam games such as Team Fortress 2. Many of the members I have seen have a variety of difficult or even impossible to obtain items that they received in the past, giving them a significant boost of expertise over new members. This can often also lead to many veteran members giving some duplicates of their prized possessions to novices of the games, or showing them specific ways of playing that could greatly aid them in the future. Thus, this mix of veteran and non-veteran members allow Steam to function as a discourse community in which members can gain advice from fellow experts who possess a significant amount of knowledge on a particular game.


Based upon the results of my project, I can conclude that while Steam may lack the sort of unified and easily apparent forum or newsletter that most discourse communities provide and comprise of individuals who may or may not share the same goal, it also has many features that would inevitably qualify it as a discourse community, overshadowing the “gray area” in Swale’s argument. Since Swales initially introduced the term discourse community using general terms that wouldn’t apply specifically to a certain genre or medium, I believe that there is other qualities that should either replace or add on to some of his characteristics. For example, when evaluating whether or not Steam comprises of individuals that share a common goal, I think that as long as the individuals of the group gain the same sense of enjoyment out of playing the game, it doesn’t matter what the end goal is simply because they are fulfilling a shared desire, which itself may qualify as goal. In addition, the many features and mediums through which Steam allows users to interact with one another as well as leave useful feedback to Steam itself shows exactly how interconnected Steam is, not just between the members of its community but also between those in charge of running Steam and those who use it. This form of connection is only possible in a community whose member’s care about the subject rather than simply using it as a means to land an interview, make a good resume, etc. Since it is a common and voluntary hobby rather than a professional forum, I believe Steam exceeds other groups whose interests are strictly professional simply because it is a matter of personal choice to join Steam rather than a professional one.


In closing, Steam possesses many of the qualities that would illustrate it as a discourse community under Swales’s definition, possessing interesting forms of communication and features that separate it from other gaming communities. Though there are some discrepancy’s between Swales’s definition of the term and what I found, I believe that the other qualities I found make up for or even exceed this initial definition as they provide an even clearer sense as to how a discourse community should function.

Other Data

Though Steam itself can easily qualify as being a discourse community, there are other sites that support Steam as well as offer an alternative means of communication outside of Steam's gaming client. One such site,, not only has its own subreddit involving Steam (/r/Steam), but also set up an elaborate April Fools Day prank in which they bought Team Fortress 2, a very popular game on Steam.


This shows how connected Reddit is to Steam and how the Steam community has a fairly large influence on Reddit and its actions. It also allows individuals to ask general questions on Steam that may not pertain to a certain section on the Steam forums, serving as a way to communicate in regards to Steam while not necessarily using the Steam client.

Works Cited

Swales, J. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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