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What is Steam?

Steam describes itself as “the ultimate destination for playing, discussing, and creating games.” Through Steam, Windows, macOS, and Linux users can purchase and play all sorts of online games. From Apex Legends to Stardew Valley, all sorts of big-name games and lesser known titles are available through Steam. Common Sense Media calls Steam the gaming equivalent of Netflix, so this platform is clearly an important part of the gaming community … but what is it, and how does it work?

The history of Steam begins with its launch on September 12, 2003, and started as a way for parent company Valve to control patches and updates for their own games. Steam later became a storefront for Valve’s games in 2004, and games from outside companies entered the storefront in 2005. More and more features were added over the years, including the launch of a hub for user-generated content (Steam Workshop), Linux support, a revamped user interface (the Discovery Update), and a VR storefront for Valve Index (the VR headset produced by Steam’s parent company).

You can purchase games through the Steam website and access some community features, but to use Steam games on your computer you need to install the free desktop application. Creating a Steam account is free–all you need is Internet access and an email address. Users create account names which typically do not match their real names for the sake of online anonymity. The process of setting up Steam for the first time can be a little confusing, but this article on Lifewire explains the process very well with screenshots for each step. There are some limitations on new accounts, but once you spend at least $5 in the store, these limitations are removed.

Steam has a large variety of games organized by genre categories: Free to Play, Early Access, Action, Adventure, Casual, Indie, Massively Multiplayer, Racing, RPG, Simulation, Sports, and Strategy. Games vary in cost, with most games priced at $60 or less and many games completely free. If the games you like are more expensive than you’d prefer to pay, keep an eye out for a sale! There are discounts on games almost constantly, along with a major sale every season. When there is a specific game you’d like to keep an eye on in case it goes on sale, add it to your Steam wishlist and you will be automatically notified anytime it goes on sale. When purchasing games, you can buy them for yourself or for anyone on your friends list. Gifting a game or a gift card through the platform takes only a few minutes.

One interesting thing about the Steam store is the variety of games and downloadable content (DLC) for existing games. There are games from major studios such as EA and Rockstar Games, but there are indie (independent) games like Undertale and Hades as well. Many games have DLC, enabling the purchase of official expansions and additional content for a game, but there is fan-created DLC on Steam Workshop, where players can create and upload their own modifications and content for the games they love and share it with the wider community.

While Steam is primarily known as a gaming platform, there are a lot of community features as well. You can add other users as friends, chat, and play games with them. For each dollar you spend on Steam, you earn 100 Steam Points, and can use these points to purchase cosmetics for your Steam profile, along with stickers and emoticons to use in chat. As you play games, you earn trading cards and badges that you can display on your profile. You can also post reviews for games you play to help others decide if they should purchase one.

For those parents out there whose kids want to play games on Steam, the platform has a feature called Family View. When setting up a child’s account, a parent can add their own email as a recovery email and set up restrictions locked behind a PIN in settings. One restriction that can be added is what games can be accessed on your kids’ accounts. If you own some games you do not want your child to access, you can remove those from the Family Games group in your game library, which will prevent them from being opened without the PIN. If you need help with setting up Family View, see this support article. Love Thy Nerd does not have an official presence on Steam, but the platform is used frequently. During LTN Arcade each month, many of the games played are available via Steam.

If you enjoyed this article and are looking for similar ones, check out my articles on how to use Twitch and Discord, or any of the articles tagged as Resources or Education. If you are looking for more help using Steam, check out Steam’s online help site, or ask around in the LTN Discord server or the LTN Facebook community – both have lots of experienced Steam users who would be happy to help!





Rachel Knight has flown her nerd flag high since childhood - ask her dad about the time she read the entire Star Trek Encyclopedia cover to cover. Currently, she is a masters student at Indiana University Bloomington in the Information and Library Science department. Rachel is known best in the LTN community as LibraryKnight, one of the moderators for Love Thy Nerd and LTN Radio on Twitch.

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