Opinion: YouTubers, Journalistic Ethics, and the Murky Waters of Taking Money for Game Coverage

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Popular YouTuber and game critic John Bain, aka Totalbiscuit, recently revealed that YouTubers were being offered early PC review copies of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and would be paid to promote it as long as they didn’t say anything negative about the game or expose any glitches they encountered. What’s more, some critics on YouTube (as well as some in the traditional press) tried to get review copies and couldn’t. This is a problem.

YouTubers straddle a fine line when it comes to games coverage as most do not consider themselves critics or reviewers. They are, instead, more like entertainers trading on their personalities or athletes being paid to promote a brand. Their role is to entertain, not evaluate. There is some merit to this argument but, whether they acknowledge it or not, YouTubers have a big influence on their audience.  They are often seen as gamer’s gamers, representative of ordinary people, and as such their opinions carry weight.

In countries like the UK and USA, there are governmental agencies that regulate trading standards and it is required that transactions like this are disclosed.  Unfortunately, this requirement is usually fulfilled with the inclusion of a footnote buried beneath the ‘show more’ button and the majority of viewers are none the wiser.

For better or worse, these types of deals are not particularly unusual and have been going on for years now but what do they typically involve? Well, in the case of Shadow of Mordor, The Escapist’s reviews editor Jim Sterling dug out a copy of the contract being offered to YouTubers and some of its clauses are more than a little worrying.

“Persuade viewers to purchase game”, the contract states. Videos must “promote positive sentiment about the game” and “must not show bugs or glitches that may exist”, it stipulates. This type of skewed coverage is a sticky issue given the pull that YouTube personalities have over their audience but, as long as it’s transparent, may not pose too much of a problem. In this particular case, however, it gets worse. Much worse.

The contract demands that: “The company has final approval on the YouTube video…at least 48 hours before any video goes live”. This vetting of content for approval equates to censorship and reeks of anti-consumerism in the worst possible way. Of course, YouTubers can always purchase a copy at launch and still create content saying whatever they want. By this time, however, many others will have already uploaded their videos and their more fickle viewers will have gone elsewhere. Additionally, any impressions offered after the game’s release date will be of no use to those that have pre-ordered it if it turns out to be a mediocre game.

Many gamers don’t have a problem with these deals as a way for their favourite YouTubers to make a living but withholding pre-release review copies of games from those that won’t sign a contract that would effectively order them to say positive things about the game while enforcing draconian rules against critique and open discourse is worrying. What’s more worrying is that these terms are occasionally enforced by company inspection. When a company maximises potential exposure while stifling criticism and free expression in this way, the consumer loses.

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