The internet is currently stuck in the morass of a debate about YouTube gaming personalities accepting money to feature games on their channels. And really, it shouldn’t be. Accepting money in exchange for coverage is wrong – and doing so without telling viewers is doubly so.
YouTubers are popular for two reasons. The first is the great mix of the games they feature, often helping to bring forth titles that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. These channels are very good at making games popular.
The second is that, through these videos, the personalities become beloved by viewers – often just because they’re entertaining, but also because they’re trustworthy because they continue to feature interesting games.
The ‘featuring interesting games’ part of the equation is where taking money becomes a problem.
The internet has made creation and distribution of pretty much any kind of media infinitely easier. It’s why there are so many good indie games, and even why YouTube channels that play games and chat about them are so popular to begin with. This has given media outlets (and I consider YouTubers as media outlets here as much as they are ‘entertainers’) two separate forms of power.
The first is, of course, is what they actually say about what they cover. But they also have power in which games they choose. An outlet can help to grant legitimacy to a game simply by acknowledging its existence. Two games of similar quality can exist on a store, but if one has plenty of articles, reviews, and YouTube videos and the other doesn’t, which one is more likely to succeed – in sales, influence, and any other metric? The one that’s more ‘legitimate.’ The one that has more coverage.
YouTube coverage is especially potent. My favorite anecdote about how well YouTube can drive sales comes from Trinket Studios, the creators of Color Sheep. Their game got featured next to the crossword in the New York Times. It barely moved the needle in sales compared to being featured on VSauce3. That’s right, VSauce3 and other channels are the new Gray Lady when it comes to being influential about games.
That’s why it’s standard among traditional press outlets – especially the mobile press where I’ve seen these kinds of issues pop up back even in 2009, and still occasionally to this day – to not sell that air of legitimacy by taking cash in exchange for coverage. There are ways of getting the press’ attention, yes. But you still have to earn coverage by having something about your game that’s worth talking about. By me putting my word on the line to say “this is legitimate, this is worth talking about.”
Some YouTubers are literally offering up this legitimacy to the highest bidder.
Sure these channels are still featuring games that they discover independently, or that were just marketed to them through the standard PR process. And even for those that make it on to a channel through the exchange of money, it’s hard for a game to hide its flaws when it’s being featured in videos that regularly are gameplay footage with limited cuts. That’s a big part of the appeal of YouTubers; you watch to get a great sense of how a game plays, unedited. And a YouTuber still has to be entertaining to keep their audience.
But talk to a person who watches these channels, and the perception is usually that these are just individuals who find cool games and make videos about them. This is hardly the case even before we talk about the money side of things, as many channels are backed by corporations (and sometimes individuals are often small corporations in and of themselves, which, hey, is fine: Fame, riches, and popularity are difficult for a single person to manage.)
But tell a fan of a personality, like I did to my barber the other day when the subject of TotalBiscuit managed to come up, that they’re taking money to feature some games. They’ll likely react in a similar way: that an implicit trust has been violated, and that they’ll be skeptical in the future.
And the fact that it’s newsworthy when a channel like TotalBiscuit decides that it’s going to say “hey, I’m going to tell you prominently when I’m featuring sponsored content,” is just a statement of the sad state of affairs among YouTubers.
From now on we'll be clearly disclosing promotional videos in a splash screen at the start of the (cont) //t.co/ZAXF71W9t3
— TotalBiscuit (@Totalbiscuit) July 15, 2014
Telling people which content is sponsored is the right thing to do, and is standard practice in the rest of the industry. There’s separation between the people who manage the ads and the people who write the editorial, even here at Gamezebo. Sponsorship is just a reality of a market that has decided that it wants to read and watch content about games for free.
But not only is delineating what’s sponsored and what isn’t the right thing to do morally, it’s also the law. And channels that aren’t doing this aren’t just being unethical – they’re potentially being criminal and should start disclosing which content was created thanks to compensation by sponsors for all current, future, and even past content where possible.
Seriously, we are at a point where Epic Rap Battles of History is acting more ethically than most video game YouTubers in disclosing sponsorships from publishers:
The new media landscape is great because it has allowed for independent voices and creators to be able to establish a presence for themselves based on merit, not just on marketing budgets. And it’s disheartening when these YouTubers, who often position themselves as independent voices, exploit that perception of meritoriousness in the name of making extra money.
YouTubers need to start disclosing when they have accepted cash in exchange for coverage, if not for their integrity and fan base, then at the very least to avoid a very real threat from the FTC.
Ignoring the legal ramifications of not doing so for a moment, though, isn’t it just the right thing to do for the people that have made them popular to begin with?