Pay for Play: The ethics of paying for YouTuber coverage
There's a new branch of ethical conundrums on the block. With the rise of the video game YouTuber, viewers have started to question whether certain big names in the world of YouTube are being paid off by publishers.
Ethics are regularly a hot topic in video game criticism.
Whether it's readers accusing big-name consumer game sites of taking money for positive reviews, or sites failing to disclose when a trip to see the next big video game was paid for by a publisher, internet forums are often fit to burst with conspiracy theories and compelling evidence alike.
But now there's a new branch of ethical conundrums on the block. With the rise of the video game YouTuber, and video criticism in general, viewers have started to question whether certain big names in the world of YouTube are being paid off by publishers -- and whether it actually matters.
Should Let's Players (people who record and share gameplay for viewers) be bound to the same journalistic ethics and rules as a traditional journalist? Does it matter that your favorite YouTuber rarely has a bad word to say about any game they play? Does YouTube need stricter rules when it comes to disclosure of deals?
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Gamasutra gathered information and opinions from a variety of video game YouTubers, and talked to experts on the matter, to discover where the ethical path is leading for YouTube video game criticism.
Play for money, money for play
Let's begin by finding out what the YouTubers themselves believe when it comes to ethics of publisher payments and disclosure.
I surveyed 141 video game YouTubers, with subscriber numbers ranging from less than 5,000 to more than 1 million, asking whether they had ever received money directly or indirectly from a video game developer or publisher, for recording videos of games.
Below you can see the result, split into two separate groups - the first is YouTubers with less than 5,000 subscribers (70 percent of those surveyed), while the second is all those YouTubers who have more than 5,000 subscribers (30 percent of those surveyed).
The reason I've split these results into two separate charts is to determine whether those who have more subscribers are more susceptible to being paid by publishers. It makes sense that publishers would aim to offer cash to YouTubers with large numbers of subscribers, but I wanted to determine whether this was actually true.
As you can see, 98 percent of those with less than 5,000 subscribers said that they have never received money from a developer or publisher to record videos of games. In comparison, at least 26 percent of YouTubers with over 5,000 subscribers said they had taken money to record videos.
So clearly as you move up the subscriber scale, the bigger YouTubers are being offered cash for coverage or asking for cash to cover games, and at least a quarter of them are taking it. However, that doesn't answer whether the smaller YouTubers would partake in the act if they were given the opportunity.
Is it ethical?
Hence, my survey next asked, "What is your opinion of YouTubers charging money to developers for video coverage, and is it ethical?"
Of the YouTubers with less than 5,000 subscribers, 64 percent said they were against taking money from publishers and developers to record videos of games, while the other 36 percent didn't see a problem with it.
"Considering YouTube is mostly being advertised as a PR platform and not as a platform for legitimate critique, I would not be surprised if bigger YouTubers would charge money for coverage," reads one comment. "In that regard they would provide a service to the game developers."
Another reasons, "If the YouTuber brands himself as a reviewer, it would not be ethical. If the YouTuber is more of a Let's Player, it's really up to him as long as he remains transparent."
Indeed, the general consensus among those who do not see a problem with being paid by publisher is that, as long as it is disclosed somewhere in the video, it's no different from advertising or paid promotion.
"If a YouTuber asks for money for delivering great content, it's not wrong -- it's compensation."
"We -- video creators -- live in complicated times," another YouTuber says. "It is expected from our work to be free. Copyright holders don't want us to monetize, no one likes ads, no one likes paid content -- but we invest our free time into covering the games we love and want to share, basically giving free PR for the game itself. If a YouTuber asks for money for delivering great content, it's not wrong -- it's compensation."
The bigger YouTubers don't appear to hold wildly different opinions on this topic. 40 percent of YouTubers with more than 5,000 subscribers said they were fine with the idea of publishers and developers paying for video coverage, again often with the caveat that YouTubers disclose it.
"Bigger YouTubers are mainly PR mouthpieces," reads one comment from a big YouTuber. "YouTube videos are, in a sense, a form of advertising -- therefore it makes sense to pay for advertising," reads another.
As noted, though, more than half of the YouTubers surveyed were against the idea. Many claimed that taking money from publishers would damage the integrity of the YouTuber, no matter if they disclose the deal or not, while lots say that it's basically a bribe to get YouTubers to say positive things about games.
"You can't be sure the reviewer is unbiased because of that," notes one comment. Another respondent says, "The dev has usually worked hard and sacrificed a lot for years to get their game finished and released. It rubs me the wrong way that some people step in and want a share of it just because they think they can."
You can find the full list of comments from YouTubers on this topic from below.
I touched on the topic of being paid for video coverage when I chatted with prominent YouTuber Ryan Letourneau earlier last month. "There's no set of rules for how PR and YouTubers should interact," he noted. "There's kinda an implied standard based on the way that PR and publishers and journalists interact."
"I don't see why they shouldn't be able to be paid by publishers for what they do."
He added that, "For people that exclusively do Let's Plays, they don't really criticize games or make editorials, they just play games and they have fun with them... I don't see why they shouldn't be able to be paid by publishers for what they do."
It's well worth reading all of Letourneau's thoughts on the topic, as his opinions appear to echo those of many of the bigger video game YouTubers around at the moment.
Other big-name YouTubers have laid out their thoughts on the matter of video ethics too. Most recently, Guns of Icarus Online designer Howard Tsao posted a blog post on Gamasutra about working with YouTubers like Polaris and TotalBiscuit on paid campaigns for his game.
TotalBiscuit, aka John Bain, later responded to a commenter on the article, stating that he is not a reviewer, and did not make a formal assessment of Guns of Icarus at any point, thus his integrity as a YouTuber had not been compromised by the paid coverage of the game.
In his comments, he compares YouTubers being paid for covering games to a mainstream website like Rock Paper Shotgun covering a game, and then splashing adverts for said game all over their site. "Where else exactly would you promote a video game except on video game related content?" he adds.
Again, it's worth reading through the whole exchange between Bain and others in the comments of that blog post, as they mirror the thoughts of many big names in the YouTuber scene.
Truth, transparency, and community
While it's fascinating to hear how YouTubers feel about the ethics of their business, I was keen to get some more official word on the rights and wrongs of paying YouTubers for coverage.
I first turned to Kelly McBride, the ethics expert at highly-regarded school of journalism The Poynter Institute, and editor of the book The New Ethics of Journalism, and she noted that the ethical lines of video content have become rather blurred in recent times.
"The audience finds great value in transparency," she says. "They want to know what your business model is," particularly if that business model includes getting paid for producing the content in question.
She adds, "We used to think...that that content shouldn't exist. That it should either be straight advertising, or it should be straight editorial. As the internet has evolved, it's become very obvious that the lines between advertising and editorial content are going to be significantly blurred."
You don't have to look at video content to see this, she says -- sponsored content, native advertising, content marketing, straight editorial content that's independent of advertising... it's all getting rather messy out there.
"So it's pretty obvious that the audience can tolerate those blurred lines, but they find great value in transparency, and they don't like to be duped," McBride says. "There's a motivator for the content provider to be transparent, and if they're not transparent, that could come back and bite them in the butt at some point, because the audience is going to feel tricked or duped. That's the motive -- to be credible with your audience. They really wanna know what your motives are for providing this content, and if you're getting paid for it, that's certainly relevant to how they judge the information."
"If you're not transparent, it's going to eventually undermine the community."
I provided McBride with the results of my YouTuber survey, noting that many of the respondents said that they didn't believe they should be restricted by the game ethics of traditional journalism. They are just playing games for fun, after all, so why should they have to follow some silly rules?
"And that's the thing -- there are no real standards in this area at all," she says. "I think your survey reinforces the idea that the audience is very tolerant. But we also have this other phenomenon that happens where a lot of the stuff on the internet is fake, and the audience is getting very jaded about fake information when they get duped into believing lies."
"It's almost like there are these two parallel phenomenons going on," McBride adds. "One is that the audience is very tolerant of these blurred lines, and almost encouraging of them, because they find some of the content interesting or entertaining. The other parallel track is that there is all this deceptive content out there, and the audience wants to know who's deceiving them and why."
As McBride sees it, there are three values that are constantly in tension with each other when it comes to any form of content that informs an audience -- truth, transparency, and community -- and the sweet spot for any content provider is hitting all three equally.
"YouTubers in particular -- what they do is they build up these communities around content, and it's very heavily based on their personalities and the specialization of the content," she says. "But if you're not transparent, it's going to eventually undermine the community."
There won't be a one single inflection point for loss of trust in a YouTuber, McBride is keen to stress, but rather, it will be a gradual erosion of value in the content, such that viewers slowly but surely start to slip away from a YouTuber who they once went to for all their opinions.
"Maybe there'll be a bug in a game or there'll be some controversy, and a YouTuber will either fail to mention it, or fail to give it its proper due," she reasons. "Then the community will start wondering 'Well, is that because this person is getting paid?' And they'll start talking about it, and they'll wonder... nothing will happen immediately, but then something else will come up, and they'll start to wonder."
What the law says about disclosing payments
So what about the official law behind the disclosure of payments from developers and publishers? The Federal Trade Commission is an independent agency of the U.S. government that fights for the protection of consumers. The organization has many rules in place that specify exactly how paid promotion should be laid out to consumers.
I spoke with Mary Engle, associate director for Advertising Practices at the Federal Trade Commission, to ask about the ins and outs of payment disclosure on YouTube videos.
"Generally speaking, if an advertiser or a marketer is paying someone to write favorable reviews, the reviewer needs to disclose that," Engle tells me, "and that disclosure should be clear and conspicuous, and should be upfront and easy to see where the viewer won't miss it."
How clear does that have to be, I ask? Take the aforementioned Polaris Guns of Icarus Online video campaign, for example, that featured lots of big name YouTubers like TotalBiscuit, AngryJoe and Jesse Cox. The disclosure in these videos featured at the very bottom of the video description, and users have to open the description and scroll all the way down to find it.
Even worse, if the video is embedded on a website, you can't even see the disclosure. Says Engle, this is not adequate.
"If an advertiser or a marketer is paying someone to write favorable reviews, the reviewer needs to disclose that."
"What we say is that it should be easily seen or viewed (or heard in the case of audio) by the consumer or by the viewer. It should be made within the endorsement message, and within the review. We don't prescribe particular words or phrases that need to be used, but some people might say 'this is a compensated review,' or 'I got this free to try.'"
"It should basically be unavoidable by the viewer," she adds -- perhaps the most important line to note. If a viewer doesn't automatically see or hear the disclosure without having to go hunting for it, it's not legal disclosure.
So what happens, then, if a YouTuber is found to be not offering the correct disclosure on videos?
"The FTC can conduct an investigation to look at what's happening, and determine whether we think there is a violation of the FTC act," answers Engle. "We certainly welcome any complaints -- a lot of our investigations are the results of tips from consumers or reporters."
"If we do bring an investigation, it may or may not turn into a case where the company would be under order," she says. "It varies a lot with the particular facts."
And if a publisher or developer approaches YouTubers asking for paid promotion, specifically stating that they do not want this payment disclosed, YouTubers should absolutely report this behavior to the FTC.
It's clear then, that the ethics surrounding paid promotion in YouTube video game coverage should fall under some scrutiny, as disclosure of payments from publishers and developers is rarely situated in an appropriate place, if at all.
But the blame should also fall on the side of publishers and developers, too. It may be the responsibility of a YouTuber to properly disclose any payments, but those paying the cash should be making sure that said disclosure is appropriate, so as not to allow the YouTuber scene to fall into disrepair.
As with any new movement such as this, it's going to take time to see how this all plays out. But if YouTubers continue to receive payments without proper disclosure, the audience is going to slowly but surely catch on -- and when they do, it's going to be difficult to win their trust back.