YouTube games media loses its shine
After thriving on being outside the corrupt commercial games media, this week's revelations have been embarrassing for many YouTubers
Scandals over too-cosy relationships between videogame companies and the media which is meant to report on their products are nothing new; they've been around at least since the advent of the Internet age, and often raged on the letters pages of magazines even before that. Most of the time, these storms are confined to teacups, not least because they degenerate into he-said, she-said tales of hearsay and assumption over a publication's implausibly excellent score for a game, or what favours were or weren't done to receive exclusive access.
On occasion, the teacup spills over and we get a minor cultural shift; I'd argue that this happened, for example, after the Internet car-crash over the Games Media Awards a couple of years ago, in which a couple of writers were unfairly scapegoated for the sins of a far larger swathe of the industry, but the ultimate result was a more cautious and thoughtful mood regarding expensive press trips with lavish accommodation, PR relationships that are more friendly than professional and boxes of "swag" appearing at journalists' doors.
The problem is that the various stories about games journalism in the past decade have constituted a steady drip, drip, drip of minor scandal that has significantly tarnished the whole profession. This is both ironic and sad, because the truth is that the same litany of stories, combined with the efforts of a swathe of excellent writers, have also changed the games media almost beyond recognition over the same period. In truth, the days of the wild junkets, the long nights of PR-funded booze and drugs, and god knows, the occasional dip into even more sordid realms of vice, are all but gone. The ludicrous freebies and swag - TVs, new computers, more booze, and god knows what else - have mostly been replaced by the occasional plastic figurine or slim artbook. Hell, the advent of Steam and PSN codes even means that writers no longer hoover up free games and supplement their income by hauling them down to Gamestop or CEX at the weekend.
"It seems that faith and trust in games publications is lower than it's ever been"
All of that stuff happened; it was all absolutely shockingly awful journalistic ethics and completely unjustifiable. It's also almost entirely gone - and yet ironically, it seems that faith and trust in games publications is lower than it's ever been. Good sites today bend over backwards to show their inner workings, refusing swag, declaring any PR involvement in a story, scrupulously mentioning any conflict of interest. Their reward is constant, bitter invective accusing them of bias, of being in someone's pockets, of accepting bribes or doing dirty deals with publishers.
It's no surprise that other outlets have stepped into the breach, purporting to be games coverage by ordinary folk far outside the cliquey, corrupt games media circus. The largest single sector of the games media now is YouTube, and many of its gaming stars have made their name off the back of simply being entertaining and identifying types of content the old games media never really explored - the Let's Play phenomenon being the major one, although the creation of simple narrative comedy series set in open world games like Minecraft, which is how the Yogscast really made their name, is an ingenius innovation as well. Others, though, have been quite willing to exploit the distrust in traditional media outlets, establishing themselves - and often, by extension, "YouTubers" in general - as being an independent, honest voice that viewers can trust to be free of malign corporate influence.
It's important not to overstate this aspect; not every YouTube channel has taken this approach by any means, and certainly the most popular broadcasters, like the almost incomprehensibly successful PewDiePie, have never even attempted to make hay at the expense of traditional publications. It's also important, though, to realise the extent to which "YouTuber" really is a category; the gaming YouTube community is close-knit, not only through personal contact or discussion among its members but also through a tangled web of cross-promotional activity that's been vital for many broadcasters' attempts to build an audience. This discourages overt criticism between broadcasters, but it also creates the sense of a unified face, and it would be tough to argue that YouTube gaming broadcasts as a whole haven't benefitted from the overt skepticism about "corrupt" traditional media that some of its most vocal members have peddled.
You could forgive some members of the gaming media, then, a little schadenfreude this week, when it emerged that the Yogscast and a whole host of other YouTube channels have been engaged in direct financial dealings with developers and publishers that would make most "traditional" media types blush. Creating Let's Play and other promotional videos for games on the basis of receiving a revenue share from sales generated has, it appears, been standard practice for some time; it's just that Yogscast and everyone else involved conveniently forgot to mention this to anyone until, oh, about a day before an investigative piece by Simon Parkin on the subject was due to be published. This is just the tip of the iceberg, though; it seems that professionalism and ethics have grown a lot more slowly than audience and revenue on YouTube, and many broadcasters are happy to accept trips abroad, gifts and even straightforward hard cash in return for favourable coverage. Moreover, quite a lot of them seem to be bemused and upset that anyone thinks this is actually wrong.
Indeed, reactions to Parkin's piece and various other revelations (Mike Rose also wrote a good piece at Gamasutra on the same topic) have fallen broadly into two categories - YouTubers who don't do this stuff, and are delighted to see it finally come out into the open, and YouTubers who do this stuff, and should probably either be saying "sorry, this is dreadful, we'll stop" or simply not saying anything at all. Instead, sadly, they're saying things, flapping their jaws and their hasty Twitter fingers in the service of digging the hole as deep as it can go. Perhaps the most common form of dissembling has been from those broadcasters downplaying the importance of their own work; "it's just Lets Play videos, don't take it so seriously" being a common theme.
"Sadly, a lot of prominent YouTube gaming outlets seem to have thrown away that advantage in the name of making quick money in very shady ways"
It should go without saying that this is utterly disingenuous and disrespectful of the audience; no matter what you do for a living, if it's important enough for you to get paid for it, it's important enough for any ethical concerns it raises to be discussed in public. That goes double for anyone whose work involves talking about commercial products to an audience with a large proportion of children, as is the case with many YouTubers. You don't get to have a business raking in handsome earnings and then say "nah, this stuff, this isn't important, move along" when your ethics are questioned.
Even that reaction isn't actually new, though; it's been a go-to line for games journalists whose ethical behaviour was called into question for many, many years. "It's just games, it's not like someone died" is the essential argument made over the past decade by a great many people who should know a great deal better in defence of their behaviour or the behaviour of their publications. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
So, I can understand the schadenfreude - let's not forget that plenty of games writers (and the numbers of actual professionals in that profession are dwindling, even as their quality has grown) have been told, wrongly, that YouTubers are going to replace them in the not too distant future. That's rubbish; there's plenty of room for all sorts of media coverage of this extraordinary culture, but as people watch their colleagues forced out of the industry in droves, it's hard not to let a little bitterness form. All the same, schadenfreude isn't helpful. YouTube isn't going away; video logging is going to continue to be one of the most important forms of game coverage, if not the most important overall. This scandal will barely be a bump on the road - but one might hope that it'll be an important bump that will bring about minor but significant lasting change.
YouTube creators do have an advantage in that they're often individuals or small companies where the creative people have control over the business side rather than vice versa - giving them a chance to approach their work with a transparency and honesty that traditional media has struggled to achieve. They can do things better from the outset, where older media outlets have had to fight a battle against embedded business culture in order to improve. Sadly, a lot of prominent YouTube gaming outlets seem to have thrown away that advantage in the name of making quick money in very shady ways. They can still turn this around; but the first step to accomplishing that will be admitting that it's a problem, and showing their audience how it's going to be fixed.