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 The ludicrous freebies and swag - TVs, new computers, more booze, and god knows what else - have mostly been replaced by the occasional plastic figurine or slim artbook.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.

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Latest comments (18)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 years ago
Corruption might destroy a channel, but it will neither destroy the demand for this type of content, nor the culture surrounding it. Which will lead to more corruption and more people trying to destroy each other with allegations of corruption. Enjoy.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd7 years ago
Anyone could see the collision of YouTuber 'entrepreneurs' and publishers after guaranteed exposure coming a mile off.

The most heavily compromised YouTube personalities have shown absolutely no contrition to an audience they've been trying to deceive. As with click-chasing news blogs (Destructoid, Kotaku) beforehand, they've tried to duck responsibility by claiming to not be journalists.
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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital7 years ago
I don't understand why anybody still believes in the "morality" of the gaming market. People are getting paid to say good things about products they should independently review, mind tricks are used to extract money from customers, kids are being sold stuff that should normally be available only for 18+... gaming industry is just like any other part of the western world right now (that's not a social criticism, it's just statement. I am part of this as well)

Everybody is in it do make money. The last honest guy in the industry died of hunger years ago ;-)
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Show all comments (18)
Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 7 years ago
Jakub, anyone with your cynical attitude cannot make entertainment which touches, inspires and otherwise wakes people up. And unless you do that you won't make money.

Making money is a BYPRODUCT of doing good work.
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Rafa Ferrer Localisation Manager, Red Comet Media7 years ago
Same thoughts here, Tim.

I don't think it's nowhere near OK for the press to be an advertisement outlet. For that we already have ad agencies. A specialised press that educates consumers is key to any industry with any trace of self-respect.
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Andrew Clayton Assistant Designer, EA DICE7 years ago
As someone who at least attempts to maintain a youtube channel regularly, I can attest to the fact that doing these videos can be, and often is, a full time job. The problem right now is maintaining a source of income. Since the content offered is available for free, the only viable way is via advertising. Youtube's built-in monetization is an extremely poor revenue stream, which leaves those who want to be dedicated to this sort of gaming media very few avenues to pay the bills. I have a (fantastic) full time job that helps to cover the expenses I incur for my youtube channel, but that also means the frequency and quality of my content suffers dramatically.

As of yet I cannot find a viable method of income that doesn't compromise some sort of ethical guidelines. Until I find a solution that fits, I'm certainly not going to throw stones at these types of youtube personalities. I might take what they say with a grain of salt, but I'm not going to call for their heads on a stake.
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Alex Lemco Writer 7 years ago
Are we going to pretend that this situation was never coming? Alright, then.

We - the gaming press - know that taking free drinks, travel and hotel accommodation from PR folk is wrong...But some of us did it anyway. Hell, some of us continue to take incentives in one form or another. It's like every other scenario where corruption and rule-breaking is known but never talked about. It's like the Tour de France. Once you're 'in' and you witness 'the way things work' for the first time you have a choice: keep your mouth shut and have a career, or open it and be frozen out of the crucial inner circles. Best of luck if you go for door number two.

There is an incredibly fine line between actions that serve consumer interests and actions that serve commercial interests, especially in the games and tech industry. Most of the time the actual consumers don't seem too sure of where that line is. They defend companies who sell them duff gaming products, with the qualification that said company will "fix it later". Sorry, but what?! In no other industry on the planet will consumers ever accept being sold a product that is either unfinished or substandard, yet in the games industry they do. And these are the people we're supposed to be speaking out for; people who will attack journalists in the forums just for raising legitimate criticisms.

That fine line is evident in the kinds of coverage we're asked to provide on a daily basis. I've lost count of the PR-driven hype pieces I've had to spew out. Games journalism seems to bear a remarkable similarity to PR work, particularly when it comes to covering events like E3, PAX and Gamescom. And we can't exactly stop; if I refused to write or publish any information fed to me through various mailing lists, I could kiss my contacts in mainstream development goodbye. There is a balance of sorts to be struck, a silent contract of "I write the stories I can find and quote whoever will give me the time of day; meanwhile I'll talk about your games".

Journalists are not free of corruption or feelings of personal obligation to the Land of PR just because we aren't able to take paid promotions directly.

Machinima pulled off a magnificent display of ethical acrobatics earlier this year, when they offered their network of YouTubers the chance for extra revenue if they featured 30 seconds of the Xbox One console and mentioned it by name. The actual journalists within Machinima didn't endorse the Xbox One, but their Partners on YouTube - who AREN'T journalists - did. Machinima still got called out on it (and rightly so) but were able to pass it all off as a contractual 'miscommunication', while Microsoft claimed ignorance of whatever Machinima had told the YouTubers under its wing. The truth is that they used their community of YouTubers, who aren't professional journos and therefore wouldn't be expected to see the line they were crossing, as a legal and ethical buffer.

YouTubers do not see themselves as journalists or their content as holding a degree of journalistic value; they see themselves as personalities and entertainers. PR folk and advertising agencies are keen for them to continue in this belief, as it makes them a hell of a lot more flexible than we are to endorse products or companies in the gaming world. If we want to prevent unethical corporate sponsorship, we can start by standardising the way sponsored content is declared. If audiences are able to make an informed distinction between that and the free press, their support or condemnation will determine how things improve.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alex Lemco on 18th July 2014 5:59pm

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Sergio Rosa7 years ago
I have to say it was somewhat ironic to see how youtubers felt insulted when Phil Fish said they had to share their monetization revenue with devs for making profit from the dev's content, but feel perfectly entitled to ask devs for revenue share when they make youtube videos about their games.
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Josef Vorbeck Producer, Chasing Carrots7 years ago
In the end, what matters is, if they can safe their authenticity. I'm happy for everyone who is able to make money with their passion for games and is still grounded.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 7 years ago
Back during the Blu-ray HD DVD war we were one of the few outlets who were backing Blu-ray. Jp even though we were constantly accused of bEIng in the take, we were not. Of course, the owners of some major outlets received complete home theater makeovers, ad buys at stratospheric rates where people with formerly modest incomes somehow purchased sports cars and $5k watches. All of this in short order after they backed HD DVD.

ILL one free bluray player, and one free HD DVD player that everyone got at the CES party. And of course the typical movies we would have gotten anyway being on the screener list. Too bad I wasn't on the take, I could really use that moony right about now (joke). If these people want to take sponsorships, they need to be open and honest about it. "This episode sponsored by Ubisoft" is probably enough to cover butts. It's when you hide it that problems arise.

If Bungie flies you out and shows you the tone to write stuff about Destiny, acknowledge it I chalk a lot of this up to people who being outside journalism don't know the rules, and saw a chance to make some bread without thinking of the bigger picture. I'm hoping this exposure of the issue will give them pause in the future.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 7 years ago
@Tim Carter:
Making money is a BYPRODUCT of doing good work.
That's a good attitude to have, since feeling rewarded by doing good work is a much more reliable way to feel rewarded than to depend on money for that.

It's not only possible, but common to do good work that results in little or no financial reward, and to do work that is not particularly good that results in massive financial reward. (How many games can you think of that are both little known and far, far better than Flappy Bird?) There is a lot more luck than games-making skill involved in getting rich.
Jakub, anyone with your cynical attitude cannot make entertainment which touches, inspires and otherwise wakes people up. And unless you do that you won't make money.
As per above,it's perfectly possible to make lots of money without "mak[ing] entertainment which touches, inspires and otherwise wakes people up."

Nor does the cynical attitude expressed by Jakub mean that you cannot make such entertainment. In fact, I find that this sort of attitude can help you do that. If you admit that making a great game, rather than a piece of schlock, doesn't greatly increase your chances of making money, you free yourself to concentrate on the game, rather than on the money. Or, if you decide you do need to concentrate on the money part of it, you can at least be aware when you're doing this and avoid letting it infect your game.
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Tanya Rei Myoko Programmer 7 years ago
Let's players are not artists.
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Gil Salvado 3D/2D Artist 7 years ago
Gosh, I don't really have to read this article, do I? As if it wouldn't been obvious enough ... One has to wear pink sunglasses all day to be so naive to believe their's any media that is not somewhat corrupt. Except politics.
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Jamie Knight International Editor in Chief, Playnation7 years ago
Yje main problem for actual indie publications is getting to do the job in the first place, with PR's and marketing departments as well as developers themselves totally overlooking smaller and/or indie outlets in favour of a paid result from Youtubers and larger sources.

to get that unbiased review you have to actually issue the review code

anyone from any company trying to say this doesn't go on will be outed if I have you on our list of review buyers...isn't that right Jakub
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 7 years ago
Jamie, it's that unbiased review they're often scared of :)

Part of doing this is learning how to walk the line between your emotions and something that will at least keep the friends you have. For example, my review of Madden 15, even though I have never played a Madden game, I believe this is fully accurate:

"It's football, again. Morons will still plunk down $60 for a list of names on the same game they bought last year"

Or you can phrase it like this "Madden, the standard bearer when it comes to football games once again delivers the experience it's users have come to expect, with the usual roster updates, play tweaks, and new animations to further refine it's presentation of the game"

Same information, but one keeps your friends, and the other makes you enemies. There's legitimate concern that many Ndynoutlets who get hits with bomb throwing quite often are going to trash you, and the rep only gets in trouble if they provided the copy. They're typically too overworked to deal with this kind of thing, and wish to remain employed, so they only take the safe route.

My suggestion to indies, save your bombs for things that are inexcusable. Rbi Baseball shipping with no multiplayer, and a super premium price tag on consoles, while being 75% less on mobile would be a great example.

So to think that the less scrupulous people buy reviews, and that the greedy/less aware will take it is no supruse. I know I've never taken an incentive to espouse an opinion I didn't believes, and that includes clients I represented in negotiations. I hope some good public shavings will teach others the same
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Ruben Monteiro Engineer 7 years ago
Jakub, anyone with your cynical attitude cannot make entertainment which touches, inspires and otherwise wakes people up.
People tend to be inspired by what they're told to be inspired by. They'll follow the shepherd. If you want to make money, just make sure he's on your side.
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Nick Wofford Hobbyist 7 years ago
The Kotaku/Destructoid comparison that someone else posted is the best. It's why I've never gotten into watching Jim Sterling or any other Youtube personality. They all hide behind the same BS wall of "Look at me! I'm a professional! Unless I do something bad. Then why are you getting mad at me? This is just my personal blog!"

It's laughable at best. The only people I've followed are people who are actual competitive gamers, where the best comparison would be an athlete acting as a spokesperson. It's still marketing paid for by the company, but there's a lot less dishonesty in that. No one on the planet is in the dark about whether Tiger Woods is being paid by Nike.
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Print media is a dinosaur, especially when it comes to games, movies, music and other popular culture. 20+ somethings might not realise this as they have grown up with print media. But for kids, aged 5 to 20, print media is obsolete form of media. Young people do not read magazines. Heck, they do not even read digital media, they just watch Youtube.

This is crucial for anyone making games or marketing them to understand. Getting a cover in Edge (circulation 30 000) or Official Xbox Magazine (US circulation 425 000) gives you only a fraction of publicity compared to what few seconds in PewDiePie's Youtube video with 20 000 000 views can give.

As a former games journalist (starting in 1996) it saddens me to see that print media and even digital publications are increasingly a thing of the past. But world changes. Also sad, and more alarming in general, is that the new generation seem to be media illiterate in a way that the do not distinguish between paid content and real independent content. Or maybe they do it in their own way, but I'm just too old to understand it.
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