The appalling Shadow of Mordor contract signed by YouTubers is a real sign of games media corruption; will it be treated as such?
Corruption in the videogame media is a hot button topic at the moment, so let's talk about corruption in the videogame media. Don't get me wrong; I'm not in the slightest bit interested about the supposed revelation that people who work in the same industry know each other and are even friends, nor am I willing to entertain the puerile fascination with the sex lives of game journalists. That stuff is infantile nonsense; we're talking here about an industry worth tens of billions of dollars, in which millions upon millions change hands in marketing and PR deals every month. You think that compared with that kind of money and power, you can make a case that a handful of academics and indie developers are wielding influence through the simple act of talking to like-minded friends? Get out of here. You don't even know what corruption looks like.
Here's what corruption looks like. Corruption looks like a PR person taking a website editor for lunch and offering a world-first review of a big new game - but only on condition that the game scores 9/10. Corruption looks like an advertising salesman turning up at a journalist's desk and asking to see copy of their upcoming review, because it could jeopardise an ad deal worth tens of thousands of dollars. Corruption, more insidiously, looks like journalists being flown halfway around the world to review a game in an all-expenses-paid luxury resort, or getting a shiny new smartphone pre-loaded with screenshots of the game (instead of, you know, just emailing the damned things) as a terribly unsubtle bribe.
"Corruption looks like a PR person taking a website editor for lunch and offering a world-first review of a big new game - but only on condition that the game scores 9/10"
Followers of the recent harassment-dressed-as-consumer-campaigning saga have seemed mostly unconcerned with that kind of corruption, possibly because it didn't involve any sex - although god knows there are enough tales of PR people taking journalists to strip clubs and brothels, and I've personally been on a press trip where a PR person, barking enthusiastically up the wrong tree in entirely the wrong damned forest, intimated a willingness to pay for a prostitute on expenses. Maybe a bit more salaciousness would get people interested in this side of things; the reality is that corruption is a flow of money and power, and money and power cannot flow from people (indies, academics, etc.) who don't have either of them.
Equally, though, the soi-disant consumer activist mob might be surprised to find out just how little of this kind of corruption actually still exists. In fact, games journalists are one of the most extraordinarily ethics-obsessed groups of people you'll ever come across. It's completely impossible to go for drinks with other members of the games media without ending up in an ethics discussion; is it right to let publishers pay for travel expenses? Should we ever let interviewees see questions in advance? Is it okay for reviewers to discuss the game they're playing with other reviewers? What should we do with review copies of games after we're finished with them? Should all the freebies publishers send us be sold off for charity? These questions and countless others have gone round and round over the past ten years, to the point where games media websites generally have more rigorous and honest ethics policies than almost any other area of the media. Seriously, see if you can find a film review anywhere that tells you who bought the journalist's dinner and paid for his taxi to the cinema - details which have become almost de rigueur on major games websites.
"Want to find out who's doing deeply underhanded things to change the narrative around videogames this week? Allow me to introduce you to a company called Plaid Social Labs"
Even so, you don't have to look very far for corruption. Want to find out who's doing deeply underhanded things to change the narrative around videogames this week? Allow me to introduce you to a company called Plaid Social Labs. They're a marketing company that works with a variety of companies ranging from restaurants to healthcare firms, but most notably with game companies. They've worked with Sony, with Ubisoft and most recently - and most controversially - with Warner Bros on the marketing campaign for Shadow of Mordor. Plaid Social Labs does a variety of things, some of them entirely above board; they make pre-roll ads that run before YouTube videos, for example, and they hire YouTube stars to make ads for their clients, such as getting Rhett & Link (a YouTube duo famous for making amusing commercials for small businesses across America) to make an ad for restaurant chain Arby's. That's all fine; it's essentially just acting as a bridge between big companies and brands which don't get YouTube, and the increasingly important YouTube audience and community of creators.
Here's what's less fine. For Shadow of Mordor (and supposedly for several other games), Plaid Social Labs was in charge of distributing review copies of the game to YouTube broadcasters, and they did so on terms which were genuinely, overtly abusive. Broadcasters who wanted early access to the game code, which is pretty much the lifeblood of any professional media channel, had to agree to publish certain types of content, to be entirely positive about the game, not to mention certain things, to mention certain other things, and finally, most egregiously, to give Plaid Social Labs final approval over the content before it was posted. I say this is overtly abusive because it's actually abusive on two different levels; it abuses the broadcasters with whom Plaid Social is dealing, and it utterly abuses the trust of those broadcasters' audience.
"A video featuring an affable presenter talking to us directly from our screens is intrinsically more trustworthy, to our silly mammal brains, than a page of text"
The trust of the audience is a big deal. Something we've started to understand as video has become one of the dominant forms of expression online is that we humans are hardwired to trust video more than we trust text. A video featuring an affable presenter talking to us directly from our screens is intrinsically more trustworthy, to our silly mammal brains, than a page of text - even if the affable presenter is talking complete bobbins without a fact or a reference in the world, and the page of text is written by a confirmed expert and completely backed up with references. People who follow YouTube broadcasters and Twitch streamers end up feeling like they have an extremely close relationship with that broadcaster; they see their faces and hear their voices multiple times a week, and in the case of many YouTube broadcasters, they also get to see the inside of their homes or witness their interactions with their friends on video. Even the method of consumption subtly encourages the development of trust; we often leave YouTube or Twitch streaming while we do other things, so the broadcaster's image and voice accompanies us in our daily tasks, becoming deeply ingrained as a likeable, like-minded "friend". A video broadcaster can create a trust relationship with an audience member in the space of a single video, where a writer could take years and years to develop that kind of trust with his readers; indeed, he probably never will.
We saw this in action, in fact, in the recent harassment scandal, which was largely fuelled by the production of short videos "documenting" the supposed abuses and corruption of the campaign's targets. These videos were outright character assassinations, filled with utter untruths; yet no amount of pointing out these untruths on the part of the "traditional" media could sway people, and no amount of evidence to the contrary could make those allegations disappear. Why? In part, because they appeared in video; so often, attempts to engage and debate just ended up coming back to the stark reality that a large number of consumers inherently trust video content created by amateurs, and inherently distrust text content created by professionals.
That's fine; that's the way humans are wired, and we just have to live with it. But it's also a human trait that's insanely, dangerously open to abuse. It was abused by those claiming to campaign against corruption, in order to turn the instinctive concerns of some consumers into a vicious hate-mob; with shocking irony, it is also consistently abused by game publishers and marketing companies, who know that YouTube audiences are trusting and that YouTube broadcasters are, bluntly, usually unprofessional and often unethical.
All those long debates about journalistic ethics? With some notable and very worthy exceptions, they completely passed by the YouTube community, who have shot overnight from being amateur hobbyists to actually making a living from their videos - in some cases, a pretty significant living. They still hate to be called "professional", one of many labels which YouTube broadcasters tend to avoid with the vehemence of a hissing vampire trying to dodge the sunlight; they're not fond of "reviewer" either, and they absolutely hate "journalist". In other words, they despise any label which might suggest that they have an ethical responsibility to their audience, or that their content, with its enormous number of views, might be influencing people's purchasing decisions. This is, of course, self-serving nonsense; if it wasn't influencing people, then publishers wouldn't be spending so much money trying to bribe and cajole you into saying positive things; they don't do it just to feel good about themselves in the morning.
" they love the idea of their YouTube "friends" being enthusiastic amateurs, an ordinary guy with a webcam and a passion for games, so different from the murky corruption of the traditional media"
It's nonsense that flies with their audience, to some extent; they love the idea of their YouTube "friends" being enthusiastic amateurs, an ordinary guy with a webcam and a passion for games, so different from the murky corruption of the traditional media. Yet in reality, that "amateur" label is allowing YouTube broadcasters to be prey to (and often, willing partners in) a level of corruption far, far worse than anything you're likely to come across in the traditional media. Hiding behind the charm of the enthusiastic gamer broadcasting from his bedroom is a ruthless business sense that is exploitative, corrupt and deeply unethical.
So much sound and fury in the past few weeks has been based on the gut feeling of many gamers that the media is "corrupt", and the tragic irony is that they're right - but they're looking in all the wrong places. How many naive camp followers have been tapping out messages of righteous indignation on Twitter while their favourite (amateur, enthusiastic, trustworthy, "proper gamer") YouTuber waxed lyrical about Shadow of Mordor in the background, I wonder? Perhaps they were enthusing about a Sony-published indie title (Plaid Social boasts that they got 166 videos published on Sony indie games last year), or a Ubisoft game (Far Cry and Assassin's Creed have both had the Plaid Social treatment). Either way; if you want to talk about corruption in the games media, sure, let's talk. But let's talk about actual corruption, the kind where power and money is involved; anything else isn't corruption, it's just conspiracy, lies and misdirection.