YouTube personality videogamedunkey, also known as Jason Gastrow, was offered payment (4:55-5:22) from Microsoft in return for creating a series of YouTube videos showcasing some of their new games. Even when asked, Microsoft failed to provide any requirements Jason needed to meet in his videos. When the first was created, Microsoft forcefully took the video down, cancelled the contract, and provided zero compensation.
Videogamedunkey is not alone in YouTubers being offered money to release a video regarding a company’s video game. Mariella Moon wrote an article titled “Warner Bros. paid YouTubers for positive game reviews,” which discusses the topic of YouTube personalities like PewDiePie playing the game Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, but does not disclose in the video itself that he is being paid to talk positively about the game. In the contract Warner Bros. states that the video “should not communicate negative sentiment,” which of course is not disclosed to the viewers.
Incentivized reviews are nothing new, but recently their existence has become more clear. Amazon is one of the most prevalent victims, and has even sparked websites like ReviewMeta to exist in order to help readers eliminate incentivized reviews bias. On October 3, 2016 however, Amazon announced that they will “prohibit incentivized reviews,” a major step in the right direction.
Video game review websites, such as IGN Entertainment, are especially susceptible to writing incentivized reviews, even if money is not involved. There exists an undeniable favoritism websites like this have for the publishers and developers instead of the consumers themselves. Let’s look at IGN’s articles regarding the game Mirror’s Edge Catalyst: during the two months leading up to the games release, 12 articles were written, and zero articles have been written about it since. It is clear the website cares about hyping up the game, but when it is finally out and everyone has had time to play it, there are not any articles further discussing it.
The bigger issue is that journalists, of all mediums, who are tasked with putting out their opinion on a company’s product, are subtly pressured to speak positively about the product.
Looking at popular gaming website IGN once again, when viewing the 50+ games reviewed in the past 3 months (as of October 2016), the lowest score given was a 5.4. It is not that they fear not getting paid like videogamedunkey experienced, but that they merely want to remain on good rapport with the big companies that give them free games; the simple fact that people like getting free stuff.
Much of the issue with feeling pressured to give positive reviews of games can be traced back to the fact that many websites assign a numerical value to games. Metacritic can be viewed as the epitome of everything wrong with giving reviews a numerical score, for it has even caused “publishers to withhold developer royalties.” If unaware, Metacritic compiles all the numbered scores given to games and displays the average of all those scores. This number has become so significant that publishers have been making deals with developers to alter the amount of money earned by the developers, depending on the resulting Metacritic score of their upcoming game.
Not all major gaming news & review websites use a number though, like Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Kotaku for example. Though Kotaku is often criticized for its style of writing for video game journalism, the site does a solid job of providing a short visual-aid to their reviews. In the IGN review of Destiny: Rise of Iron, many readers scroll to the bottom of the page to find the number, where in Kotaku’s review they see the image below; displaying pros, cons, a quote from the article, details on time spent with the game, and more. This is done in all their reviews as an alternative to a conclusive number.
Video game journalists have to fight a battle of independence when it comes time to review a video game. On IGN ,their reviews are seen on the first page of every google search for reviews on X game, and thus what they say is going to be under close watch by the creators of the reviewed product. That watch creates a struggle for the degree of separation needed between the reviewer and the creator. More websites need to adapt the practice of eliminating a numerical value to their review of video games.
Reviewers of any sort should uphold the journalistic integrity of eliminating outside bias towards the product they are reviewing, and it is important for the owner of the product to not punish them for any negativity the reviewers write. Accepting money to write about a product becomes an issue when that is not explicitly stated for the readers or viewers, but without the transaction some may be unable to afford the life of a video game journalist and/or YouTuber. Though everyone should, big companies like Microsoft should especially be held accountable when creating deals to promote products. No one should fear speaking negatively about something they did not enjoy. Eliminating this fear will help the reviewers, but most importantly, the consumers like you and me.