The Deep-Rooted Issue of Incentivized Reviews

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.

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Graph provided by WebRetailer

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.

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From Kotaku writer Kirk Hamilton’s review of Destiny: Rise of Iron

 

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.

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2 thoughts on “The Deep-Rooted Issue of Incentivized Reviews

  1. In general, I don’t think there is a problem with a company paying a public figure to comment on their products. However, it needs to be disclosed. I think incentivized reviews are the direction advertising is going in these days, but, again, it needs to be pointed out when this is the case.

    I liked your Amazon example, because I have fallen victim to this multiple times. I am a big Amazon shopper and often order things like t-shirts and workout shorts. I’ve noticed that off-brand things, specifically products that are competing with big companies like Under Armor and Haynes, are the ones that are most often encouraging users to post reviews. These reviews are usually quite long and, when you are scrolling and do not click “see more” to read the entire 300-word review, you miss the “I was given this product in exchange for my honest review” disclaimer at the bottom. When you don’t see that disclaimer, it just looks like the item has 50 positive reviews and, because of that, the items are listed along side the big names when you search generic things like “black t-shirt.” One way to fix this, would be to require the disclaimer to be the first thing in one of these ads. I am not saying that Megan H. doesn’t really enjoy her shirt, but as someone who is getting free things, there is definitely an intensive (unspoken or not) to continue reviewing them positively.

    This also gets into celebrity-endorsed products on Instagram. A lot of celebrity, particularly reality stars like the Kardashians and Bachelor contestants, are paid to say “check out this product, I love it!” Some companies, as Chrissy Teigen recently pointed out, require these posts to include #ad or #spons for clarity, but there is no standard. On my own newsfeed, I often see celebrity-sponsored ads for detox teas and teeth whitening products that don’t clarify with the #ad. On the other hand, I also see bigger companies, like Tresemme and Captain Morgans, being careful to clarify the nature of the post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Personally, I don’t have a problem with private video game reviewers being paid to review games. They aren’t journalists and have never claimed to be – many start out just reviewing games for fun, so they aren’t bound to the same code of ethics as a video game reviewer for an established news organization might be. My opinion is the same with any paid customer review – it should be revealed, but it isn’t ethically wrong for someone to be paid to give a positive review. It’s just advertising, comparable to celebrity endorsements.

    Journalists, however, have to hold themselves to a higher standard. It’s common practice for journalists to receive free tickets and products to review or cover, but mostly, reputable journalists shouldn’t let that color their work. I’m not sure if I agree with your assessment that IGN is giving higher scores to video games because they want to maintain a rapport with companies: this might be true of a smaller reviewer, but IGN is both established and popular, so I don’t know if honestly reviewing products would result in severe repercussions for the outlet.

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