Is It Fair For YouTube Content Creators To Receive Money From Publishers?
In what is perhaps unsurprising news, a recent survey carried out by Gamasutra revealed that almost a dozen YouTube stars admitted to accepting money from gaming publishers in exchange for coverage on their games. The survey asked 141 YouTubers questions regarding ethics and video game criticism. While the data is available for you to process as you see fit, I want to discuss the issues surrounding such a deal since it is something widely debated between gamers, content creators and journalists, and is still a bit of a gray area. In light of YouTubers admitting to “receiving money directly or indirectly from a game dev/publisher for recording videos of their games”, I want to address the core issues that surface once such a deal is in place. Strap in gentlemen, it’s time to debate.
Before that I’d like to issue the disclaimer that I am absolutely not a backer of the argument that these YouTubers have no right to complain about such and such regarding wanting or needing compensation because all they do is record themselves playing games and whatever. In other words, the silly argument that they should “get real jobs”. For me that argument stems from a repressed jealously towards someone who has turned something they’re passionate about into something profitable, and achieved success with it. If you’re lucky and gifted enough to become a successful YouTube personality or anything in the indie field really, then it’s your good fortune and you most likely earned it. I mean, just trying to wrap my head around that argument makes it spin. I review games, which means all I do is play them and then write about them. Why is it alright for us but not YouTube content creators? That’s just one tiny hole in the argument. There’s plenty else, such as providing something people enjoy and want to consume, and being independent and putting in the effort and all the rest.
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With that out of the way it’s time to discuss the implications of such a partnership, if you will. First and foremost I believe that with YouTube personalities, fans generally know who they do and don’t trust. They form a relationship or attachment to these YouTube personalities, and it becomes a mutually beneficial relationship. Many famous content creators like PewDiePie, Markiplier, Boogie and Angry Joe and so forth have closely-knit communities who function as exactly that: a community. Therefore I believe that if such a deal is taking place with publishers, the first step for it to be acceptable is for there to be absolute crystal clear transparency about it. From there, you are free to make your own decision regarding whether you still want to trust that YouTubers’ opinions or not, because on some level you do know them personally. While I can’t speak for others, I do know that Boogie disclosed this information to his fans, and if this is taking place then there is room for it to work out.
However. As is often the case we live on planet Earth and not in an ideal world. In an ideal world, receiving money in exchange for covering a game would be fine under the condition that it does not affect a fair review. But since ‘paying for advertising’ means the payer wants positive press, that’s where things become iffy. If the agreement does not affect fair criticism and honesty, whether via Let’s Playing or reviewing, then ideally it should be allowed to stand. But the problem exists because it puts doubt over the coverage said content creator is doing. It casts a shadow over credibility. When a new game gets a shiny nine out of ten or a rave review from said content creator, it is expected that some camps may cry foul based on the knowledge that there is a monetary relationship with publishers. I can get behind the idea that if a publisher wants their game to be covered, give a free copy to the content creator and leave money out of it. But at the same time, I can’t necessarily tell users whether or not to trust someone who has accepted such compensation. I only put forward that users should be aware of the possible implications, and understand why it affects credibility.
By that token alone, as a games writer I would not accept monetary compensation in exchange for coverage, just because it understandably puts doubt into the mind of consumers and to them feels like a dishonest practice. It also means that every high score I give out will come under scrutiny. It is very difficult to not have your perceptions affected in such a deal, and equally difficult not to have the perceptions of a portion of your fans affected by it. Fair earnings for YouTubers is generally down to ads, donations or the selling of merchandise and such, and those are commonly regarded as their own achievements. But as soon as publishers creep into it, it starts getting controversial. You need to understand what is acceptable and fair, such as receiving a free copy of a game for review, and what isn’t, which would be receiving payment or exclusive coverage rights in exchange for a positive review.
If anything this proves that you can’t be blinded by a YouTubers’ assumed independence and believe that they’re automatically more trustworthy than a games journalist or writer, as they can also partake in similar relationships. It also proves that with anything you need to form your own opinions and conclusions, and it’s up to you to decide how you view such a relationship between content creators or journalists and publishers. The only way it could possibly be acceptable is through complete transparency with the user base, and even then many will still be unhappy about it if the coverage is in the form of a review or a Let’s Play where an opinion on the game is given. How I see it is that it is something that should be avoided, but it’s not for me to judge unless there is clear evidence of foul play, which would be forced positive coverage or something to that extent.
At the end of the day, the thing about being an independent artist or content creator is that you have to earn your fortune. I would know since I’m striving to be an indie author, and self-published my first novel at the start of this year. With YouTube, as mentioned above, that stems from having enough subscribers that ads or selling merchandise become viable ways for profit. What must also be taken into account is that some of the content creators, like the Let’s Players, aren’t necessarily there to critique games, but entertain, and perhaps that in itself can be part of the reason why such a relationship could be alright for their fans. On the other hand, some fans would prefer hearing honest takes on the games from said Let’s Players, and as already mentioned it depends on the individual fan and their assessment of the content creator and the relationship in question.