It’s a pretty disheartening time to be champion of YouTube objectivity. Last week, it emerged that prominent Battlefield 4 YouTubers were accepting a pay cheque from EA in return for saying lovely things about what turned out to be one of the most broken games of 2013.
EA insists that the rules of their ‘Ronku promotional partnerships’ specify that participants must disclose that videos are being sponsored by the publisher. Only the full contractual details (which I don’t have access to) could confirm that, but what is clear is that multiple popular YouTube channels did not follow Federal Trade Commission guidelines and EA apparently did nothing to police its own promotion. Almost as if they had something to gain from scores of Battlefield 4 videos that were financially obliged “not to focus on glitches” being seen by unsuspecting millions.
FTC guidelines are just that; guidelines. They provide a guide on how to avoid falling foul of US advertising laws, but aren’t actually enforceable in and of themselves. The FTC explained to Polygon how this works, but basically if you’re screwing up the guidelines you may trigger an FTC warning and investigation, which in turn could result in a charge of violating advertising law. It’s doubtful whether the FTC would bother going after individual YouTube users, and there’s unlikely to be enough of a legal trail to implicate EA, Microsoft or any of the other major companies engaging in these shenanigans.
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Another case of the financially powerful exploiting weak regulation, right? That’s a depressing enough thought in itself, but what’s worse is how few people seem to care about the issue at all.
If you’re one of the people who doesn’t much care, this article may well struggle to change your mind. But I think many more people should care about this, and I’m going to do my best to explain why the EA scheme, and all others like it, are so damaging.
What do readers and viewers of videogame media want from their critics? I consider myself part of both circles, because as well as writing for IncGamers, I read and view plenty of stuff created by other people. Like most, I don’t want to waste my time, so I want those things to have meaning and critical value. By that, I mean works expressing views that are the critics’ own. Creations that are honest. If they’re funny and interesting, that all helps too.
Anybody who has accepted money to express a particular opinion about a game on behalf of the game’s publisher is no longer giving their own views. If that person does not disclose, in full, to their reader or viewership that a post or video is sponsored by an external source with a vested interest, they are being dishonest.
I’m pretty confident that “opinions restricted by a contractual obligation to be positive” and “dishonesty by omission” aren’t facets that many people look for in a critic of any media. We’re on safe ground there, right?
So when somebody on YouTube appears to be offering their own view on Battlefield 4, but in actual fact is accepting money from EA to say (or avoid saying) very specific things about the game, we can agree that’s a bad thing. It’s doing the exact opposite of the thing the video is purporting to do. Instead of one guy’s opinion on Battlefield 4, you’re getting EA’s “please, for the love of god, buy Battlefield 4“ message instead.
I realise it’s difficult for online games journalism to criticise these practices without coming off as hypocritical. Between us, we’ve burned through a whole lot of credibility and trust. I can’t really blame a reader for rolling their eyes when a gaming site expresses shock at supposedly independent critics getting into bed with publishers. You don’t say! Now, how’s that exclusive day one review coming along?
Just as online sites all-but destroyed the mass market for printed games writing (and also destroyed people’s willingness to pay for any of it; a major factor in the low overall quality of online coverage,) YouTube personalities are chipping away at traditional sites. So it’s easy to paint this as pure revenge too. The online sites delighting in YouTube finally getting a splash from the “all games journalism is corrupt” brush.
There may be some truth in that. It’s always baffled me that YouTube has been regarded as a magical bastion of objectivity for so long, when all evidence suggested it was as fallible (more so in many respects) than any other system of criticism. But while it does please me that some people will now be revising that view, I don’t take any joy in the revelation that YouTubers took money to shill for videogames. That’s just depressing.
This isn’t about us being mad at YouTube. YouTube hosts some fantastic critics, and will continue to do so. They’ll be the ones making videos right now about how outrageous this whole thing is. Because they get it. They care.
The popularity of YouTube is precisely why this stuff matters. YouTube channels give their opinions to millions of people. Actual millions. You know who definitely thinks this is a big fucking deal? EA does. I’ve only got a passing familiarity with advertising rates, but I do know that the Ronku money of $10.00 USD per 1,000 views is an amount not to be sniffed at. These are companies who can afford to advertise videogames during major US sporting events. They have a lot of money to influence people with and they take a lot to time to consider where to spend it. From their perspective, buying YouTubers is money well spent.
So, if you’ve found a YouTube channel that you enjoy and that you feel has demonstrated their integrity, please keep watching them. A critic like that can be as rare as a unicorn with a legitimate Half-Life 3 release date painted on their flank.
Obviously if you’re an IncGamers reader, we hope you feel we provide you with that too (the integrity, not the unicorn.) If you’re swinging by for the first time, hello. We’re not the best-known PC site out there, but we try very hard to earn enough to survive while keeping marketing at arms-length. Here’s our Battlefield 4 review. We found it was pretty broken. So we said so.
It didn’t help that Microsoft and the Xbox One were the first to be implicated in this mess, because it unwittingly fed into the newly dug trenches of the latest console wars. Too many interpreted it as just another bomb to lob at Microsoft, rather than a widespread issue that affects everybody. “Sony probably do it too!” came the cry. Yeah, maybe. That would be just as shameful. Show me some evidence and let’s expose those guys too.
When people just stop caring, it makes me sad. I want people to be up in arms about “bought” criticism in any sphere, but especially videogames because that’s the area in which I work. Call us out. Hold us to account. Support the people you like, but don’t cling to them when they’re exposed as industry shills. With FTC and advertising law so weak, it’s the only way things can improve.
In the recording industry payola scandal of the 1950s it was the cash-pocketing DJs who took the biggest hit to their credibility, while the major record promoters continued on pretty much unscathed. Since the majority of wrongdoing in this affair seems to be ethical rather than legal, the same outcome is likely. A whole lot of YouTubers just threw away a whole lot of trust for EA’s 30 pieces of silver, and trust is something critics cannot easily re-establish. The games writing industry learned that lesson. If their audience cares enough, YouTube will learn it too.