The internet is perceived as a magical place where everything is free and widely available for sharing. Paying money for stuff we can get elsewhere for free is just ridiculous, right?
Well, yes. It’s hard to deny there’s been a shift in consumer attitudes as far as paying for news and features is concerned, and not just in the games industry. The problem with this attitude is that professional content creators, like journalists and critics, have a need to eat and make a reasonable living.
The money has to come from somewhere if audiences want to keep enjoying quality content. If it doesn’t, the professionals will take their skills into other sectors and leave us with enthusiast media, a group whose ethics are grey at the best of times and non-existent at the worst.
It used to be a case of having a two-fold revenue system. A magazine or newspaper had subscribers, who paid a fixed price for every issue, with additional revenue being generated by advertising. This is a dying system in the world of hard media.
Subscriber numbers are gradually falling away, thanks to the wider availability of news, critique and opinions online. As subscribers dwindle and readership shrinks, there is a comparable drop in the publications advertising value.
So new business models have been compelled to emerge from the evolving landscape. The two-fold revenue system has been reduced to one, which in most cases is advertising.
Subscription-based systems still exist and show signs of being viable (on Twitch, for example), but instances of this are far more common for non-professional content creators, or independent gaming channels.
This brings us to the nature of advertising in New Media and how it can be sustained without influencing journalists and critics. For the purposes of this article I’m going to restrict the focus to the games industry, but it’s a question worth posing to every other sector as well.
Rev3Games (Revision 3 Games), a popular gaming broadcast channel on YouTube headed by veteran journalist Adam Sessler, has product placements in their videos that are disclosed as ‘sponsors’.
This has become a popular method for advertisers to ensure that their products reach a fixed number of viewers. YouTube channels with a large subscriber base will average a number of views for every video they make, meaning a product placement is guaranteed to be seen by at least ‘X’ amount of people.
Professional journalists and critics cannot accept sponsorship from just any company. Conflicting interests and influence are a constant worry for audiences, and there are legalities to be addressed as well.
While it is perfectly acceptable for a games journalist to give a paid slot on their video to promote a travel company’s website or a fast food chain, it is not acceptable to promote a games or tech developer, or their products.
Divisions of interest must be made clear by the presenting party, not least because it’s a legal requirement for them to do so. The reasoning behind this is hopefully quite obvious. A ‘free press’ exists to represent the interests of the public in all sectors of society.
In the case of the games industry, there is a line between public interests and commercial interests. A line which various PR companies and individuals, either deliberately or unknowingly, are making fuzzier every day.
Journalists – good journalists, at any rate – should be under no illusions of where that line is. Their reputation hinges on not crossing that line. Games journalists are no different in this regard: they are obligated to disclose any form of corporate sponsorship in their content.
‘Gifts’ are classed as a form of bribery and must be refused. Being paid to produce specific kinds of content about a certain game or gaming product, regardless of whether or not the creator’s opinions are compromised, is absolutely out of the question.
In January earlier this year, YouTube channel network Machinima stepped into some very murky territory when they agreed to run with Microsoft for a series of Xbox One endorsements.
The agreement was that an extra $3 per 1000 views would be paid to content creators, as long as any participating videos featured at least 30 seconds of footage focusing on the new console and it was mentioned by name.
After being called out on this, Machinima (our ‘professional journalists’) put their hands up and claimed that their content creators (who are NOT journalists) were told to include certain language with any paid promotions in their contracts.
“All participants are being asked today to include our standard language going-forward. We apologize for the error and any confusion.”
They said in a released statement. Microsoft claimed ignorance about any contracts Machinima had communicated to its network of content creators, while requesting that any Xbox One endorsements be branded as paid advertising, as per FCC regulations.
The beauty of this arrangement was that Machinima was JUST about able to distance themselves from the ‘mistakes’ made by their content creators.
From a legal standpoint, it was simple miscommunication. From an ethical standpoint it looked very dodgy indeed. Not only did a games site actively promote content designed to feature a specific gaming product and make money from it, but they also used their network of non-journalist YouTubers as a legal buffer.
Pulling the wool over the eyes of audiences and claiming ‘miscommunication’ after the event is not going to endear journalists to their followers. It will be up to us – all of us – to back up the idea of a free press online.
While there may be a few individuals willing to compromise on their integrity, the rest of us have a choice to support and promote good journalistic practices.
This is even more important for aspiring journalists in online media to understand. By educating audiences, enthusiast media and professionals, it is possible to find the balance and impartiality we value so highly.
Written by Alex Lemcovich (MA Journalism Student at Birkbeck)
Illustration by Alex Lemcovich