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Pay for Play: The ethics of paying for YouTuber coverage
Pay for Play: The ethics of paying for YouTuber coverage Exclusive
July 11, 2014 | By Mike Rose

July 11, 2014 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive, YouTube

Ethics are regularly a hot topic in video game criticism.

Whether it's readers accusing big-name consumer game sites of taking money for positive reviews, or sites failing to disclose when a trip to see the next big video game was paid for by a publisher, internet forums are often fit to burst with conspiracy theories and compelling evidence alike.

But now there's a new branch of ethical conundrums on the block. With the rise of the video game YouTuber, and video criticism in general, viewers have started to question whether certain big names in the world of YouTube are being paid off by publishers -- and whether it actually matters.

Should Let's Players (people who record and share gameplay for viewers) be bound to the same journalistic ethics and rules as a traditional journalist? Does it matter that your favorite YouTuber rarely has a bad word to say about any game they play? Does YouTube need stricter rules when it comes to disclosure of deals?

[Don't Miss: All of Gamasutra's YouTube coverage]

Gamasutra gathered information and opinions from a variety of video game YouTubers, and talked to experts on the matter, to discover where the ethical path is leading for YouTube video game criticism.

Play for money, money for play

Let's begin by finding out what the YouTubers themselves believe when it comes to ethics of publisher payments and disclosure.

I surveyed 141 video game YouTubers, with subscriber numbers ranging from less than 5,000 to more than 1 million, asking whether they had ever received money directly or indirectly from a video game developer or publisher, for recording videos of games.

Below you can see the result, split into two separate groups - the first is YouTubers with less than 5,000 subscribers (70 percent of those surveyed), while the second is all those YouTubers who have more than 5,000 subscribers (30 percent of those surveyed).

The reason I've split these results into two separate charts is to determine whether those who have more subscribers are more susceptible to being paid by publishers. It makes sense that publishers would aim to offer cash to YouTubers with large numbers of subscribers, but I wanted to determine whether this was actually true.

As you can see, 98 percent of those with less than 5,000 subscribers said that they have never received money from a developer or publisher to record videos of games. In comparison, at least 26 percent of YouTubers with over 5,000 subscribers said they had taken money to record videos.

So clearly as you move up the subscriber scale, the bigger YouTubers are being offered cash for coverage or asking for cash to cover games, and at least a quarter of them are taking it. However, that doesn't answer whether the smaller YouTubers would partake in the act if they were given the opportunity.

Is it ethical?

Hence, my survey next asked, "What is your opinion of YouTubers charging money to developers for video coverage, and is it ethical?"

Of the YouTubers with less than 5,000 subscribers, 64 percent said they were against taking money from publishers and developers to record videos of games, while the other 36 percent didn't see a problem with it.

"Considering YouTube is mostly being advertised as a PR platform and not as a platform for legitimate critique, I would not be surprised if bigger YouTubers would charge money for coverage," reads one comment. "In that regard they would provide a service to the game developers."

Another reasons, "If the YouTuber brands himself as a reviewer, it would not be ethical. If the YouTuber is more of a Let's Player, it's really up to him as long as he remains transparent."

Indeed, the general consensus among those who do not see a problem with being paid by publisher is that, as long as it is disclosed somewhere in the video, it's no different from advertising or paid promotion.

"If a YouTuber asks for money for delivering great content, it's not wrong -- it's compensation."
"We -- video creators -- live in complicated times," another YouTuber says. "It is expected from our work to be free. Copyright holders don't want us to monetize, no one likes ads, no one likes paid content -- but we invest our free time into covering the games we love and want to share, basically giving free PR for the game itself. If a YouTuber asks for money for delivering great content, it's not wrong -- it's compensation."

The bigger YouTubers don't appear to hold wildly different opinions on this topic. 40 percent of YouTubers with more than 5,000 subscribers said they were fine with the idea of publishers and developers paying for video coverage, again often with the caveat that YouTubers disclose it.

"Bigger YouTubers are mainly PR mouthpieces," reads one comment from a big YouTuber. "YouTube videos are, in a sense, a form of advertising -- therefore it makes sense to pay for advertising," reads another.

As noted, though, more than half of the YouTubers surveyed were against the idea. Many claimed that taking money from publishers would damage the integrity of the YouTuber, no matter if they disclose the deal or not, while lots say that it's basically a bribe to get YouTubers to say positive things about games.

"You can't be sure the reviewer is unbiased because of that," notes one comment. Another respondent says, "The dev has usually worked hard and sacrificed a lot for years to get their game finished and released. It rubs me the wrong way that some people step in and want a share of it just because they think they can."

You can find the full list of comments from YouTubers on this topic from below.

YouTuber Ethics Responses - Gamasutra by Michael Rose

I touched on the topic of being paid for video coverage when I chatted with prominent YouTuber Ryan Letourneau earlier last month. "There's no set of rules for how PR and YouTubers should interact," he noted. "There's kinda an implied standard based on the way that PR and publishers and journalists interact."

"I don't see why they shouldn't be able to be paid by publishers for what they do."
He added that, "For people that exclusively do Let's Plays, they don't really criticize games or make editorials, they just play games and they have fun with them... I don't see why they shouldn't be able to be paid by publishers for what they do."

It's well worth reading all of Letourneau's thoughts on the topic, as his opinions appear to echo those of many of the bigger video game YouTubers around at the moment.

Other big-name YouTubers have laid out their thoughts on the matter of video ethics too. Most recently, Guns of Icarus Online designer Howard Tsao posted a blog post on Gamasutra about working with YouTubers like Polaris and TotalBiscuit on paid campaigns for his game.

TotalBiscuit, aka John Bain, later responded to a commenter on the article, stating that he is not a reviewer, and did not make a formal assessment of Guns of Icarus at any point, thus his integrity as a YouTuber had not been compromised by the paid coverage of the game.

In his comments, he compares YouTubers being paid for covering games to a mainstream website like Rock Paper Shotgun covering a game, and then splashing adverts for said game all over their site. "Where else exactly would you promote a video game except on video game related content?" he adds.

Again, it's worth reading through the whole exchange between Bain and others in the comments of that blog post, as they mirror the thoughts of many big names in the YouTuber scene.

Truth, transparency, and community

While it's fascinating to hear how YouTubers feel about the ethics of their business, I was keen to get some more official word on the rights and wrongs of paying YouTubers for coverage.

I first turned to Kelly McBride, the ethics expert at highly-regarded school of journalism The Poynter Institute, and editor of the book The New Ethics of Journalism, and she noted that the ethical lines of video content have become rather blurred in recent times.

"The audience finds great value in transparency," she says. "They want to know what your business model is," particularly if that business model includes getting paid for producing the content in question.

She adds, "We used to think...that that content shouldn't exist. That it should either be straight advertising, or it should be straight editorial. As the internet has evolved, it's become very obvious that the lines between advertising and editorial content are going to be significantly blurred."

You don't have to look at video content to see this, she says -- sponsored content, native advertising, content marketing, straight editorial content that's independent of advertising... it's all getting rather messy out there.

"So it's pretty obvious that the audience can tolerate those blurred lines, but they find great value in transparency, and they don't like to be duped," McBride says. "There's a motivator for the content provider to be transparent, and if they're not transparent, that could come back and bite them in the butt at some point, because the audience is going to feel tricked or duped. That's the motive -- to be credible with your audience. They really wanna know what your motives are for providing this content, and if you're getting paid for it, that's certainly relevant to how they judge the information."

"If you're not transparent, it's going to eventually undermine the community."

I provided McBride with the results of my YouTuber survey, noting that many of the respondents said that they didn't believe they should be restricted by the game ethics of traditional journalism. They are just playing games for fun, after all, so why should they have to follow some silly rules?

"And that's the thing -- there are no real standards in this area at all," she says. "I think your survey reinforces the idea that the audience is very tolerant. But we also have this other phenomenon that happens where a lot of the stuff on the internet is fake, and the audience is getting very jaded about fake information when they get duped into believing lies."

"It's almost like there are these two parallel phenomenons going on," McBride adds. "One is that the audience is very tolerant of these blurred lines, and almost encouraging of them, because they find some of the content interesting or entertaining. The other parallel track is that there is all this deceptive content out there, and the audience wants to know who's deceiving them and why."

As McBride sees it, there are three values that are constantly in tension with each other when it comes to any form of content that informs an audience -- truth, transparency, and community -- and the sweet spot for any content provider is hitting all three equally.

"YouTubers in particular -- what they do is they build up these communities around content, and it's very heavily based on their personalities and the specialization of the content," she says. "But if you're not transparent, it's going to eventually undermine the community."

There won't be a one single inflection point for loss of trust in a YouTuber, McBride is keen to stress, but rather, it will be a gradual erosion of value in the content, such that viewers slowly but surely start to slip away from a YouTuber who they once went to for all their opinions.

"Maybe there'll be a bug in a game or there'll be some controversy, and a YouTuber will either fail to mention it, or fail to give it its proper due," she reasons. "Then the community will start wondering 'Well, is that because this person is getting paid?' And they'll start talking about it, and they'll wonder... nothing will happen immediately, but then something else will come up, and they'll start to wonder."

What the law says about disclosing payments

So what about the official law behind the disclosure of payments from developers and publishers? The Federal Trade Commission is an independent agency of the U.S. government that fights for the protection of consumers. The organization has many rules in place that specify exactly how paid promotion should be laid out to consumers.

I spoke with Mary Engle, associate director for Advertising Practices at the Federal Trade Commission, to ask about the ins and outs of payment disclosure on YouTube videos.

"Generally speaking, if an advertiser or a marketer is paying someone to write favorable reviews, the reviewer needs to disclose that," Engle tells me, "and that disclosure should be clear and conspicuous, and should be upfront and easy to see where the viewer won't miss it."

How clear does that have to be, I ask? Take the aforementioned Polaris Guns of Icarus Online video campaign, for example, that featured lots of big name YouTubers like TotalBiscuit, AngryJoe and Jesse Cox. The disclosure in these videos featured at the very bottom of the video description, and users have to open the description and scroll all the way down to find it.

Even worse, if the video is embedded on a website, you can't even see the disclosure. Says Engle, this is not adequate.

"If an advertiser or a marketer is paying someone to write favorable reviews, the reviewer needs to disclose that."
"What we say is that it should be easily seen or viewed (or heard in the case of audio) by the consumer or by the viewer. It should be made within the endorsement message, and within the review. We don't prescribe particular words or phrases that need to be used, but some people might say 'this is a compensated review,' or 'I got this free to try.'"

"It should basically be unavoidable by the viewer," she adds -- perhaps the most important line to note. If a viewer doesn't automatically see or hear the disclosure without having to go hunting for it, it's not legal disclosure.

So what happens, then, if a YouTuber is found to be not offering the correct disclosure on videos?

"The FTC can conduct an investigation to look at what's happening, and determine whether we think there is a violation of the FTC act," answers Engle. "We certainly welcome any complaints -- a lot of our investigations are the results of tips from consumers or reporters."

"If we do bring an investigation, it may or may not turn into a case where the company would be under order," she says. "It varies a lot with the particular facts."

And if a publisher or developer approaches YouTubers asking for paid promotion, specifically stating that they do not want this payment disclosed, YouTubers should absolutely report this behavior to the FTC.

It's clear then, that the ethics surrounding paid promotion in YouTube video game coverage should fall under some scrutiny, as disclosure of payments from publishers and developers is rarely situated in an appropriate place, if at all.

But the blame should also fall on the side of publishers and developers, too. It may be the responsibility of a YouTuber to properly disclose any payments, but those paying the cash should be making sure that said disclosure is appropriate, so as not to allow the YouTuber scene to fall into disrepair.

As with any new movement such as this, it's going to take time to see how this all plays out. But if YouTubers continue to receive payments without proper disclosure, the audience is going to slowly but surely catch on -- and when they do, it's going to be difficult to win their trust back.

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Thomas Bedenk
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Great insights!

Kyle Redd
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While I always look forward to the once-every-few-months example of genuine journalism from the gaming media, this particular piece falls short.

Good insight about the legal and ethical intricacies of sponsored content, and into the attitudes and practices of Youtubers... Zero insight into those of any game publisher. I get that it's seen as impolite for you folks to ask publishers pointed queries about anything that doesn't have to do with sexism, but did you even consider asking them the most obvious, important questions regarding this topic?:

"Have you ever paid a Youtuber money to cover your game?"
"If not, do you have an official policy on whether paying Youtubers for coverage is permissable?"

Did you seriously not consider trying to get a response to these from anyone? And please don't say that you didn't ask them because you knew they wouldn't provide a direct answer - A non-answer to those questions *is* an answer, as everyone well knows.

Kris Graft
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Wow, you come off as *incredibly* rude when you could've just asked a simple, legit question. Nice work. Anyway, the reason for not focusing on publishers for this piece in particular is because we wanted to keep its focus on exactly what you identified -- "the legal and ethical intricacies of sponsored content, and...the attitudes and practices of Youtubers" -- as opposed to making it an exposé piece on shady publisher practices. But rest assured, we're looking into it. This piece that you took about two minutes to disparage did take Mike Rose about a month's work of time as it exists currently.

One more thing:

"I get that it's seen as impolite for you folks to ask publishers pointed queries about anything that doesn't have to do with sexism."

Seriously dude?

Kyle Redd
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Sorry for being bitter and acting like an asshole. I appreciate the hard work the media does in reporting on matters of importance in the industry.

That work is extremely rare. My frustration has built up over a couple of decades of watching the relationship between game creators and the media that cover them devolve from the respectable separation of the 80s and early 90s to the cozy, simpatico back-slapping of today. Issues of ethics and the rights of consumers are treated as afterthoughts if they aren't ignored entirely.

So, yeah, occasionally I will lash out in an improper way because of this. Reading through this piece that took Mr. Rose a month's worth of (paid?) work, I hope you would understand if I assumed that the reason the actions of publishers were not ever mentioned through the entire piece is because he had absolutely zero intention of ever looking into them. If the title had read "Pay for Play: Part 1" I would've held off on any criticism.

If you say you are going to ask the difficult questions and work to get genuine answers, I wish you the best. The resulting piece would have refreshing insight, for sure.

Abby Friesen
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I would like to second Kris Graft's reply. Getting insight into the publisher's perspective wasn't even the goal of this article. No big deal.

If, as you imply, there is so little genuine journalism in gaming media, it may serve your interests better to cease coming to and commenting on articles in this website.

Martyn Hughes
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As an independent developer, starting to build an audience for our game, this article and the other recent articles on the same subject concern me.

Player acquisition costs are rapidly increasing and already independent developers are struggling to find budgets for marketing a game on top of the expense of developing it.

I understand Youtubers should be compensated for their time and their work, but if this becomes a trend of paying for Youtubers to play your game, it will become another route the smaller, independent developer is unable to use due to lack of financial backing.

If a Youtuber has to choose between creating for a cool, unique, quirky, or unusual game and one that is paying them, which will they choose?

Jennis Kartens
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"I understand Youtubers should be compensated for their time and their work, but if this becomes a trend of paying for Youtubers to play your game, it will become another route the smaller, independent developer is unable to use due to lack of financial backing.

If a Youtuber has to choose between creating for a cool, unique, quirky, or unusual game and one that is paying them, which will they choose?"


Also, what may be not noticed in the debate here is, that this extends beyond the usual "Indie/AAA" market.

For example the makers of Shakes & Fidget ( are spending hundreds of thousands into payed YouTube campaigns resulting in high exposure with, in my opinion, zero value for anyone but the people who gain money.

Space I'd rather see filled with even the worst indie game to be honest.

James Yee
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Well another thing to consider is what counts as "paying?" By some folks' definitions just giving out a free review copy or build counts as "paying" for a review. :|

Kujel Selsuru
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That's not an unreasonable payment in my opinon but none the less that is avery valid question to ask James.

scanner barkly
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I'm a smaller Youtuber (about 4.5k subs) and, I think, like most smaller Youtubers the game that provides me with the most fun wins. People talk about big Youtubers and big games all the time, forgetting that at one point those big Youtubers had zero subs and that big game was just an in development project with no real idea as to how to get out there to the "Big Youtubers" of the time.

Then someone started to play the game and loved it, whatever way they presented the content and the natural appeal of the game combined to help make that small youtuber a big one and the game inspired and appealed to many other people.

Even when all the larger channels are looking for cash to cover your game you will still have a lot of small and medium channels who won't be, who will absolutely play your game ONCE they actually enjoy the title. Hell, a lot of them will snap it up in Early Access and provide whatever feedback the developer is looking for at that time.

Here is the simple truth about Youtubers and why, for the most part, they start their channels. Just likes developers we absolutely adore games, we simply lack your talent in making them. I've made some good friends this year in the development community simply from engaging developers about their game, i've put hundreds of hours into obscure little Indie titles, often long before they were released. I've been the guy offering encouragement on days where the developer or the team is struggling in the face of a setback because, like them, I can see the promise in what they are trying to do.

I guess what I am trying to say is that even if the bigger Youtubers someday close the doors to their channels and only allow them to be opened for a fee, there is a legion of passionate and dedicated fans of gaming who will be willing to pay for your game, play your game and promote your game for no reason other than they like it and you give them the chance to engage with you.

Eric Merz
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I was one of the smaller Youtubers who participated in the survey (link to my channel:, in fact the first quote in the the third paragraph should be from me, if my memory serves me correctly.
The reason why I made this statement was because I was fed up with the constant barrage of articles stating that YouTube is an ideal medium for developers 'market' their games.
I think it sets a bad precedent for developers to expect YouTubers to cover their games, if not in a positive way, in a way that at least, does not appear overly negative.

I try to provide my viewers with critical coverage. I see my responsibility first and foremost towards the consumers and not towards the developers. Sure, I try my best to be fair and thorough in my analysis, but when I think that a game is a waste of time, I will say that. But I will also do everything I can to convince people to buy a game, if I like it.

I strongly believe that critique is important. Not only for the consumer, but also for the developer. You can't improve your craft, without knowing your weaknesses. Sure, it's hard and sometimes devastating to hear where you failed, but it's the only way to make sure that you won't repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
When I started getting review copies from developers, I tried to give them a summary of what I thought of their games. I thought it's important to let them know. Not only, because my videos are in German and they probably won't be able to understand a single word. But also to make them aware of things they could improve. However I stopped doing this, because I'm afraid that a developer might decide to abuse YouTube's copyright system in order to get the video to disappear.

If everything developers are interested is to 'market' their game and if certain YouTubers think they want to serve as an advertising platform, than I think it's just fair to ask for compensation. I don't think that they should monetize those videos as well however (seems a bit like 'double dipping' to me).

This story convinced me, that I need to create a 'code of conduct' for myself in which I state publicly which kind of coverage I do and what people (viewers and developers) can expect from me. I would strongly suggest for other YouTubers (at least the one's who do critical coverage of games) to do this as well.
As a content creator, you have a responsibility towards your viewership, no matter how big it is. It's also important for developers to know, what to expect from you in order avoid any misunderstandings.

Ben Sly
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A public code of conduct is a great thing in situations like these. It provides a clear message to viewers who want to know if they can trust your opinion and to developers who want to know what you expect out of interactions with you.

But the main benefit is that by displaying that code of conduct you've publicly committed to an ethical standard. It's a lot harder to objectively think through ethically questionable situations if the first time you've made a decision about it is when you're getting pressured by a developer.

SD Marlow
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Wait... you just said "when I started getting review copies from developers." I know it isn't the same as a wad of cash, but it plays into this topic of YouTubers talking about games without being influenced vs some dev or publisher being able to buy "air time."

Your videos are in German, but I hope they start with a disclaimer about being a review of a free copy

Eric Merz
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I don't have a disclaimer in my videos, but I do intend to be more upfront about it in the future. I did put one in the video description in my first two or three videos, but than I got lazy. But I don't hide the fact that I developers send me their games either. I talk about it on twitter regularly and I mentioned it on other occasions as well. But it's definately something I intend to make sure people know about.

John Owens
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But that's the thing. You think it's right that developers pay you for you to cover their products because it acts as advertising which gives them value.

But a negative review doesn't give the developer any value but their content does give YOU value so why shouldn't they expect to be paid for that and if they aren't be able to ask you to take down the "review" for breach of copyright?

Personally I think the system works best if the cosy relationship between the press (which you are) and the content creators doesn't exist and no-one pays each other anything. That way the system retains it's integrity.

btw - I don't consider a free copy as payment for anything. It's not like you're going to make a living from that.

Eric Merz
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First of all: I will never ask developers for money in exchange for coverage and I will never accept money for coverage either. I was speaking from a more general perspective. And by the way: I'm not even monetising my videos at the moment, so there's no way I'm benefitigng from this on a financial level.

The attitude that is carried within your remarks is the kind of attitude I truly dislike within this industry. It makes me somewhat happy that I do my videos in a language that many devolpers do not understand. This protects me from people like you, who think the best way to deal with their potential customers is to deceive them about the quality of the product you're selling.

Benjamin McCallister
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I feel like the government should stay out of the free market for the most part.

I think youtubers should feel free to be bought and sold. I feel like they should feel free to either say that they accept sponsored content or don't. I feel like its up to the general public to decide if they want to watch people who do things that are unethical.

If pewdiepie wants to only play games he's payed to play, lets see how long his audience holds out. It might, it might not.

If a smaller youtuber does pay to play, they likely will not get many sales because who is going to pay someone who has no views?

If the top 5 youtubers all play the same games, because they're sponsored, will the general public begin to crave new content? Maybe. Probably. Who knows.

We are in a brave new world right now and its a little early to start trying to outthink a market that either doesn't exist at all, or has ALREADY existed and we didn't know about.

Abby Friesen
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I agree with your statements about allowing people to be free to be bought and sold. If people truly don't like having to watch youtubers who are being paid to play, those youtubers will lose their audience naturally. Unpaid youtubers will then pop up to fill the need for unbiased reviews. It's entirely possible that the situation will take care of itself.

Ben Sly
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I agree with this *if* it is clear when Youtubers are being sponsored by the company whose work is on display (as the FTC requires, according to another recent article on Gamasutra). People are free to make up their minds about what that means, but it's important that the sponsorship is not something that can be swept under the rug or lied about.

Edward Boucher
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I don't see why new media should be exempt from the rules that apply to old media. People should be told when something is an advert, and when something is an article. Regardless of your stance on the genius of the market, I think that's something that government should enforce.

As you say, perhaps people will get bored if a YouTuber only runs commentary on games he's been paid to play; perhaps they won't. There's no guarantee either way.

The disclosure still needs to be there, vocally, at the start of the video.

Rob Wright
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Great piece. I feel like this YouTube debate has propelled us back in time 10 years when traditional media was arguing whether blogs were "real journalism." Now the web has supplanted traditional media, and yet here were are again.

Personally, I think YouTubers can be considered "media" without being "journalists," if that makes sense. I'd like to think that if a YouTuber is being paid or compensated by a developer or publisher to positively review or just cover a title, then that YouTuber will disclose the information. And if they truly want to be considered parrt of the gaming critic/journalist community, then they ABSOLUTELY have to make that ethical disclosure. You cannot have it both ways. Either you act as a professional and adhere to the basic rules of journalism, or you play fast and loose with the rules and make no claims to the contrary.

Jennis Kartens
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"Personally, I think YouTubers can be considered "media" without being "journalists," if that makes sense."

Most of it can be easily filed under "infotainment".

Media as plural form of medium is by the rule of its definition everything that transports any kind of information.

As blogs/written sites borrowed a lot from print, YouTubers borrowing a lot from TV. Though even less "journalistic" stuff.

Robin Clarke
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Fantastic work, Mike.

TotalBiscuit's comment is disappointing to say the least. If a traditional journalist tried to make that argument, they'd be hauled over the coals. It's not far removed from the logic used by paid review sites when we call them out.

Yes, RPS (and every other major games site) obviously run editorial content about games they're advertising. The difference here is that they're not being paid for the *coverage*, just the ads. Advertising and editorial are kept very separate, and when the boundaries have been overstepped in the past it has resulted in damaging PR for all parties - Kane & Lynch springs to mind.

The fact that a game isn't being "reviewed" or "recommended" in a paid video is completely irrelevant. The fact the game is being covered at all has been influenced by money changing hands, and the viewer has no reasonable way of knowing how much the editorial content within the advert has been influenced by the sponsor.

If people want to make ads then that's fine, as long as they are transparent about it. Saying "well we're conforming to the letter of the law, not our problem" doesn't cut it. Having to point out that what you're doing isn't actively illegal is usually a good indicator that it's pretty shitty behaviour.

Christian Nutt
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The distinction between "a review" and "not a review" seems to be crucial to this discussion and obviously -- strangely! -- it's ambiguous, more ambiguous than you would think.

I think that someone clearly enjoying a game in a video may not be a traditional "review" but it's clearly and obviously going to affect purchasing decisions, and thus functions similarly to one. John "TotalBiscuit" Bain clearly disagrees (based on his comments, linked above.) If someone is being paid to play a game, then things get weird there.

That doesn't necessarily mean I agree, however, that it IS a review. The old-style nomenclature may not matter in this case. The YouTubers would agree with that! But that doesn't mean ethics are suspended because things are changing. I'm guessing this won't persist forever, however, thanks to what McBride says above: Communities value transparency and dislike being duped.

Rob Wright
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Totally agree, you can't suspend the ethics. Look, I give Bain credit for explicitly stating he's not a reviewer/critic. But his reasoning is way off. Like this:

"In his comments, he compares YouTubers being paid for covering games to a mainstream website like Rock Paper Shotgun covering a game, and then splashing adverts for said game all over their site. "Where else exactly would you promote a video game except on video game related content?" he adds."

This is SO wrong. There's difference between being paid directly to cover a game on your YouTube channel and/or compose a positive review and what a gaming news site like RPS does. I know it may seem like that to folks on the outside, but that's not how the advertising business works -- even in gaming journalism. Companies buy ads against the total traffic/readership of the site, not the specific content. Sure, they complain about the specific content after the fact in some cases (see Kane & Lynch, GameSpot) and they'll even threaten to cut back or completely drop advertising if they don't get their way. But the idea that, say, RPS wouldn't cover a major game like Wolfenstein unless Bethesda paid it is crazy. RPS is going to cover games like Wolfenstein because it attracts readers and it's good for their business. And Bethesda may buy big backsplash ads on RPS because it's attracting those readers. Reputable news sites don't engage in a pay-to-play model.

SD Marlow
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There is an ethical difference between "I bought this game and liked it" and "I was given a free copy of this game and liked it," BUT it's a moot point after watching a 30 minute Let's Play where the person watching liked the way it looked and wanted to buy a copy to play as well.

The core issue is really about those with a large enough following to warrant advertising dollars and the perception of being "honestly" independent.

Christian Nutt
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There's quite a difference, I think, between "I was given this game for free and played it" and "I was paid to play this game, and would not have unless paid." That's obvious, isn't it?

Bain's argument was, IIRC, that he had already played/liked Guns of Icarus Online, but the pure point of fact is that he would not have played it THEN and posted THAT video without the sponsorship deal. Which I think is worth discussion, at least.

I'm not trying to come down on him, though I do realize there is some (to an extent, ginned up) rivalry between YouTubers and the press right now (and fwiw, I haven't professionally reviewed a game since 2007 and don't have any plans to do so in the future, so I don't really feel quite the same part of the discussion as, say, people who work for IGN or Polygon or what-have-you.)

SD Marlow
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Where does this "paid to play the game" part come from? What you means is "I bought this game and here is my opinion of it (since I already spent time playing it)" and "hey dev, we liked your game and would like to stream a live multiplayer session. care to sponsor that?" I would further add too that last part by saying that a live stream gets x number of views and you can treat that as x number of page hits for a more traditional lets play in calculating ad dollars.

ALSO worth noting that it was an event between multiple YouTubers rather than one persons single review.

Joseph Garvin
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I feel oddly certain that he called himself a reviewer during the whole "Day One: Garry's Incident" debacle. Certainly, the fact that he used a "review" code was central to his claim that he was well within his rights to post his video, and many of those who came to his support (like NerdCubed) called him a reviewer, and were coming to the support of the right to honestly and openly review.

So is TotalBiscuit a reviewer when it suits him, and not when it doesn't?

Dave Hoskins
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On the television, you'd bung a computer game show a few grand and they show your product, and advertise it for you, then there's a commercial break in the middle for all the other 'sponsors.' The same goes for gadget shows. These adverts have things like actors in white coats telling you to use 'brandX' toothpaste, and advertise plastic crap directly to your children in the form of a corporate sponsored cartoon characters.

Why should YouTube be anything different? Apart from than having adverts plastered all over its contents of course.

SD Marlow
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Yep, total mountain drop with a side of ballsy "hey FTC, what do you think of this guy, and what he did? Anything wrong here? Anything you might need to look into? *hint hint*

The "Icarus event" was sponsored, but many are at fault for calling it a review. And hidden within this article is the critical bit of truth: You trust the personality or you don't. If you don't like them, don't watch (but please don't start a holy crusade against fat cat conspirators in there name). My issue with TotalBiscuit is that he likes cheesy graphics or photorealistic stuff, with little tolerance for anything in-between, but gives an otherwise fair assessment of the game of his choosing (and many complain that he sucks at picking good games to start with, but that's another issue).

Where is the outrage over viral marketing (or did everyone blindly rush to buy a Destiny "from the moon" t-shirt). How many post mortems get posted to this site every month for games that are on sale or about to be released? Oh, no, because of this one event we have to equate any popular lets play (showing actual game play) with a sneaky Watch Dogs E3 reveal.

If your buying a game just because someone told you too, then no amount of FTC regulation or content warning stickers is going to keep you from (potentially) being disappointed. Popular YouTubers don't get a dedicated following by doing cold thumbs up/thumbs down reviews. They get there be being entertaining.

sean lindskog
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Great piece, Mike. I think you're doing both Gamasutra and the industry a big service by tackling this issue.

Also, hats off to Ryan Letourneau, Eric Merz, John Bain, and all the other youtubers who took part in the survey, or respond directly here in the comments section. It's good to hear some different perspectives as we're trying to sort through this stuff.

Here's my wish/hope.
1. Youtubers should make money from their work.

2. Youtube reviews should never receive any money from devs.

3. Youtube remains an "open channel" where indie devs have an equal shot at coverage on popular streams as big name developers, based not on their advertising budget but the quality of their game.

There's a lot of subtleties that need more discussion (e.g. how do Youtubers make money, or the difference between a review vs. let's play). But ultimately this is my hope.

I love the symbiotic relationship between indie devs and youtubers, where indie devs make games, providing youtubers with content to play and review. That's great for everyone, and youtubers should be able to monetize it.

I would hate if everything became dictated by advertising budgets and paying off youtubers for their attention. That turns something awesome into something awful.

SD Marlow
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Well YouTube is rolling out a tip system that directly addresses points one and two, but also gives Goolge/YouTube an incentive to promote higher earning personalities (meaning that the 60% of YouTubers selected will have discoverability and growth issues).

To point 3... it sounds great to say good games rise to the top, but that assumes that anyone can "just know" which games are good and worthy of review to begin with. What DOESN'T work is having the top game sites blather-on about the same 5 or 6 new or "to be released next year" games all week long. As long as YouTubers are diverse in their selection, it shouldn't matter if they came across a game on their own or had one handed too them.

sean lindskog
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Yeah, the tip system adds an interesting option. Whether it will be enough to quell the temptation to take money directly from devs remains to be seen.

re: "good games rise to the top"
I don't disagree with you. Indie and low budget titles will always have discoverability challenges compared with AAA stuff. I agree that diversity is key. What I'm trying to address with point 3 is the danger that indies become priced out of major youtube and video-game streaming channels.

scanner barkly
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Not a chance it will do anything to limit the numbers taking money from devs, or looking to take more. As it is the bigger Youtubers make their advert money, their sponorship money or equivilent in gear, their G2A/other reseller money. Many of them stream so have partnered Twitch accounts with subs and donations from their as well.

Then you have guys running Minecraft servers etc and all the cash flow that this entails. I can't be the only guy making the connection between people like Whiteboy and Woody running Minecraft servers and within a matter of months Mojang needing to curb certain activities and suddenly actively enforce rules. For some of these guys all the reason they have to do what they do is money. They dont love games, they dont love gaming...whatever love they original had died beneath the weight of the caustic environments and communities they built for themselves and then enslaved themselves to.

Eduardo Rahn Moreira
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I think while the article raises a very important point, the issue with TotalBiscuit seems a bit misinformed.

You can dislike him for a myriad of reasons and ultimately are totally free to disagree with him, but for what I saw from him until this day he's really open to inform how he does things and what's his approach to his content.

I immediately remembered and I suggest people to watch this video (6:20 onwards), I think he covers pretty much what he's being accused of in its entirety:

Also, there's plenty of times where he comes up and explains why he doesn't consider himself a reviewer, you may not agree with him but suggesting he's shady in what he does is not a well informed opinion.

Nick DeCastro
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Excellent article Mike. While anyone can quickly whip up an opinion piece, in this article you showed the details of your research to bring statistical analysis to the topic. Right away I could appreciate the amount of time that went into it. Ethics in gaming is a subject that I am very interested in and even the broader subject of human behavior in gaming. Let this article be a shining example of great gaming journalism and it is why I love this site. Well done!

Rob Jones
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I think Mike has done a great job to touch upon a rather complicated issue, so it is understandable that the piece is far from all-encompassing. I think one of the the things that has been discussed primarily in the comments and less so in the piece is this distinction of YouTuber vs Journalist and it seems to be where people really disagree on this topic. As the guy who developed both Machinima's editorial department as well as its Influencer program, I can tell you that there are some very key distinctions between the two. Gaming editorial has strong roots in traditional journalistic values that have long tried to protect editorial voice from the influence of advertising dollars. And anyone who has worked in a gaming outlet can attest that there are constant pressures to push those boundaries from the folks on the ad sales teams. Interestingly the same pressures to monetize that gaming has always faced has now impacted traditional media outlets so much that native advertising has become something that even The New York Times offers as part of its sales packages (which in my opinion is way more problematic than some YouTuber not being completely transparent for getting paid to do a Let's Play). But despite those pressures, most gaming outlets still maintain that separation of church and state. And because they do that, I as a consumer can trust that the opinions being communicated are not influenced by the dollars of a publisher. This is precisely why the FTC has a say in this matter. That entity is specifically designed to protect consumers so that marketers can't just make things up and dupe us, which is why paying for a positive review is prohibited under their purview.

So when we look on the other end of what I see as a rather distinct continuum, we have the YouTuber who has generated an audience through developing a successful personality that people want to see. Pewdiepie being the largest one at the moment. I think it would be hard to make the case that his fans are tuning in for any one type of gameplay or another. Because it does matter what he plays. They simply like watching him do his thing (which doesn't resonate with me, but to each his own). Therefore if we were to map what he does back to a more traditional career, he is considerably more an entertainer than anything else. And having worked with hundreds of influencers, I can tell you that they are first and foremost concerned about giving their audience what they want. And that is a good show. That's how you get 28M subscribers. You make people happy and they enjoy your content. So because these YouTubers are actually servicing a different master (one that is about developing a fan base rather than telling the unbiased truth), it is hard to apply the same set of rules you do to journalists. And grant it, the landscape of what it means to be a journalist has become very blurry over the past decade, but I don't know that we can even begin to place guys like Pewdiepie in same crowd of the Crecentes of the world. Which is why whenever this discussion comes up and the word "coverage" gets thrown around I cringe. Coverage is a journalistic term used to define the scope of what a writer covers as part of his/her reporting. A Let's Play is hardly coverage. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you had to find a corollary to something else that we widely accept, it's more of an endorsement if anything else. When a celebrity is used to help sell a car, it's designed to align the affinity we might have with the star with the brand of car and hopefully influence our willingness to purchase the car. But certainly no one takes the endorsement as their sole reason to buy the car, they look at reviews, ask around and seek out unbiased information. I don't believe that games are any different. So when publishers seek these top influencers, whether its Pewdiepie or Syndicate, they are looking to draw that same connection between the affinity those audience have for the YouTubers and the games that are being sold. So just as Kobe Bryant gets paid by Turkish Airlines because he has a huge influence on people, doesn't it also make sense to pay someone like Pewdiepie (who arguably has a larger reach than Kobe)? When you couple this with the white paper that YouTube published last year that drew a strong correlation between number of total views on YouTube for a game and the number of unit sales, you can see why most publishers don't even hesitate to pay influencers (EA's Ronku Program was created precisely for this function). If anyone has ever seen Conan O'Brien's Clueless Gamer they would never mistake that for a review of actual unbiased opinion about a game to inform purchase. It's entertainment. And btw, it's also something publishers pay him to do as part of larger ad deals.

Pres N
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None of this debate is new. A year ago, just before the FTC clarified its rules on paid reviews, this exact same thing went through the world of blogs (primarily makeup and "mommy" blogs), where companies were sending prominent reviewers free samples without asking anything, and those reviewers were then doing reviews without always disclosing that they got the product for free. All the same arguements went down- "Well, the company didn't ask for a good review (or a review at all) so it's not a paid review" and "is it really a review if I just talk about a product I like" and "I would have reviewed it favorably anyway because I like the product, so they weren't really paying for reviews".

If a youtuber gets paid for a review or is just given a free game with no strings attached, they should mention it in the video. Just like how reputable video game journalists will mention if they got flown out somewhere to look at a game, or were given the advanced copy for free.

Ana Morgan
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Youtubers are segment that developers cannot overlook. We can't ignore what videos of our games get posted on Youtube because they have a lot of influence over players. And if you a niche game and it gets played / reviewed by someone it's not meant for, it can do a lot of damage to the game's reputation.

So as a developer, you might want to pay for a Let's Play in order to get a quality gameplay video made by people who are interested in your game.

We've had this problem with our game, KEL Reaper of Entropy. It's a game that requires reading in order to understand what's going on - think Planescape Torment. However the first Youtuber to do a review didn't read anything, played it like it was a shooter and this reflected very poorly on the game.

So we contacted a Youtuber to pay for a proper gameplay video, not a review, just record the game as it was meant to be played. He didn't reply, but some videos made by players popped up on Youtube and we were really happy with them. We also gave a free key to one player. All videos showed problems in the game alongside the good parts, which was only fair. But most importantly, they were not misleading!

I don't think Let's Plays should be subject to such strict rules about notifying whether it's paid or not, or free key etc. People can see for themselves what the game is like.
Besides, too much disclosing about having given free keys might lead to getting pestered with requests for them. I will give a free key to someone who plays the game in a way that provides a lot of useful feedback so we can improve the game. I will not give a free key to a Youtuber just because he's going to record a video of my game.

Guillermo Aguilera
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"The distinction between "a review" and "not a review" seems to be crucial to this discussion."

Imo, as Obelix say ... These Romans are crazy

Lihim Sidhe
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In other news...

The Moral Quandary of Paying for Advertising. Is It Wrong?


Tio Nunn
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I like the idea of a "code of conduct" one commenter suggested earlier. In a more perfect world, here is what I would like to see:

At the beginning of videos with either free copies or paid for by those with interests in the game's success, a short message stating, "I was paid (or given a fee copy of this game) to play this game for this video, but they received no editorial control over the content contained within this video. The opinions and thoughts expressed in this video are entirely my own."

Or if you want to sell yourself for ads, you could say this, "I was paid to create the following video and it should be considered an advertisement and not a review or opinion piece."

For the first scenario youtubers would then need to make a decision before going into negotiations for paid videos. Do you state that they pay $X and get a video they can't edit and must live with good or bad? Or, do you state that they pay $X for your time and they can't edit but get to determine if you post the video or not depending on if they like it for an additional $X?

Will Hendrickson
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Everyone is ignoring the fact that charging money for let's plays means a lot of developers will no longer be able to market their games on YouTube effectively.

SD Marlow
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If lets plays and reviews are truly independent, then there is no marketplace. There is no difference between paying, giving away a copy, spamming a twitter account, or leaving a not so subtle comment on a YouTube video that links to a game you made. YouTube personalities should be able to find your game and want to play it no differently than anyone else, and paid adverts are one of those marketing tools.

What gets lost is that the cause for this latest uproar has nothing to do with a paid review. Everyone needs to take a step back and see that what happened is no different than Toyota sponsoring a celebrity track day.

James Yee
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Or Hawaii Five-Oh episodes showcasing Windows and Chevy products heavily. (Or any other TV show for that matter, wasn't it House of Cards that showed Call of Duty or something in show?)

Will Hendrickson
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Again, ypu *totally* missed my point,

Bruno Xavier
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My thoughts about this topic:

Doing it is wrong. Bye.

Guillermo Aguilera
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Everything Is Fair In Love, War and indie marketing.

Andreas Ahlborn
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A conundrum indeed.

With the FIFA-Worldcup just ending I am tempted to link the current situation on what is ethical and what is not to games in sports. Its considered fair game in sports that a player gets payed, the better he is the more he earns, nobody is doubting that soccer is a big business and all the gears manufacturer are sponsoring the events, without having to put a disclaimer on every shoe or trademark a player os wearing.

Pay to play is status quo in professional sports.

Its common sense that we don`t even criticize the fact that a player that wears nike shoes but would prefer to wear adidas could do so because nike pays him more.

Now, what the hell has sports to do with video game journalism, you rightly ask? Wait for it.

There is obviously eSports, look at the International, sponsored by Valve.

Some see Dota2 as a pure promotional tool for Steam, but last year Valve made 80M$ (
n-microtransaction-revenues-in-2013-according-to-analyst-firm/ )
with microstransactions. No one is doubting Valve because its clear that they sponsor the International to make money first, not because they are samaritans who want to please their audience. No one is doubting the top dota 2 teams that they take valves money and promote their game via participation in the international.

The conundrum is only a conundrum, because youtubing is just starting to kick off. A few years from now we will look back at this discussion and see that we fail to this situation that big youtubers are what we would could multiplicators/stars that exist in every genre. If George R. Martin says he is a fan of X writings, this will push X`s revenue, if Messi wears adidas that will push adidas revenue.

Now insisting to disclose any involvement with a company that is sponsoring a lets play or gives a free copy for a game review is only "cosmetic" because a grown customer should know that lets plays are a grey zone, they are not critical reviews, that are subjected to a journalistic codex, they are a lot like the so called "friendly games" in soccer, were we don`t expect the players to give everthing they have to win.
And about the free copy for a video game, do you really think ign or a big other outlet won`t have the expenses to buy a 50$ copy?

It also makes no sense to start a legal debate about how disclaimers should be put into videos or above or below videos etc. because its simply not worth the effort. Everybody an her grandma will have a different opinion about it.

Back to the FIFA-Worldcup, as long as a player does his best on the playing field he can`t be blamed for any outcome. Look back at the game manipulation scandals in Italy 2006 ( ). This is a clear case of crossing the ethical line, because players did intentionally their worst to manipulate the game outcome, because of money.

Analog with youtubers: Unless we can prove that channels are manipulated in giving good reviews despite hating the games because they are paid to do so, its just a matter who and how much are you willing to trust.

Everything else is bad mouthing, speculation and a clear indication that we moved on from one canard to another.

Do you trust the brazilian team that they were not being bribed in loosing their semi final like they did? I do, because its highly improbable that these players deliberately lost, no amount of money could do that I guess.

TLDR: Ethics is just really complex and shaped by habit.

Tio Nunn
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No, you should start a legal debate because everyone has an opinion, that is the proof a legal debate is needed. It wasn't that long ago that Microsoft paid for good reviews on youtube without disclosure. MS (or the promoter working on MS's behalf) had a different opinion on that than most people. It should be black and white.

If you were paid to promote something and the company paying you influenced what you said or had any editorial control of the content, that should be disclosed as an advertisement.

If you were paid to promote something and the company paying you had no influence on what you said or any editorial control of the content, that should be disclosed as a paid opinion piece.

If you were not paid or given a free copy, no need to disclose anything.

Andreas Ahlborn
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How complicated the debate is becoming is shown in the fact that the author of this article, while doing his research commited a major "journalistic ethics" crime himself (according to the hardliners in this comment section)

Look at this passage:

"I first turned to Kelly McBride, the ethics expert at highly-regarded school of journalism The Poynter Institute, and editor of the book The New Ethics of Journalism"

Now should we think that the citations McBride provided were "for free" or happened sth. like this: "Hello here is Mike Rose from Gamasutra I´m doing a piece about ethics in youtube-journalism/cross-promotion, and would like to get your opinion about that" - "Sure, but only if you provide a link to my book"...

I seriously doubt that it happened this way, but there is the link. Should we therefore get suspicious, did Rose suggest the book because he read and liked it, or so that he could get an opinion of McBride?

What does the fact that he not explicitly said sth. like ("Disclaimer: McBride didn`t insist that I mentioned her book, but I did it because i find it an interesting read") tell us? Should we get suspicious?

Fact is, I immediately clicked the link, and here is the problem: it immediately connects you to amazon (to buy the book). Now I don`t know if gamasutra has an affiliate program with amazon, but it could well be that if I buy the book via the llink, that it will earn a commission. Again: no disclaimer in the immediate vicinity of the link.

Mike Rose
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This is by far my favourite ever comment on one of my articles

Andreas Ahlborn
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Hope I got my message across, can`t be sure because obviously english is not my native tongue.

Basically I only wanted to illustrate the fact, that if you think "ethics is simple" you are doing it wrong.

I am a great fan of your neutral style, especially in this article which gathers facts and opens a debate, well done ;-)

Rob Wright
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This is so meta....a discussion about journalism ethics that revolves around a link to a book about journalism ethics. Mind=BLOWN.

Troy Walker
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when watching business news, especially related to investments... those "brokers" or agents generally must disclose their holdings when promoting... not sure it is required, but definitely an ethical decision.

if broker A recommends stock A while holding stock A... do you buy into stock A or not?

Bartosz Brzostek
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Hope you don't call my spammer, as I also mentioned it in my comment to the other article, however as the topic is hot I'd like to learn your opinion about my approach to the transparency issue. I'm working on a platform which connects youtubers, devs and players in an elegant and transparent way, which I described in my blog. Let me know what you think about it.

Daap Lok
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Another great contribution from Gamasutra. Thanks Mike! A very complex issue for sure. But in the end. Great games will rise to prominence. So let's all stay focused on making great games.

John Owens
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I don't see how the youTubers can complain that someone like Nintendo is asking them to pay to use their content while at the same time charging developers.

Because that's exactly what will happen. The smaller indie developers will end up having to pay while the bigger ones will get it for free or even be able to charge.

Ultimately I think it's in both the youTubers and the indie developers interest that this doesn't happen and that means not charging.