Stegmaier asks “Is it unethical to pay the media?”

“Is it unethical to pay the media?” This is a fairly easy question to answer yet some game publishers seem to struggle with it. In his latest article, Jamey Stegmaier, designer and owner of the company behind Wingspan and Scythe wonders why paid reviews are so “widely looked down upon”. Never has collusion been promoted so boldly and I had to answer.

CONTENT CREATION

Stegmaier pens the article as a rebuttal to the claim that publishers pay for positive game reviews. Dismissing it as a conspiracy theory, he instead separates games media into two areas. The first he calls “non-opinionated content” and includes unboxing videos, previews and other promotional work. The second are what we would call editorials and game reviews.

He explains that payment is expected for the first type of content. For example, in a now deleted comment, he mentioned paying 3600$ for a how-to-play video from Watch It Played. Similarly, he paid Game Boy Geek 375$ for a sales and marketing video directed at retailers. According to him, this is the only area where money exchanges hands from publishers to content creators.

What Stegmaier fails to mention is that the people being paid to create promotional content and those writing reviews are often one and the same. Channels such as Before You Play, Man vs Meeple and the aforementioned Game Boy Geek list reviews alongside their paid promotional work. In fact, I would say the majority of successful review channels accept payment from publishers this way.

For example, The Dice Tower was paid by game publisher Gamelyn to do a paid preview of Tiny Epic Dungeons. A couple months later, they reviewed Tiny Epic Pirates, created by the same company. So while, in theory, there might be a separation between editorial and promotional content in boardgames, it does not exist in practice. After all, the same people and organizations are still being paid.

Critics, like all journalists, ought to serve the public. The needs of publishers and the needs of readers rarely align and are often at odds with each other. Publishers seek positive reviews to sell their games. However, the audience requires accurate criticism, listing negatives, drawbacks and comparisons to other titles.

Not providing publishers with positive coverage risks losing their support. No company is going to pay a critic who repeatedly shows their products in a poor light or recommends buying from the competition. Hence, critics need to keep favouring them, not just to honour their current dealings, but to make sure publishers keep providing them work in the future.

BIAS

Later on the article, Stegmaier discusses bias. Inspired by a BoardGameCo video, who had previously argued against the existence of paid reviews, he lists a series of possible causes. In his opinion, bias is unavoidable and wonders why, if we trust reviewers to put it aside on some of these instances why don’t we do the same if they “received up-front payment”.

However, not all transgressions are equal. It’s easier to prevent bias from impacting your work when your livelihood doesn’t require you to embrace it. Having friends who disagree with your opinion on a game is unlikely to affect the quality of your review. Being paid hundreds of dollars by the people who sell it most certainly will.

Regardless, critics should not be content to “put bias aside”. Rather, they ought to minimize its impact whenever possible. This includes avoiding any situation where their relationship with publishers could affect the neutrality of their work. It can be difficult. Games criticism isn’t the most profitable career, but independence remains vital.

Sadly, Stegmaier doesn’t seem to be aware of these ethical requirements. He believes that bias becomes “irrelevant” as long as publishers commit to sharing reviews on social media without reading them. But getting a retweet does nothing to palliate these problems; critics are still pressured to provide the coverage the publisher wants or risk losing a chunk of their income.

This is why his suggestion that publishers should “support” reviewers through Patreon or Kickstarter misses the point. The issue is not how publishers pay critics but that doing so at all has an influence on their work and renders them dependent on those whose products they review. When every negative review risks not being able to pay your bills, it’s no wonder reviewers go to such lengths to avoid them.

CONSPIRACY

Through the article, Stegmaier attacks the idea that publishers pay prominent reviewers to express positive opinions about their games, calling it a conspiracy theory. This is both his opening statement and one of the clarifications at the end. I find this a little bit baffling, if simply because he argues it wouldn’t be wrong to do so.

Stegmaier justifies the payment by alluding to the arduous labour of these creators. They deserve it, he argues, because they spend a significant amount of effort to create their work. However, at no point does he deny that publishers pay for reviews. Rather, he argues that they don’t pay for positive ones. He even recommends critics to “spell out” that they were “paid for their opinion, not a positive opinion”.

A couple months ago, Jarrod from 3 Minute Board Games wondered why, if nobody charges for reviews, why did he have to explain so to six different companies?. In Stegmaier’s own comment section, publisher 2 Tomatoes laments not being able to afford the 1000$ asked by “big reviewers”. I’ve even been asked about “fees” myself, as has Marc Davis from The Thoughtful Gamer.

Still, there’s no need for conspiracy theories. The collusion between publishers and reviewers is out in the open and celebrated. Every year, the largest and most well-known outlet in the medium, The Dice Tower, is sponsored by game publishers. They provide all sorts of exclusive promotional content for his funding campaign, greatly contributing to its success.

They are not the only ones. The Secret Cabal, who claim on Twitter to not know anyone who has been approached for a paid review, has a similarly long list of “amazing sponsors”. While publishers may not support them expressly for positive coverage, there must be a benefit to doing so. Companies do not spend their marketing budget without expecting anything in return.

More importantly, companies would cease to sponsor them if they stopped providing positive coverage or became too critical of their games. Publishers will overlook the occasional negative review but won’t accept coverage that affects their bottom line. Their continued support will cease if they no longer benefit from it.

CULTURE

Ultimately, I believe that publishers paying reviewers is unethical and that publishers are already influencing reviewers in a myriad of ways. In his article, Stegmaier ignores both the ethical requirements of game criticism and how they are being broken. Above all, I believe he ignores the cost of having game reviewers beholden to the interest of publishers.

As long as the culture of boardgames puts publishers over players, we won’t be free to explore all the medium has to offer. Difficult, but interesting topics such as the role of sex and violence in gaming, the employment conditions of game developers or the social messages sent by different settings and mechanics are out of the question.

We can already see this today. Coverage is invariably positive, with every new release being better than last. All games are must-haves to be purchased or, at worse, just not the reviewer’s thing. No game is ever truly bad. The bar is set so low that, every couple of months, there’s a Twitter debate on whether critics should write negative reviews.

Stegmaier is not alone in his beliefs. The idea that publishers not only can but should pay critics has a wide base of support in both the industry and in the audience. At the time of writing, about 40% of respondents to the poll at the end of Stegmaier’s article agree it’s ethically correct for publishers to buy critical coverage.

However, I believe the world of boardgames is lesser when advertising is accepted as a replacement of independent media. If critics were free of publisher pressure, we would have a higher diversity of ideas and viewpoints than we have today. Criticism would be more honest and better fit to serve the needs of our audience.

FURTHER READING

SPJ Code of EthicsThe American Society of Professional Journalists lists four principles as the basis of ethical journalism. The third of these, “Act Independently”, covers many of the issues discussed in this article, from denying favoured treatment to donors to avoiding conflicts of interest. These ethical guidelines are as applicable to game critics as they are to all other cultural reporters.

7 Comments

  • Can i poke a few holes?

    First, let’s keep in mind the adage that “ News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising.” Media criticism trends heavily towards being a marketing extension, and that’s the case with books, film, teevee, and video games. That’s partly due to what audiences want to hear. People *want* to hear someone raving excitedly about something they, too, are excited about. The appetite for inside baseball articles about (say) sexual harassment in the board game workplace or poor working conditions in Chinese factories is much smaller – or, at least, it serves a different predilection. It’s 60 Minutes vs Entertainment Tonight. Sometimes you want an investigative takedown of a corrupt business. Sometimes you wanna see a Hollywood starlet’s shoe collection. And i suspect that most people, most of the time, are about those shoes.

    The trouble with the ethics guidelines you cite from a supposedly more respectable faction is that newspapers, too, are funded by “the publishers.” They subsist on advertising revenue, and it’s mad facts that if the New York Times has a profitable Unilever account, they’re going to pull their punches if they discover that Q-tips cause brain damage.

    The unasked question you’re actually posing here is “If publishers don’t pay, who does?” Look again to newspapers to see how they’ve fared trying to pass on costs to their readers through subscriptions (hint: not well). People expect their board game channels to be free (barring time spent watching the occasional ad). The cost of it all, if you want quality programming, is that whoever pays has the host in his pocket. So if you, the viewer, want more independent hosts, click that Patreon “subscribe” button or buy some merch.

    But then what happens when your top-paying patron, who loves games about Viking zombies, expects you to say great things about Viking Zombie 4: The Re-Vikening? It’s bias turtles all the way down, friend.

    • Hello Ryan! While I appreciate the comment, I must disagree with your thoughts.

      Like I mentioned on Reddit, I do not agree newspapers such as The New York Times are funded by the subjects of their coverage. If we look at the cover page of the NYT, we see news about American politicians, the Tokyo Olympics and the CDC’s report on coronavirus. I don’t believe they are being paid by any of those groups. While the papers might be biased by their advertising, I don’t think it’s comparable to how many boardgame critics are paid directly by the people who make the games they review. That is, the Democratic Party doesn’t pay the New York Times to make Joe Biden campaign videos.

      Either way, giving favourable treatment to your advertisers is widely recognized as unethical and explicitely covered in the code I linked above. I just believe the job of the critic has a series of moral obligations. Remaining independent is just one of them.

      • Re The New York Times: the gold-standard journalistic institutions are becoming less reliant on ad revenue due to paywalls, so even the argument that they’re compromised by ad dollars is weakening.

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on my article! I thought I should clear up a few misconceptions stated in your response.

    “Never has collusion been promoted so boldly and I had to answer.”

    Yikes! Woah there. No one is promoting collusion, and my article certainly does not do so by any stretch of the imagination.

    “What Stegmaier fails to mention is that the people being paid to create promotional content and those writing reviews are often one and the same.”

    I actually talk several times in the article about the overlap between paid non-opinion content and review content. You’re right, there are many cases of content creators receiving free games (and sometimes monetary payment) for something like a preview or playthrough, and then the content creator chooses to share their thoughts as well (hopefully clearly stating throughout that they were paid for the preview portion). The resulting bias is included in this category on my article: “Financial risk/reward (if your revenue stream comes from publishers, you may be hesitant to share when you don’t enjoy a certain game).”

    “Sadly, Stegmaier doesn’t seem to be aware of these ethical requirements.”

    I mean, the article is all about ethics from start to finish–I’m not sure where you’re seeing the lack of awareness there. I definitely think it would be unethical (and illegal) to not be transparent about receiving a free game or payment, even if you’re not stating an opinion. And, interestingly enough, in the poll in my article about ethics, 38% of people don’t think it’s unethical to pay the media to form and broadcast their opinions.

    “He believes that bias becomes “irrelevant” as long as publishers commit to sharing reviews on social media without reading them.””

    I believe this, as stated in the article: “Also, any bias that could be associated with a paid review is irrelevant if the publisher commits to sharing the review without reading, watching, or listening it. Then the reviewer has complete freedom to say what they want, focusing solely on adding value to their audience instead of to the publisher.”

    “Through the article, Stegmaier attacks the idea that publishers pay prominent reviewers to express positive opinions about their games, calling it a conspiracy theory. This is both his opening statement and one of the clarifications at the end. I find this a little bit baffling, if simply because he argues it wouldn’t be wrong to do so.”

    I think it is 100% wrong to pay for a positive review, and nowhere in the article do I argue that it wouldn’t be wrong. However, you’re right that I dismiss the conspiracy theory of publishers offering payment for *positive* reviews (if something doesn’t have any documented evidence, it’s a conspiracy theory) without making it clear that it would be incredibly unethical to do so.

    “In his article, Stegmaier ignores both the ethical requirements of game criticism and how they are being broken. Above all, I believe he ignores the cost of having game reviewers beholden to the interest of publishers….”

    Again, the article is all about ethics. Saying that I’ve ignored ethics is, well, an example of unethical journalism.

    “Stegmaier is not alone in his beliefs. The idea that publishers not only can but should pay critics has a wide base of support in both the industry and in the audience.”

    That’s not my belief, nor is that anything I say in the article. Rather, I posit that we should not be so quick to dismiss the fact that reviewers spend a ton of time creating their content and that their time is valuable. Here’s precisely what I wrote: “Reviewers like spend a ton of time and energy on their content. Even a single-take unedited video requires a creator to learn the game, play the game at least a few times, process their thoughts in advance, film and upload the video, and reply to comments after it posts (and most content takes much more time and effort than that). And that’s just the value of their time–there is also the value of the audience they’ve spent years cultivating. It does not seem unreasonable to me that a reviewer would charge for the value they added, particularly if they’re transparent about it both publicly and privately. But perhaps there’s just too fine of a line between normal bias and a true conflict of interest?”

    I really had high hopes for your article when I stumbled upon it, and you made some excellent points, but I’m surprised by the sheer disconnect between what you said I wrote and what I actually wrote. But I do appreciate you linking to my article so your readers can first read it before considering your perspective.

    • Thanks for the reply Mr Stegmaier,

      While we have very different views, I want to note that it’s not a matter of misconceptions. I simply disagree, quite strongly, and what your views entail. That is, I do believe your article promotes collusion and that it fails to recognize both the ethical requirements of critical journalism and how the current state of boardgame media fails to meet them.

      For example, it is true ethics were mentioned in your article. However, it never discussed the importance of independence or how critics have a moral obligation to serve the public. It also did not consider the cultural cost of media being beholden to the interests of publishers. These are vital aspects of the conversation which are not mentioned in the article and not made irrelevant by sharing the review on social media.

      Hence, I stand by my comment that you did not seem to be aware of these ethical requirements. Had you been, I imagine you would have mentioned them as they are extremely important to the subject at hand.

      If you haven’t, I welcome you to read the SPJ Ethics Code I linked as its third section (“Act Independently”) showcases very well what I believe are the ethical requirements of journalism that cannot be met when publishers pay critics in exchange of coverage.

      I wish you well and appreciate the conversation, even if we are on different sides of it.
      Erik Twice

      • I don’t think it’s my place to tell anyone what their moral obligation is. The purpose of my article was to discuss the nuances of bias, non-opinion content, and opinion content as they all relate to ethics (hence the repeated mentions of ethics and the poll at the end). I’m glad it inspired discussion in the comments and in responses like yours, as the point was to talk about ethics.

        By definition, collusion is “secret or illegal cooperation or conspiracy, especially in order to cheat or deceive others”. My article does nothing of the sort (in fact, in promoting transparency, it does the exact opposite).

        Based on your comment here, I think you continue to misunderstand my views. You seem to think, for example, that I think publishers *should* pay reviewers, but as I quoted in my previous comment, I do nothing of the sort. Hence this is indeed a matter of misconception.

        That said, we probably do believe different things. The core beliefs I state in the article are (a) that paying for a positive review would be highly unethical and (b) bias is unavoidable, thus if there’s any possibility of bias, the content creator should be completely transparent about it. I also believe that repeatedly misquoting and misrepresenting someone’s statements is extremely unethical, but from your article it’s clear you don’t share that belief either.

        • While I appreciate the discussion, I would like to reiterate there’s no misquoting. All quotes found in this article are taken directly from yours, word from word. Similarly there’s no misrepresentation, I simply have a different view on the subject and what your views entail.

          I again thank you for your contribution. I believe we can leave the matter to rest here.

          Thank you,
          Erik Twice

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