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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
SPJ Code of Ethics – The 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.