Gaming journalism is a hot topic on the internet right now. By that I don’t mean that people are more interested in reading about gaming (although they are) but rather that a lot of people have taken a huge interest in how that journalism happens behind the scenes. Much of that interest has been ginned up by misogynistic wingdings and we’re not going to talk about that here. Sorry cranks. We are, however, going to talk about something that’s been an issue in new media since the days when radio could be called new media, the idea of pay to play.
Back in July we reported on a study which found that just over 25% of the YouTube gamers surveyed with more than 5,000 subscribers had accepted money or other compensation in exchange for playing or promoting specific games on their channel. The survey raised an ethical question about whether or not YouTuber creators and gaming live-streamers on sites like Twitch have an obligation to disclose whether they’ve been paid to advocate a particular game. Now streaming platform Twitch is stepping in with some ground rules. In a blog post, Twitch marketing VP Matthew DiPietro asks users to clearly identify content in their broadcast that is sponsored or promotional and guarantees that going forward viewers will know the difference.
Though many YouTube gamers and Twitch broadcasters wouldn’t necessarily view themselves as such, their influential reviews place them in a category at least adjacent to journalists. The gaming industry has been slow to adapt to seeing them in that light. This problem that was highlighted last week with the revelation that imposters had been posing as popular YouTube creators to steal Steam Keys for upcoming games. Streamers and YouTube creators exist in a grey space between fans and professional journalists, making it hard for them to pin down the ethical line.
At present the Twitch rules apply only to campaigns that are run through Twitch. Streams can still be approached individually by game creators and while they are encouraged to disclose those arrangements they are not compelled to. Streamers are an influential part of the marketing of new games; their opinions carry weight with thousands or even millions of fans. Only if the promotional process is transparent will fans continue to trust those opinions. Now that the gaming industry has started to embrace the explosive popularity of Twitch broadcasters and live-streamers in general it’s likely that paid content will play an even larger role. Twitch is wise to get ahead of the curve by laying down the rules up front.