In the original version of this article, I mentioned an example in the context that perhaps it’s actually fine for creators to get paid for the immense amount of time and effort they spend on their content, even for opinions, as its impossible to completely avoid bias whether or not money is involved). However, that content creator alerted me that they no longer offer to form and broadcast their opinions in exchange for monetary compensation, so I removed that example as materially irrelevant to the current state of the industry.

I recently became aware of some accusations floating around the gaming community that some publishers are paying prominent reviewers to express positive opinions about their games, which–if it were true–would be incredibly unethical.*

Underneath this conspiracy theory is a much bigger and more relevant discussion about reviews, previews, compensation, bias, and ethics. Let’s start with the primary area of the gaming industry where money actually does exchange hands, and then we’ll explore the ethicality of paying the media to form and broadcast opinions.

Opinion-Free Content

There is an abundance of content in the game industry that is free of opinions, and creators are frequently compensated for the time they spend on this content. Some examples are:

How-to-play videos: This is a paid service, and is entirely opinion-free. Rodney at Watch It Played is perhaps the first creator in the game industry to do this (10 years and running now), though there are others who provide a similar service now.
Previews: A preview is a brief overview explaining the core concepts of a game (a summary of the rules instead of a full rules-replacement video). Among other things, The Mill does this for Stonemaier Games ($250/month).
Unboxings: These videos focus purely on opening the game and showcasing the components.
Playthroughs: This format lets the viewer watch the content creator play a few turns or even a full game (e.g., Before You Play). Creators sometimes do this live for more audience engagement, posting the video on YouTube afterwards for anyone to find (e.g., Gaming Rules).
Advertising: Some content creators sell ad space on their website or channel.
Giveaways and Contests: On Instagram, it’s fairly common to pay a content creator to use their platform to give away a game in an effort to increase awareness. (I discuss my thoughts on this here.)
Promotions: Some creators showcase content (photos, descriptions, etc) on Instagram, leveraging the audience they’ve built. One price I’ve heard quoted is $10 per 1000 followers.
Sizzle reels: Dan at Game Boy Geek creates videos mostly directed at retailers that feature an overview of components and core concepts. We paid Dan $375 for our sales & marketing video.
Strategy Guides: Creators like Jackie at Show Me How to Win and the folks at Legendary Tactics focus on unique and powerful strategies for other players to learn from.

Even for opinion-free content, it’s still standard practice for the content creator to transparently say that the publisher supplied a free copy of the product and/or financially compensated them. Many content creators purchase the content they discuss on social media–anyone can start an Instagram account, blog, podcast, or YouTube channel and simply start talking about the games they own.

I’ll talk about reviews later in the article, but it’s important to note that there are numerous cases where a content creator is paid for non-opinion content and then choose to offer their opinions. I consider an ethical approach to this to be that the creator makes it clear throughout the video/article/podcast (particularly in the description and when they transition to their opinion) that they were paid to create the non-opinion content. Rahdo does a good job of this, as do many others.

Bias

I’m going to insert the topic of bias as a bridge between opinion-free content and reviews, because bias is almost completely unavoidable in content creation. Even if you have a private Instagram featuring only games you’ve purchased and have never engaged directly with a publisher or designer, you’re still human, and you’re still biased.

Alex recently delved into this topic in a BoardGameCo video in which he highlighted various types of bias experienced by content creators. I’ve added a little to his list:

Not wanting to be negative (for many people it simply doesn’t feel good to spread negativity; one reviewer told me that if they don’t enjoy the game, they’d rather share that feedback privately with the publisher than publicly)
Not wanting to be positive (there’s something about negative headlines that generate more curious clicks than positive ones)
Self-selection (not spending time on things you don’t enjoy or that you think you won’t enjoy)
Friendships and relationships (it’s inevitable in the gaming community that you will end up connecting on a human level with the same people you may rely on to grow your business, or you may have simply had good experiences with a particular publisher)
Financial risk/reward (if your revenue stream comes from publishers, you may be hesitant to share when you don’t enjoy a certain game)
Receiving free games from publishers (finding something nice to say about the game in the hopes the publisher will send you other games in the future)
Confirmation bias (buying a game or learning a complex game, then convincing yourself the money/time was well spent)
Size and scope (you might have a blast playing a small, inexpensive, streamlined game 50 times, but are you going to rate it higher than the massive 50-campaign game that you only play twice?)
Cult of the new (being more excited about shiny new games over timeless classics)
Groupthink (we’re more likely to play and enjoy games that our friends are also excited to play with us; the opposite is also true)
Hype and contrarianism (when thousands of other people rave about a product that you aren’t as excited about)

While there are some ways to mitigate or decrease bias, I think the most important thing is to acknowledge that we’re all at least a little biased. That’s okay as long as publishers aren’t seeking to manipulate the bias of content creators; in fact, my hope is that publishers go out of their way to avoid bias. For example, as I noted in the comments of Alex’s video:

At Stonemaier Games, “we promise reviewers that we (me in particular) do not read, watch, or listen to reviews of any games we’ve sent for free to reviewers. The core idea behind that is to remove bias both ways: The subconscious bias by the reviewer to say nice things because they think it might impact whether or not we send them something in the future and our own subconscious bias about whether or not we send a reviewer games in the future. Whenever those reviewers share a link to their review with me, I post it on our website to provide unbiased opinions to people who are considering our games–it’s quite possible that there are a number of negative reviews among those links as a result, and I wouldn’t know otherwise.”

Reviews

Okay, now that we know that no one is paying for positive reviews, plenty of publishers are paying for non-opinion content, and bias exists throughout all forms of media, where does that leave reviewers?

Most reviewers either play games they own or games they receive for free from publishers. Regardless of how a reviewer gets a game, the game is required for them to form an informed opinion about it. This is legally considered payment/compensation even though a reviewer can’t go to a restaurant and pay for their meal with a copy of Ticket to Ride, so it must be disclosed.

One way that publishers support reviewers financially while retaining a bit of distance is to sponsor their channels, blogs, and podcasts (directly or via Kickstarter/Patreon). Another is to pay for non-opinion content (i.e., a playthrough) but not the review content.

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?

Ethics

If bias is unavoidable regardless of whether or not money changes hands and we can all agree on the immense value that reviewers add to the gaming community–as as marketing for publishers–why don’t publishers pay the media to form and broadcast opinions?

I’m not looking for an excuse to pay reviewers–our marketing budget to make and ship thousands of free products to reviewers around the world each year is already stretched thin. It’s just that previously my answer would have involved some argument about the bias involved in a paid review, but if we trust reviewers to put aside those other examples of bias, why don’t we trust them to do the same if they received an up-front payment as well?

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.

That said, I do have one major concern about the concept of paid reviews: They heavily favor publishers who can afford them. There are so many tiny, one-person publishing companies. If the industry standard changed to a publisher having to pay $500+ for any large reviewer to consider their game, the variety of games we’d see on those major channels would greatly decrease. Perhaps it would help to have an industry-standard fee, or a tiered system based on audience size with a cap?

Federal Trade Commission (US)

I added this section after originally posting thanks to a very helpful comment from Ray!

The FTC offers these requirements (for full clarity, these are exact quotes from their social media influencers page):

You can’t talk about your experience with a product you haven’t tried.
If you’re paid to talk about a product and thought it was terrible, you can’t say it’s terrific.
Financial relationships aren’t limited to money. Disclose the relationship if you got anything of value to mention a product. The disclosure should be placed with the endorsement message itself.
If you have no brand relationship and are just telling people about a product you bought and happen to like, you don’t need to declare that you don’t have a brand relationship.

Conclusions and Suggestions

Regardless of whether paid reviews become more common, I have a few suggestions for reviewers and publishers as we strive to best serve the gamers of the world.

Publishers: Consider a commitment to blindly sharing reviews. Find ways to anonymously support reviewers. On occasion when you’re sending out review copies, randomly select the reviewers instead of intentionally selecting them–this can remove the impact of selection bias and potentially improve the diversity of the reviewers receiving the products. And remember–just as reviewers aren’t entitled to free games, you’re not entitled to having any specific person review your games.
Reviewers/Media: Be transparent about receiving free products, sponsorships, and payments; you may even need to spell out that you were paid for your opinion, not a positive opinion. Consider a commitment to buying some percentage of the games you review, keeping in mind the balance of free vs confirmation bias. Also, if you’re seeking to use your platform to generate funds, focus on revenue streams that aren’t dependent on publishers.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, both in the comments and the poll below. Thanks!

*There is no documented evidence of this conspiracy theory in the tabletop game industry (no, a positive review of a game you didn’t enjoy isn’t “proof” that a publisher has paid the reviewer for a good review). I can’t imagine any tabletop game publisher attempting to bribe a reviewer in this way, nor can I imagine any tabletop game reviewer considering such an offer. There’s just too much to lose and too little to gain, and it would be incredibly unethical.

A few content creators posted videos on this topic after this article was released:

Rolling Dice & Taking Names
Drive Thru Games
The Mill

Is It Unethical to Pay the Media to Form and Broadcast Their Opinion?
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