A Response to TotalBiscuit re: Salon.com’s Article on #GamerGate and Shadow of Mordor

A Response to TotalBiscuit re: Salon.com’s Article on #GamerGate and Shadow of Mordor

Good afternoon, Rebels, and welcome back to my life.

This post is quite a bit different from my usual fare, as you will no doubt have noticed by the fact that it’s quite a bit longer.

Recently one of my favorite YouTubers, TotalBiscuit, wrote a blog post and then subsequently did a Soundcloud broadcast about #GamerGate. And specifically a statement that Salon.com made ABOUT #GamerGate.

Now if you don’t know TotalBiscuit, you should. He’s one of the best video game personalities out there, is unflinchingly honest, unflinchingly damning of game media, and I’ve really respected most of his conduct throughout the #GamerGate fiasco.

While not being firmly entrenched in the movement, he is quite definitely in favor of honest and integrity in games journalism. And he has been for years, long before #GamerGate made it such a big issue.

Without question, TotalBiscuit has proven himself to be pro consumer. But in that quality I find my problem with his post about the Salon.com article.

In general I think his take on the article was spot-on, sometimes entertainingly so. You can tell that Salon.com were way out of their depth with their statement, and TotalBiscuit takes them to task on every aspect of their statement.

But certain concepts TotalBiscuit originates in his post trouble me.

TotalBiscuit, if I could speak directly to you for a moment?

Salon.com made quite a fuss about the paid branding deal for the popular “Shadow of Mordor” video game. And you said:

“…the first problem with that statement is that it has nothing to do with games journalism. This latest controversy centers around 3 key things. Youtubers, who primarily consist of Lets Play-creating entertainers, PR firms, specifically the company Plaid Social and the publisher of the game Warner Bros. I’m not sure why people keep trying to tie this to games journalism.”

You are correct that YouTube gamers are not “journalists,” at least not in the definition of the word that applies to the press, media, etc. No question on that. Boogie2988 certainly doesn’t have a degree in journalism.

(Wait, he doesn’t, does he?)

Journalism should be held to a very high standard, with all of the appropriate fact checking for their statements, and editors who ensure that their journalists do not put forth false or misleading information to readers.

You are correct in stating:

“So when one points to the Shadow of Mordor brand deal as an ‘ethics problem in games journalism’, they are factually incorrect.”

However, I do take issue with the concept that YouTube gamers are not responsible for disclosing to their audience that they are doing a paid deal, in essence receiving money from game developers for hyping up their games.

In fact I would argue that YouTubers have a GREATER responsibility to do so. Their audience tends to feel they know them personally. Good video content creates a closer bond between the person on the screen and the viewer than, say, the writer of an article and the reader. In many cases we become personally attached to our favorite YouTube personalities (as I’m sure you’ve experienced with varying degrees of creepiness) and therefore more likely to trust them.

Furthermore, some YouTubers have bigger audiences than many “traditional” outlets of games media. Game Informer has a circulation of 7.6 million, according to a quick Google search, making it the third-biggest magazine in America. Pewdiepie has THIRTY-ONE million subscribers.

So we have to ask: does games journalism owe its consumers honest, fully-disclosed reporting because “it is journalism?” Or because of the influence it wields?

I would argue the latter. And it pains me to say it, but your response to the Salon.com article seems to be arguing the former.

It doesn’t seem appropriate, at least to me, for YouTubers to accept and fail to disclose brand deals, thereby promoting content for game developers without telling their audience they’re being paid to praise the games. It’s even LESS appropriate when those YouTubers have in the past put out a call for journalistic integrity within the industry, or when they are #GamerGaters themselves.

I do not personally excuse this conduct because “they are not journalists.” They are entertainers with tremendous influence, and a failure to use that influence responsibly is…well, irresponsible.

I went through the list of YouTubers you listed in your article who took the brand deal. Cryaotic mentioned right up in front of his video that it’s a paid promotion—well done to him for that. I watched at least the first five minutes of every other video on the list, and watched the end of each, and NO ONE else mentioned it.

Most of the people on the list mentioned the sponsorship in the video’s description, though I would be interested to know if they did that when they published it or after some people in the community raised flags about the brand deal (after, of course, you told Jim Sterling about it).

I find Ali-A’s video particularly troubling because in the video’s intro, he says that he “found the video and had to check it out.” That implies he sought out a copy of the game for review and very deliberately did NOT mention a sponsor. This seems most disingenuous of all the videos on the list.

Regardless, I don’t know how many people go all through the description looking for a notice of whether or not it’s a sponsored video. It seems like the sort of thing you would want to tell people on-screen, with your own voice.

(The way you did in your Shadow of Mordor video when you told people you DIDN’T take the deal because it would ruin your credibility, which I wholeheartedly agree with).

The only one on the list I’m inclined to give a pass is Pewdiepie. Let’s face it, Pewdiepie is hardly even a Lets Player. He’s a straight-up entertainer, turning video game content into comedy, and comedy gets a wide pass in many regards. But I still think he should have mentioned the sponsorship, and everyone on that list should have mentioned the sponsorship in the video itself.

I might sound as though I have an axe to grind. I do. I have a personal dog in this fight. I had heard about Shadow of Mordor through Game Informer. It looked amazing, but then again—this is Game Informer. I, well aware of the dangers of trusting game journalism, though I would wait and see. So I waited, and one day I saw that boogie had uploaded Lets Play footage. Ecstatic, I tuned in and saw him playing what looked like a really, really fun game.

I immediately popped on Steam and purchased the game. And I will not lie. I had a blast with it. It is a fun game, and as Jim Sterling put very aptly:

“Hilariously, none of this overbearing overzealous control of the media is needed. Shadow of Mordor is a good game, I’ve played it a lot. It’s a very good game. Critics, YouTubers, people playing it are loving it.”

So I played the game—in fact, I beat it, recording the whole thing and posting my own Lets Play footage, and planned to go nuts achieving every optional objective I could.

And then I found out about the brand deal. Via Jim Sterling, via you.

Fuck.

I haven’t touched the game since. Not because the game is bad, not because I’m mad at the game or the developers. Because I’m mad at Plaid Social and boogie.

I still love boogie. But I am extremely disappointed in his conduct regarding the affair. I wish I had never seen his Let’s Play, and had only seen your video on the game. I would still have an excellent game in my library and no qualms about playing it.

More damningly, I now find myself leery of watching boogie’s game reviews. He has installed an element of doubt in my mind that I will find difficult to erase, however much of a good guy he is—and he is a good guy, I know that.

What’s even MORE egregious about this to me is that boogie formerly was very vocal about games media, and if forced to choose I would have put him in the pro-#GamerGate camp. But since the Shadow of Mordor kerfluffle happened, boogie’s message has shifted more to anti-harassment. He was always against harassment, but that is now his main focus, whereas before his main focus seemed to be that #GamerGate’s claims of journalistic malfeasance were well-founded.

You stated in your post about the Salon.com article:

“I certainly do not accuse Conan O’Brien of corruption when he does his ‘Clueless Gamer’ pieces even though these are obviously sponsored…”

I do accuse YouTube gamers of corruption (possibly excepting Pewdiepie) because they, from my perspective, hid their sponsorship. I, like you, have an expectation from those I subscribe to in the video game space. I expect that they are open and honest about what they are doing, and that they are recommending games they really, truly enjoy, and the great things and terrible things about the games they play.

If they are not doing that, why should I be expected to watch them?

And should I give them a free pass on this misconduct because “they’re not journalists?”

You support what you call the core ideals of #GamerGate. (I don’t consider them #GamerGate’s core ideals, but that’s certainly a topic for another time). Per your post, one of those ideals is:

“I am against biased and corrupt games journalism.”

Shouldn’t we be against bias and corruption in the gaming industry? Because like it or not, the YouTube video game space has become an important part of the gaming industry. And if it wasn’t before, it certainly is now that YouTubers are being paid to show off games.

Further on in your post, you claim:

“After exposing this deal and putting my own future dealings with Warner Bros PR at risk by doing so, the issue was in fact resolved. I have now seen copies of updated Plaid Social agreements in which the problematic terms have been removed. Why is there no ongoing scandal? Because it got fixed, that’s why. Plaid Social were caught in the act, exposed and revised their contracts. This of course, should have been the job of games journalists, but had YouTubers not been transparent, they’d have never even known about it.”

As far as I’m concerned, you (and Jim) are the only ones who behaved 100% appropriately in this situation. Plaid Social certainly didn’t. And as for “Why is there no ongoing scandal? Because it got fixed, that’s why.”

I guess I don’t see that it got fixed. The videos are still there. There has been no wide acknowledgement from YouTubers that what they did was wrong and that they are going to change that. This is something I would love to see from them, just as you would love to see traditional games media widely acknowledge that it has been anti-consumer and that that is going to change from here on out.

Without such acknowledgement, I don’t know why I should expect any different conduct from them in the future. I don’t follow the other YouTubers, but boogie’s discussion about the brand deal he took was very defensive, basically claiming there was nothing wrong with the contract he signed, that he was “more than glad to do that,” and that he would do it again.

A bit different from your stance that it would “ruin your credibility.” (Which is the view I subscribe to).

More importantly, it is anti-consumer. It is harmful to the consumer. And when the consumer finds out about it—as I did—it feels like a betrayal, and undermines my faith in YouTube as an example for game media to follow.

I’m not saying that the YouTube deal is WORSE than many situations within traditional game media. It’s clearly, 100%, obviously not.

But I do not like that you seem to be trying to explain it away in your response to the Salon.com article. I do not like that you seem to be okay with YouTubers taking brand deals when I know for a fact you would never be okay with traditional game media taking those same brand deals. And, in fact, that you have NOT been okay with it in the past. And when even in your own post, you point out that the YouTube space has rapidly grown past games media in terms of size and influence.

If YouTube is bigger than games media—and I agree with you that it is—doesn’t YouTube have MORE ability to harm or mislead the consumer?

And when YouTubers call for games journalism to revise their own ethics codes, wouldn’t it be wise of them to first adopt their own ethical codes? And to ensure that those ethical codes are pro-consumer, rather than pro-YouTuber?

I still have complete faith in YOUR message and YOUR conduct on the channel. But I do not approve of your post, which seems to make excuses for YouTubers for anti-consumer conduct.

What ACTION do I expect out of this? I don’t know, exactly, because I don’t know what’s feasible among bigger YouTubers. I would love for there to be a call for YouTubers to include annotations at the tops of their SoM videos that it’s a paid promotion. That would be a great start.

I suppose the problem is that I don’t feel assured that it won’t happen again. Boogie seems defensive about his involvement. Meanwhile, you claim that Plaid Social has revised their contracts for the future. That’s great—for Plaid Social. What about other companies? If they offer similar deals again, do I expect boogie and others to take them again? You bet I do, and that’s not a good feeling.

YouTubers shouldn’t be held to the same journalistic standards as people who actually want to put “journalist” in their job description, obviously. But shouldn’t they be held to some standard? Shouldn’t they be held accountable to their viewers for pulling stuff like this? And when called out on it, shouldn’t they take action to firmly convince their audience that it won’t happen again?

After all, that’s what I know we all wish games media would do.

TotalBiscuit, I know there’s almost no chance you’ve actually heard this. But if you have, I thank you so much for taking the time to listen to the concerns of one audience member. Keep doing what you do. Your channel and voice have been a bright spot throughout the last three months.

To the Rebels who have read or listened this far, thank you very much, and I’ll see you in my next video. Byyye.

 

Garrett Robinson

Over 100,000 readers have read and loved Garrett's books, like the fantasy hits Nightblade and Midrealm. He's also a film festival favorite with movies like Unsaid, and a tech guru who posts lots of helpful how-tos for writers and filmmakers over at garrettbrobinson.com.

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