Pay the Ferryman

The topic of paid reviews has reared its ugly head once more, as it does every few months. I have zero desire to prop up conspiracy theories, point fingers, or speculate who is doing what. It did get me thinking about the terms we use to describe content production and when what we produce is an advert and when it is our critical opinion. Not just from my point of view, but from the perspective of the law.

Let’s start by defining three broad types of content created in our hobby. Tutorial, Promotional, and critique.

Tutorial covers “How to Play” videos, strategy guides, beginner’s guides and any content designed to teach specifics about a game.

Promotional would cover anything that is hyping a game. A lot of Kickstarter related output would fall under this category.

Critique covers anything where the opinion of the creator comes to the fore. Reviews, thought pieces, criticism of the wider industry, all fall under this.

An individual piece might cross between the lines of these 3 categories and there are times when that is ok, and others when it isn’t.

In the United Kingdom, we have the Advertising Standards Authority that regulates TV, print, and online advertising. For something to be considered an advert, two elements have to be in place: control and payment.

Payment could be the game itself or it can be financial compensation. As far as editorial control goes, even the requirement that a review happen could be construed as control. So surely all my review work counts as ads?

It’s clear that the game itself counts as payment. At The Giant Brain we endeavour to make sure our readers & listeners know how we have come by a particular game. We put this up on top of each piece to ensure that any biases are clear. We also let you know if the designer/publisher has been on the site in some other way, usually the cast or an interview.

Editorial control is a bit harder to define. We pledge to review everything we receive. I wanted to make that commitment, whilst limiting the number of games we take on. I have been asked to get reviews out by a certain time, i.e. a KS launch, but I would be wanting to do that anyway. I have never been asked to form a particular opinion on a game, and would reject such a request (and likely the game itself at that juncture).

I’ve been wanting to get someone from the Advertising Standards Authority onto a cast but have not managed this as yet, so I’ll have to go with my own interpretation. As I see it The Giant Brain is as separated from being influenced by the publishers we get games from as we can be. We need games to review, so we have to accept publisher copies, but we make it clear our opinion will always be an honest one. Anyone who takes a glance at the site knows that I am not shy of giving my full throated opinion on a game, no matter what that might be.

The only way we could separate ourselves more would be to buy all games ourselves, but I think that would be its own form of bias. We would be more likely to buy games we are likely to play rather than accepting some product more outside of our comfort zone. The only way to make that happen would be to get more funding from crowdfunding sources like Kickstarter/ Patreon or affiliate links.

We have dabbled with the latter, having Amazon links on some of our articles for just under a year. There was some money to be had there, but I came away from that method of funding for three reasons:

  1. There is potential perceived bias in what we put out if it contains affiliate links. How do you know we aren’t praising something because we want you to buy it and give us money?
  2. Amazon is partially responsible for fake copies of board games
  3. We would much rather see you give money to your local games shop.

Money makes the world go round

Let’s come back to our three different types of content. It seems clear to me that there is no problem with getting paid for Tutorial or Promotional content. The former you are providing a service to your client, the publisher, and the people who engage with your tutorial. Good work deserves to be paid. The latter you are making an advert to promote the game and again that should be paid for. I have absolutely no problem with anyone getting paid for this kind of work, as long as it is made absolutely clear that is what it is. Work that has been paid for.

The difficulty comes when an individual channel does a bit of critique but also does either tutorial, promotional or both other types of content. In this case it can sometimes be difficult for the audience to discern what is critique and what is promotion. Tutorial I think is a little clearer as it should hopefully be clear that you are producing something to help teach a game to an audience. As critics we must be incredibly clear about where games come from and our relationship with the publishers. If we don’t, how can we expect our audience to trust us?

This seems a simple enough proposition to me. Just put out on any piece you produce, how you came by the game. Then your audience can make up their own minds. If you are producing for a publication not your own, then it is on the editorial team to make sure this happens.

The cold hard truth

I am not a professional critic, very few in the hobby are. By that I mean that very few can make a livelihood from producing tabletop criticism. If we do want to make it a living I think it is inevitable that an individual will get involved with marketing/ tutorial. When we do we must be absolutely crystal clear about what is paid for marketing and what is honest opinion. The two should not mix. If you do marketing for a game, I really don’t think you should produce a review of it as well. It just muddies the waters too much.

There will always be claims and counterclaim over who gets paid for what in tabletop criticism. I’ve done what I can to look into such stories and I honestly don’t think there is much in the way of backhanded deals going on. There are fuzzy areas for sure and as critics we have to make sure we are as clear as possible. If we are doing Marketing, say that. If we are doing Tutorials, say that. If it’s pure criticism, say that. There is absolutely no shame in getting paid for either of the first two. If you are getting paid and passing your piece off as genuine critical opinion, then you should take a long hard look at yourself and ask why you can’t be honest about what you do.


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Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

2 Responses

  1. Very much agree with all of this! I think you’re right that most critics are likely to need the income from promotional content and for it to be flagged.

    One thing from my POV I’ve noticed… there’s quite a few creators where this is all been a little too blurred (I really mean that, not as comic understatement). I’ve offered a review copy and instantly been offered a rate card in response with varying degrees of clarity as to what the relationship being proposed is. That’s not… ideal. I certainly don’t expect them to review what I’ve made if they don’t want to! But I do sort of expect there to be a really clear line on this from the very beginning e.g. “here our advertising options, I can also take a copy but be aware that’s a totally different stream” etc. Also some platforms where the promotional bit really isn’t made clear enough.

    Short term of course, vagueness can be good for publishers to be brutally honest. But long-term, its not even selfishly good because – maybe I’m old fashioned – but trust will suffer!

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective James. I’m very much all about building trust with the audience. If they can’t trust us to be honest, what’s the point of us bringing criticism to the site

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