Machinima, Microsoft, and the murky world of video game journalism

When covering the world of technology products, there’s always a fine balance between access and truth: outlets want to become close to companies to get the inside track on products, while remaining objective enough to write fair reviews of said products. Video game journalism takes it a step further — as titles live and die by popular opinion, those who speak as a voice for games are often caught between getting the games they need to continue their work and speaking honestly about how they perform.

Gaming media has often been under fire for the wobbly ethics that come with the business, whether it’s journalists jumping ship to the companies they cover or promoting products for the promise of swag (or money), but what happens when it’s non-journalists who get in on the act? Non-journalists who happen to be paid by one of the most well-known gaming media channels in the world?

The line got very blurry yesterday when Ars Technica released a report that indicated that the most popular gaming content channel on Youtube (s goog), Machinima, created an incentivized program to encourage hundreds of content creators — most of them run-of-the-mill Youtube vloggers with little production budgets — to speak fondly of Microsoft and the Xbox One for extra money. While gaming companies often provide channels like Machinima sponsored content, the report contained an NDA to keep users from speaking about Microsoft’s involvement, and forbade criticism of the material:

“You may not say anything negative or disparaging about Machinima, Xbox One or any of its Games in your Campaign Video.”

The details promotional “campaign” read a lot like a standard marketing deal: users are encouraged to hype up the Xbox One, show footage and even tag the video with a special hashtag to be included in the payment process. This afternoon, both Machinima and Microsoft released a joint statement to Ars:

“This partnership between Machinima and Microsoft was a typical marketing partnership to promote Xbox One in December. The Xbox team does not review any specific content or provide feedback on content. Any confidentiality provisions, terms, or other guidelines are standard documents provided by Machinima. For clarity, confidentiality relates to the agreements themselves, not the existence of the promotion.”

The issue, of course, is not just the content, but that pesky NDA: Ars notes that the deal might run afoul of the FTC’s rules for advertisement, as the content creators are being compensated for a testimonial, but not disclosing that fact. It’s clear that Microsoft paid for the campaign — a paltry $3,750 for videos that continue to get views — but without the proper fine print it reads a lot like “astroturfing,” the practice of generating positive buzz inauthentically. In this case, it’s Microsoft marketing wrapped in the guise of your friendly, regular blogger — an average person who is an Xbox hype-man in disguise.

Although it’s very overt, this isn’t the first time accusations of have been tossed around in the video game space. Last February, readers accused game website EGM of taking a kickback from Gearbox software for its glossy, doting review of a particularly sub-par game Aliens: Colonial Marines. EGM’s boss, Steve Harris, denied that the company took any compensation for the review and, although author and Executive Editor Brandon Justice left the site shortly after, Harris also claimed the departure had nothing to do with the review itself.

Machinima Logo

Of course, what makes the Microsoft/Machinima deal so grave is that, despite working for a professional games channel that often focuses on news, reviews, and other original content, many of the video bloggers on Machinima don’t identify as journalists. In fact, nearly anyone can apply to be in Machinima’s “affiliate network,” with or without a journalism background, and express their opinions to their following.

In many ways, the Microsoft deal is the ultimate sin in gaming: with reputations for titles built on word-of-mouth excitement and the opinions of a select few people, Microsoft chose to hedge its bets and pay for buzz. While the incident with EGM remained in that ethical gray area that makes it impossible to really place blame, Machinima displayed its man behind the curtain: it’s willing to turn its network into a team of marketers, who will say just about anything for the right price and never disclose it for fear of losing sponsorship.

It’s hard to know how deeply this revelation will hurt Machinima’s vast Youtube empire, particularly as it expands to on-demand content, but it’s a violation of trust that show deep problems in gaming journalism’s access/honesty equation. Machinima has the opportunity to refute this claim — it’s (sort of) upfront about how its affiliates operate and how the channel lines their pockets — but its visibility as an authority in gaming means that it also needs to shape up and play by the rules. If not, then every opinion will be thrown into question, and the audience will demand proof that money wasn’t a motive all along.