The discussion about whether board game reviews should be paid for comes up regularly. Arguments can centre on the moral angle, come from a legal viewpoint or be purely personal opinions. More often than not, what is being debated is not well defined and the discourse starts to drift into different, seemingly opposing, directions. In this article, I want to try and untangle the topic and focus on maybe one or two specific areas.
Pay Me My Dues
The argument in favour of payment for reviews often starts from the point of view that a lot of work goes into creating articles, podcasts or videos. Writing something, editing it, laying it out on a blog or in print, sourcing, editing and adding images aren’t quick jobs. On average, I take about two hours to get my blog posts ready. Video work, if done well, is even more involved. That work, so it is claimed, should be paid for. After all, people have to pay bills, buy food and basically make a living.
Even though I agree with the above in principle, there are quite a few nuances to consider. Payment is generally not just based on volume. Different pieces of work will be of different quality and therefore deserve different amounts of payment. A novice artist demands a smaller price than an established one whose quality of work is exceptional. However, we could probably argue for years about how to decide how much someone should get paid for a specific job. So let’s not get into this too much. Let me just say that personally, I don’t think my blog articles deserve a high reward, for example.
What I do want to focus on though, and what I think is often not discussed, is who should pay for the work. That’s especially important when it comes to reviews. I think we all agree that we want reviews to be based on a person’s experience and tastes, with as little external influence as possible. I want to trust that a review is the creator’s honest, personal opinion – and that’s where we get into the realms of bias.
We are all biased. That’s perfectly human. As a board game reviewer, there will be certain types of games that I am much more likely to enjoy than other games. That could be down to mechanisms, setting, the publisher, the designer, the illustrator or many other reasons. Biases are multi-faceted and everyone will have slightly different ones or have the same ones for different reasons. It could be as simple as me having had a nice chat with a certain designer which makes me like their games more than another designer who was rude to me. A lovely email from a publisher might sway me to review their game before another publisher’s. There are a lot of ways in which I can be swayed. Again, that’s perfectly human.
That’s why I chose to write “Kant”, rather than “can’t”, in the title of this article. Kantian Ethics basically try to eradicate bias. As a principle that society should strive for, these ethics are relatively sound, or at least as sound as any ethical principle will ever be. However, on a personal level, it is going to be unavoidable to have biases.
What is much more important when it comes to reviews is to be aware of these biases and be transparent about them. I have recently published reviews of solo games and I have made it clear that I’m not much of a solo player. That’s a bias I am aware of and that was important to declare in my review. A slightly less glowing review from me about a solo game is most likely due to my bias. So you need to know that I don’t often play solo games, in order for you to temper my review and evaluate whether a specific game is for you.
Let’s return to payments though. I wanted to cover bias first, because payment can, and often will, create bias. However, it depends on who makes the payment.
For example, I think it’s fair if a magazine pays a writer for their work or a website pays someone for creating videos, taking photos or doing other professional work. I don’t think a salary affects someone’s bias much. A board game review will be just as glowing or critical as if it wasn’t paid for.
Now let’s look at the money I get paid by my supporters. I don’t believe that monthly payment creates additional bias for me. Sure, I want to keep my supporters happy and want them to continue to support me. So the only bias might be on which games I review or what topics I write about. If my supporters don’t like role-playing games, then I might not review these types of games. Personally, I think it’s the other way around though. People support me because of what I write after I have chosen what to write about. However, you could definitely, and probably successfully, argue that I might be less likely to change what I write about given the types of supporters I have.
So far we talked about payment from independent sources, as in people or companies who have no ties to the publisher, creator or other person or company directly linked to a game. I know, it’s not actually that clear-cut. However, overall, what I have been talking about is independent payments.
Now let’s talk about payments that aren’t independent. To make it simple, let’s assume a publisher offers a certain sum of money to someone to cover their game. The publisher makes no stipulation about how the person should talk about the game. They don’t want to have any editorial control whatsoever. Now, I honestly don’t think it’s likely that a business will give someone money without any say in what is being produced, but let’s go with it for this example.
In my view, payment of this sort will most likely influence your bias. After all, you want to please the publisher so they pay you again in the future. Even when payment comes without any conditions, there will be an implicit expectation that you create a positive review. I know, some publishers genuinely are happy for reviewers to be critical. They don’t want people to buy games they’re not going to like. However, on the whole, direct payment from a publisher likely creates additional bias.
Let me temper this though. The amount being paid needs to be considered. A certain amount of money is meaningless to someone who is already rich, while the same amount allows another person to pay their bills. In the same way, how much bias payment creates will differ.
I know, the next question you will ask is whether free review copies create bias. After all, a reviewer could sell them afterwards. For me, it’s simple because I don’t sell review copies. However, it does save me from having to pay for the game to cover on my blog in the first place. So there is some bias, for sure. Ultimately, it goes back to what I just said. It depends on the value of the game and the reviewer’s circumstances.
Laws and Regulations
Let me finish by talking about laws and regulations. These will differ in different jurisdictions, but a lot of countries have similar approaches. In the UK, a reviewer receiving payment from whoever makes the product being reviewed and at the same time, that company having control over the review, makes it an advert, which has to be clearly labelled as such. In this context, payment does include free samples, i.e. free review copies. However, a free review copy alone doesn’t make an advert. It requires an element of control, which could be as simple as telling the reviewer when a review must be published. It doesn’t even have to be explicit control. If you, as a reviewer, will change your review when asked, even if the company never explicitly asked for that level of control, then there is implicit control.
So if a reviewer is sent a free copy of a game and the company tells the reviewer when to publish their review, then it’s an advert and has to be labelled as such. Of course, that’s only one end of the spectrum. On the other end, if a publisher pays a reviewer and has the last say on whether a review can be published or needs to be changed, then it’s certainly an advert. It’s definitely not a review, legally speaking at least.
Ultimately though, I think it’s always about transparency. I owe it to you, my readers, that I share with you if I was sent a free review copy of a game or if one of my financial supporters is linked to the game I’m reviewing. You can then decide for yourself how much bias I was under. You can take from the review whatever you feel is appropriate.
What About You?
As always, I would like to know what you think about bias in reviews. Do you think payment from a publisher affects reviews? Do you think reviewers should buy their own games and not rely on review copies? Are you a publisher yourself and think it’s up to you to pay reviewers for their work? Is there anything else you think you can add to the discussion? Please use the comment section below to share your thoughts with us.
Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.
Music: Beauty Flow by Kevin MacLeod
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/5025-beauty-flow
Licensed under CC BY 4.0: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
These are the songs I listened to while I was writing this topic discussion article: