A discussion that keeps popping up on social media ever so often is whether reviews should be paid for or not. After all, people deserve to be paid for their time. Also, if someone is sent a free copy of a game for review, then that’s surely some form of payment. I mean, some publishers even send goodies to reviewers, which shows that these people deserve some recompense. Or maybe payment creates some level of bias and threatens the integrity and honesty of the review. There are also legal implications, of course. So in this article, I want to give you my opinion on the situation.

Define “Paid”

First of all, let me define what I mean by a paid review. Generally speaking, people get paid in different ways and by different people or companies. For the context of this article, when I talk about a “paid review”, I mean when a publisher pays the reviewer directly for the review itself, especially if it’s an agreement that’s made in advance. So if a publisher contacts a reviewer and they agree that the publisher will pay the reviewer a certain amount in return for writing the article, making the video or whatever format the review takes. That payment can be in the form of currency or even payment in kind. A publisher might offer to pay a reviewer’s exhibition attendance in return for writing the review. They might send the reviewer some sort of promotional products or maybe a voucher for the publisher’s shop.

However, I specifically don’t consider the game itself as a form of payment, even though I accept that we’re entering the first slightly grey, but still very white, in my view, area. If a publisher sends a free copy of the game to the person who will review that game, it’s an expense that the publisher has, but it’s not a direct benefit to the reviewer. I will explore this in more detail later, but I always assume that review copies are either sent back to the publisher or to another reviewer, or if the reviewer is allowed to keep the game, that they don’t sell it or otherwise have a financial gain from it, other than that they didn’t have to buy the game themselves.

Define “Not Paid”

There are other situations that I don’t consider paid reviews. Someone receiving a salary or freelance fee from the publisher of a magazine, website or similar for writing a review doesn’t create a paid review. Support via a Patreon or Ko-Fi page also doesn’t count as a paid review. I also don’t mean the money someone receives for advertising that runs alongside the review. However, I do understand that the latter two can make things muddy.

For example, a publisher supports a reviewer through Patreon or Ko-Fi or advertises alongside a review that is for one of their games. Technically speaking, the reviewer didn’t get paid for the review directly. However, sponsorship from Patreon or Ko-Fi or through advertising is still quite closely linked to rewarding the reviewer for their work.

I see that in magazines. An advert for a product next to an article that talks about that product always makes you wonder how honest the article actually is or how much it was influenced by the payment for a full-page ad. Of course, in a magazine context, the editorial and advertising teams are two distinct entities that make their decisions independently, or at least they should. The editorial team decides what stories to run and only later the advertising team is told about it and only then do they contact the relevant companies about advertising. It’s very common in the publishing world and absolutely legal. If the magazine follows strict rules it’s also ethical.

However, the situation is very different when the reviewer is a one-person team who decides what to write, while also dealing with getting paid in the form of advertising. There is no way that one person can keep the two things separate.

Ethical Principles

So let’s look at some of these ethical principles. In broad terms, we’re talking about independence, integrity, fairness, accuracy and transparency. These ethical principles are quite closely linked to each other, but let’s try and define each one in turn.

As a reviewer, you should strive to be independent of the company whose product you review. You should share your own and honest opinion. There should be no outside influence or pressure on your opinion.

That independence also relates to your integrity as a reviewer and the integrity in your process of creating the review. To maintain integrity, you need to be honest and fair when you evaluate the product. You also need to avoid any conflict of interest that might affect your bias, whether that is consciously or subconsciously. Everyone is biased in some way, but there should be no external influence on that bias. Your review also needs to represent the product accurately.

Fairness and accuracy refer to considering both the positive and negative aspects of a product in a balanced way. As a reviewer, you need to evaluate a product on its merits and be open-minded and willing to consider all aspects of the product. At the same time, you should not shy away from discussing the product’s weaknesses, drawbacks or limitations, alongside its strengths and benefits. Your role is to give potential customers the information they need to make an informed decision about whether the product is right for them.

In addition, fairness specifically means avoiding derogatory or offensive language and treating the product being reviewed with respect and professionalism. Accuracy also implies that you don’t make anything up, of course.

a soap bubble (Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash)
(Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash)


Transparency is a key principle of ethical reviewing. People need to know your, the reviewer’s, relationship to the product you’re reviewing. I think we all agree that a reviewer, who is paid for a review, has to disclose this fact. The reason for this is that many people feel that payment will affect the reviewer’s bias in some way. If people know that you got paid for your work, they can decide how much they believe what you say or how much you may have been influenced to leave out some facts and present the product in a better light than you may have done if you hadn’t been paid for your work.

In this context, I do urge reviewers to state if they were sent a free copy of a game by the publisher. I know I said I don’t consider review copies a form of payment, but for the sake of transparency, it’s still important to declare it.

You should also declare if you’ve had previous commercial relationships with a publisher whose game you’re reviewing, whether or not you were given a free copy of the game. For example, I have done translation work for a couple of publishers and even though I won’t review any of their games going forward, if I did, I would say that I have been working with the publisher in a professional capacity in the past.

Patreon and Ko-Fi support also needs to be mentioned for the purpose of transparency, just like any other donations you may have received from a publisher in the past or at the time of creating your review.

Conflict of Interest

Ultimately, any benefit you received from a publisher will influence you, whether you think it does or does not. How big that influence is will depend on the benefit and your personal situation. Someone who earns a lot of money through Patreon support may consider a hundred bucks immaterial and therefore the money will influence them only marginally, if at all. However, if you’ve not got a large following and not a big income stream, then those same hundred bucks will be a lot more important to you and have a much bigger influence on you.

I know people don’t think that receiving payment for their work will influence them in any way, but it definitely does. Even if a publisher allows you a free hand and explicitly says that they don’t mind if you say anything negative about their game in your review, you will not be completely unbiased. Anyone saying that they are completely unaffected by money changing hands or being given a voucher or other benefit needs to sit down and have a re-think. Nobody is ever unaffected, but I accept that the scale of the effect will depend on your situation and the benefit you’re getting.

To be completely unbiased, reviewers would have to buy every game they want to talk about and many people do that. However, I think there is a balance to be struck. You can remain independent, have complete integrity and be totally honest when you receive a free copy of a game from a publisher.

Rules and Regulations

Side-stepping the discussion about whether a review can ever be paid for or if any paid work is marketing, let’s look at rules and regulations. These will differ from region to region. I’m not legally trained. I’m not a lawyer or solicitor. So please double-check the following statements yourself. I think they are accurate, but they are just my interpretation and I may have got things wrong.

In the United Kingdom, the Committee of Advertising Practice Ltd. (CAP) requires content to be marked as an advert if the author was ‘paid’ in some way (which can include freebies and doesn’t have to be money) and there has been some form of outside editorial ‘control’ over the content, even if it is just final approval.

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires reviewers to disclose any material connections they have to the product being reviewed, including any financial compensation they have received.

There are, of course, regulations in many other countries and regions that define when content is an advert and how to declare it as such.

the goddess "Justice" (Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash)
(Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash)

There Is No Such Thing As Paid Reviews

However, personally speaking, I do think that when someone is paid to write about a product, then it’s always an advert. It is marketing – pure and simple. That’s not a bad thing though. Ensuring that a game is promoted to maximum effect is so very important. Placing yourself in the marketing space is a perfectly viable strategy. If you have built a large following, have built a great community and your visitor/viewer stats are huge, then you are in a great position to offer to market products. It’s great to see professionally produced videos that show off games in their best light, sponsored playthroughs that allow me to get an impression for how a game plays and feels and how-to-play videos that teach a game to me. The same is true for podcasts and written articles. We need them to promote the games we have in our hobby.

That is quite different from creating reviews though. Reviews need to be independent and any commercial agreement will affect that. Even a free copy of the game will influence the review. That’s why I never sell the games I receive for review. I will either send them back to the publisher, on to the next reviewer or donate them to a good cause. I don’t want to get any financial benefit from a review copy, other than not having to pay for the game myself, which I appreciate is already a good chunk of money.

So saying that paying for a review is fine doesn’t work for me. If cash or some other significant benefit changes hands, it’s definitely no longer a review. It’s a piece of paid editorial or, in simple terms, an advert.

Let’s Be Honest

I really don’t understand why that’s such a big problem. You can still write a glowing article or make a gushing video and even point out any issues you see with a game. Your followers will know how they feel about how honest you are. They can make that decision themselves. Just don’t call it a review. Call it an advert and be proud that you’ve done your bit to promote the hobby and made some money to cover your bills.

How About You?

I dread to ask, but how do you feel about so-called “paid reviews”? Do you think they should still be called “reviews”? Or should they just be labelled “adverts”? Do you believe a review just the same when it was paid for versus when someone just got sent a free copy of the game? Do you really care? Do you want to be told if someone got payment for their work? As always, please share your honest and fair comments below. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Relaxing Piano Improvisation by Alexander Nakarada
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/5978-relaxing-piano-improvisation
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
Artist website: https://www.serpentsoundstudios.com/

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Safe From The Rain by Claus Appel
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/4698-safe-from-the-rain
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *