Patreon Support Does Not Have to Interfere with Press Coverage – Indie Devs, Kotaku and Disclosure

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By Sarah Ryan – 27th August 2014
Patreon Support Does Not Have to Interfere with Press Coverage – Indie Devs, Kotaku and Disclosure

The past few days has seen several recognised figures in gaming media called out for ‘conflict of interest’ articles, many of which involved the support of the indie developers they covered on Patreon. Patreon is a service content creators use to fund their work, it’s an open donation service that anybody can take advantage of to keep their independent endeavours financially afloat. It is a life-line to many indie developers, and a great place to find and support amazing new projects.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Patreon support – or even from journalists and prominent figures within the gaming industry supporting indie devs through it. The growth of the indie market has opened a lot of doors for hundreds of budding creators, and Patreon has been the monetary backbone of thousands of completed games and projects. It is something that should, I believe, be our number one focus. Indie developers are the future of this industry, and many struggle to keep their heads above water, simply for doing what they love.

The problem has come of covering the games and developers an author is personally supporting, and the lack of disclosure regarding that relationship. Unfortunately, when you choose to set up a repeat donation to a development you care deeply about, you do become tied to the success and completion of that project. You do not have to receive some form of financial or personal payout to be inherently invested in the success.

Many people have responded to the subsequent backlash and anger that has arisen from these conflicted articles by saying that Patreon support is no different to a pre-order, or even a post-launch purchase. As a writer myself, I find the notion of deliberately tying the hands of writers sickening. I would never entertain the notion that once you choose to support a game, you cannot cover that game at all. That’s ridiculous. If the situation is viewed from that point of view, of course it is no different to a pre-order. Because in that sense, you have chosen to support that title, and you have submit financially to it’s completion. Nobody would ever be able to write about anything they loved or cared about.

I believe that journalists, critics, and indeed anybody that works within the industry should be given free reign over what they choose to cover. However, this does lead to an inherent obligation to be completely transparent when your desire to cover a developer crosses a personal or financial relationship to their work. I have been incredibly disheartened to witness scores of writers claim this is no real infringement on journalistic integrity – it absolutely is, and I think the response and anger the community has felt in it’s revelation is more than evidence that it definitely crosses a perceived line of standards.

Kotaku recently attempted to face this problem head on, and in doing so has responded by formally ceasing and preventing any form of Patreon funding by any staff writers. The restriction of support is not the end of goal of this, our aim should always be to support indie developers and their projects while maintaining a level of integrity within our work, and to the respective readership. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this response either appropriate or effective, as Patreon is just one way in which you can support a project. Disclosure isn’t only necessary when you donate via Patreon, it extends to Kickstarter, personal relationships or any other possible ties to a project pre-coverage.

Honesty and transparency costs one sentence within an article, and is mutually beneficial to both reporter and developer;

“I have supported XXX on XXX, if you like this project as much as I do, you can contribute here XXX”

This singular sentence within any piece of work automatically discloses your pre-existing relationship to the project you want to discuss, it also gives the project the potential for further support from your hits. I really don’t believe that anybody should be prevented from talking about the games we like, at the end of the day, every writer in games began because we love games. We want to talk about things we love, and we want to support things that matter to us.

But disclosure is not difficult, it’s not optional, and a lack there of is inexcusable.



Sarah Ryan

Gaming culture and industry critic. A little sharp tongued, and a little short on patience. Follow me on Twitter at @Auseil, or [email protected] to contact me directly.


  • Kotaku’s decision is absolutely a band-aid solution, and is further taking the conversation down a path that doesn’t address the issue at hand. Glad to see other sites like yourself are aware of this.

  • I completely agree. The main problem I had with it, was there was no disclosure. You had people writing articles about these people without disclosing they were financially backing them.

  • Lopson

    While I feel that the opinion that you’ve exposed here is completely reasonable and acceptable, I still have an irking feeling on the back of my head that disagrees with some of these points.

    Gaming journalists are not normal gamers, hence why they’re distinguished from the crowd. They have to follow a different set of rules and obligations that make this differentiation even clearer. As such, they shouldn’t be allowed to partake an active role in certain aspects of the industry that a normal gamer can. What does it mean to be “different”, and what kind of impact should it have in their personal or professional activity within the industry? Let me give you an example.

    In my country, there used to be a time (long, long ago) when teachers were socially reprimanded for interacting with the rest of society, especially with people whose children were part of their classrooms. Besides the obvious intention of stopping them from being influenced by parents when it came to grading the children, the idea was that these brave people were gatekeepers of knowledge, and the idea that such knowledge could be wasted on unfulfilling marriages with less cultured people was a real, tangible possibility, and that it had to be avoided at all costs. But for that sacrifice, they’d be cherished by the community in a respectful, yet distant manner, and their opinions had a deep impact on the inner workings of society, especially in small communities.

    This is a somewhat extreme example and most definitely old-fashioned, but it represents a few key elements quite well: gatekeeping, knowledge, and the community giving back to the journalists.

    Aren’t journalists, in their own way, gatekeepers too? I know the entry level for the videogame community is probably at an all-time low, due to the advent of social networks, gameification of community interactions, inception of review systems in stores… But that shouldn’t mean that journalists have to lower themselves to the same level as that of gamers in order to still be relevant, it just means that their standards have to be upheld even more, to the best of their abilities, since that will maintain, and make very clear, the differentiation between the two crowds. That means no Patreon, no Kickstarter, no pre-orders, no gifts… nothing expect the eventual purchase at release day. It doesn’t mean they have to stop being consumers of the medium, but it does mean maintaining their monetary contributions to a respectable minimum.

    That’s the sacrifice journalists are supposed to make. And, let’s face it, that’s not such a big sacrifice, at least not in my opinion (== subjective). If you think that cutting this kind of funding from journalists to the indie scene would make it economically inviable, then maybe that scene shouldn’t exist in the first place. Game making is still a business, regardless of whether people think it’s an art form or not. If a developer cannot do well on its own, then there’s a chance that he/she is doing something wrong (crass generalization) or that he/she isn’t truly independent. Besides, isn’t your knowledge, feedback, and exposure capabilities a lot more valuable than money? Isn’t that, and buying the game on release date, enough of a contribution? I’d like to think so.

    Let me finish this post by asking a very simple question. Journalism ethics have been discussed for centuries now, and various press organizations have come to a certain agreement on what a journalist should and shouldn’t do. Both Reuter and Society of Professional Journalism make it very clear that all possible conflicts of interest should be actively avoided. So I ask the gaming journalists this: if other fellow journalists adhere to such a strict ethics code, why should you be any different? Because I feel like that’s kind of what’s at stake here.

    I apologize for rambling so much. Hope this post sounds as reasonable as this article does!

  • argnator

    Well that’s all fine. It’s not like journalists are doing stuff like this. Just “bloggers”

  • Jorge Cervera

    Its Ok if they do that, you cant take the articles for what they are, and not for what they pretend they are, this is a good steep to put order in the house of Kotaku and Polygon for now, of curse Indi developers need help, they have good ideas but we need to be honest with each other, if you support something do it by your own, or at least be open about it to know your position in gaming, is a long way to redemption for this sites and victory for gamers.

  • Billy the Squid

    I’m going to disagree with you on the idea that a single disclaimer is sufficient to remove the issue of incestuous relationships between press and developers.

    In the legal sector we have a code of ethics as well, I won’t go through all of them, but there is the concept of being beyond reproach and the appearance of propriety in the course of employment.

    Even if you are exercising proper ethics in the course of your job, you must be seen to do so, not just be able to prove it if someone questions it.

    If Journalists want to contribute to a Patron, then they shouldn’t cover it, they shouldn’t promote it. They have a vested interest in that developer’s success by virtue of the fact that they have personally invested in it. Even if they feel that they are absolutely justified that the project will be a success, you have no grounds to promote it once you are funding it.

    This is what gets people indicted on fraud charges in the Legal and Financial sectors, just don’t do it! It’s not worth the effort.

    Doesn’t mean someone else at the Newspaper can’t cover it, so long as there is some form of protocol to ensure that undue influence is not being placed on the writer of the article from other staff which have a vested interest.

    In short, if you want to appear beyond reproach, then writers are going to have to recuse themselves from any Patron or Kick starter they support. Or forgo personal support in favor of freedom to report on the topic.

    You don’t get to have your cake and eat it, simply because you stuck a disclaimer on it. No one else does. Sorry, but that’s the way things work.

    Kotaku and Polygon have got a lot to do to put their house in order, and they’re going to be hammered for messing up, a disclaimer isn’t close to enough if they want to save what’s left of their tattered reputation.

  • pobilo

    I think as far as the media and journalist go the end goal is to inform the public. If the public takes that information and decides to support indie devs then so be it, but in the current environment we have situations where a media site may have employees funding a game and covering the game while the site itself advertises the game. Does this pass the smell test to anyone?

    • Lopson

      I don’t think advertising the game on the website is a major issue, so long as they can contain its influence properly. Let’s face it: advertisement is a necessary evil. It makes sense for a gaming website to have ads on games. However, maybe the way these ads are laid out on the site’s formatting is too intrusive: I find it perfectly reasonable for one to dismiss those gigantic Call of Duty ads that surround whole webpages in IGN as being mere propaganda. Maybe it’s time for the big websites to rethink how they deliver these ads.

  • Daniel O’Keeffe

    I was once a Kotaku reader, I’m not anymore. Your coverage of this issue and the whole Zoe Quinn saga means I am now a ‘gamer headlines’ reader.

    Thanks.

  • Jack Conte

    Hey Sarah – thanks for the super thoughtful perspective on this. I have to agree with you (of course, I’m a little biased….) that supporting and covering developers on Patreon shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

    Transparency is a CORE value for us – obviously we have a strict policy on publicly disclosing the pledged funds to creators on Patreon – but we hope the philosophy of transparency extends beyond just Patreon and into our creators and their communities.

    It’s absolutely imperative that journalists disclose potential conflicts of interest – otherwise there are misaligned incentives that can create a misleading and hurtful environment for readers. That is a legitimate problem with actual consequence. But I’m in complete agreement that blocking journalists from supporting game developers may not be the best solution to this problem.

    Even if a single line of disclosure isn’t enough (as some of the other comments on this article have suggested), there are perhaps additional solutions. I’m not pretending like I know what they are – but it might be worth exploring more possibilities.

    Thanks again for the AWESOME article, for the thoughtful perspective, and for caring so deeply about this.

    Woot.

    Jack Conte, CEO and cofounder at Patreon

    • I’m actually almost speechless that my article even crossed your path! Thank you so much for taking the time to read my piece and let me know how you felt about it.

      Supporting indie creation is massively important to me, and I feel as though blocking Patreon support does a great deal more damage than good. For some reason there is a raging debate on the requirement of transparency in game coverage right now, and I’m really glad to see that you are in support of that disclosure. I feel as though making your own Patreon/Kickstarter contributions widely known is a win-win situation, and that disclosure would not only negate a conflict of interests, but also pull more awareness towards the need to give creators and small studios that vital life line.

      There are so many different ways around this, and it’s not as complicated an issue as I believe it’s been made out to be. In my opinion, journalists should WANT to make their chosen projects known, not treat it as though it’s a liability.

      Thank you again Jack, your feedback has made me feel like a total nerd!

  • elwood p. dowd

    Let me try and “fisk” this bit, and see if my analysis makes any sense…Original in italics, my responses in bold.

    Honesty and transparency costs one sentence within an article,

    If such a relationship exists, it should not be disclosed “within” the article. This disclosure should be made in the article’s first sentence. Or even as a sub-heading to the article’s title. That way a reader knows what they’re getting into before they waste their time trying to decipher if the author’s take on a (hypothetical) prospective title like Cooking With Cthulhu is something they might want to look into.

    and is mutually beneficial to both reporter and developer;

    How is this “beneficial” to the reporter? Disclosure should be the reporter’s responsibility, an obligation they owe their readers. IOW, I certainly hope by “beneficial” you’re not saying that should Indie Dev XYZ turn into the next Notch there’s some sort of quid pro quo hoped for down the line?

    “I have supported XXX on XXX,

    Yes.

    if you like this project as much as I do, you can contribute here XXX”

    No. No. And, hell no. This bit is a descent into pure squee territory. It is the sort of statement one would expect from a PR Flak, NOT someone with any interest at all in objectively covering a particular game, dev or, heck, even the broader industry.

    This singular sentence within any piece of work automatically
    discloses your pre-existing relationship to the project you want to
    discuss,

    Errm, you might want to look up the definition of “singular.” At any rate, the above statement taken as a whole says quite a few things to me, not just one. And not necessarily in a good way.

    Besides, doesn’t Patreon go quite a bit beyond support for one particular “project?” If I’m doing Patreon for Indie Dev XYZ I’m doing it not in the expectation of getting Cooking With Cthulhu 2: World Domination By Barbeque, but because I’m channeling 16th century Italy and am putting on my Medici hat so the next Michelangelo of C++ or Java or whatever doesn’t have to go to work at an insurance company to keep the wolf from the door, no?

    it also gives the project the potential for further support
    from your hits.

    You think this is appropriate behavior from a self-described “journalist?” Seriously? Critic, blogger, advocate, sure. But journalist? Sorry, but I’m not seeing it.

    I really don’t believe that anybody should be prevented
    from talking about the games we like, at the end of the day, every
    writer in games began because we love games. We want to talk about
    things we love, and we want to support things that matter to us.

    Nor do I, in all honesty. I apologize if I’ve come across as unduly harsh in my analysis of your article. I think your approach and mine are actually both heading in the same direction, but I also think you’re not going quite as far as is needed. Though I also admit that quite possibly I’m expecting something unfair: Namely that gaming sites should try to act like a traditional newspaper and keep editorial and reporting functions separate. I don’t think I’m going quite that far, but it something that occurred to me as I was yarking up that mass o’ text.

  • Biran53

    Critics pulling for pieces of media that they like are fantastic means of broadening the horizons of the audience they reach.

    My favorite example is how Roger Ebert enthusiastically adored the 1998 film, Dark City after seeing it in an advanced screening. The man almost single handedly made the movie a cult classic and a quasi-success. What isn’t great about that?

  • Binary Finary

    Interesting and balanced article.

    However I feel the Patreon issue is slightly more nuanced than you’ve stated. For example what if a journalist stops supporting a developer on Patreon after a year? Do they still have to disclose this? If not doesn’t that mean a COI is still in affect?

    There are so many reasons why Patreon support by journalists could lead to COI that it is my belief that the most ethical approach is simply to disallow it. That doesn’t stop journalists from talking about the developers, supporting them through words (worth more than Patreon any day of the week), and yet it will remove any possibility of criticism or claims of cronyism against them.

    In many ways this reminds me of the DorritoGate scandal and part that Lauren Wainwright played in it, where it was revealed she had worked for Square Enix previously but had previewed/review their products. To be clear there was no impropriety going on, but it opens the gate to disrepute, affecting credibility of all involved.

  • Dennis Carter

    I think this is mainly what is wanted by those not screaming their heads off on the gamers side. Press is a powerful financial tool, even bad press, and potentially limiting the conflicts with transparency is key for the game’s media.

    Why not just prohibit Patron to within the Developers for media and vice versa? We all want to support friends when times are rough, but this just becomes a slippery slope to fast.That said I support any journalist providing to a Kickstarter or Indiegogo with appropriate disclosure. Patron gets abit murky as you are not supporting a single project, but rather the person herself. This can lead to all sorts of quid pro quo and cronyism. As the current matter has shown us.

  • The rural Juror

    Thank you for the article it was an interesting and illuminating read.

    Ironically I had pretty much the same stance you had before I read the article. After reading your article and some comments below I am a bit split.

    After the writer has disclosed any personal and financial ties to the subject he reports on he or she has than their due dilligence. However, a disclaimer which suggests to support the artist as well would seem too much like advertising for the artist rather than information for the consumer. I would not hold it against the author or the artist but the article itself would not be considered a good decision making tool by me.

    As others, like Binary Finary, have pointed out, problems might also arise in the aggregate and over time. Questions of information overload as a form of advertising. or gatekeeping might arise.

    Disclosure, which alows the reader to make up his or her own mind is a must. then the reader can make up his own mind how to evaluate the article.

    This is exactly the kind of article about industry practises, gaming culture & sentiment I enjoy reading. This is also a discussion the gaming industry as a whole could greatly benefit from, if they were willing to have it. Sadly many major sites were either unwilling or unable, due to their own entanglements, to cover these themes.
    Therefore again, my thanks to you.

  • Lemming

    I broadly agree, however something I never really ‘got’ about the whole Patreon shenanigans was this:

    these gaming journalists by their own admission, don’t make a lot of money right? And the only thing that some were calling for was journalists not to fund Patreons of devs, who are also presumably hard up for cash, with me so far?

    Now are you telling me that journalists are THAT numerous and THAT necessary for patreon funding devs, that if any site guidelines say they couldn’t do that are going to cause those devs to take a massive financial hit? That, I find a little hyperbolic. Presumably these people are being funded by the public at large ANYWAY, so I don’t really see why journalists not being able to do it is such a big deal, unless they account for huge sums of money they don’t have.

  • Brock Atkinson

    Makes sense. Being upfront and honest with your audience should be the number one priority for ANYONE looking to make money online.

    Without trust, you have nothing.

    fyi, the “it’s” in the 4th and 5th paragraphs don’t need apostrophes because they’re possessive.

    • MrGamma

      Upfront and honest is different from full disclosure. You’ve got some people living in the heart of Manhattan, and others living in the backwoods somewhere. People want a macro view of their investment and a sense of belonging to development. Money given away should feel good. Micro economics are not a good idea. There IS aways going to be a fraud or two, and to seperate that idea from the pay what you can donation model, is very important. Integrity and money? Phfffttt… argument makes no sense in relation to the business model.