In the midst of all this Xbox One/EA/Machimina/YouTube drama, gaming site Re/code did a bit of investigation into a more high profile game reviewer than most. Conan O’Brien’s “Clueless Gamer” segment doesn’t produce reviews that will show up on Metacritic, but it is seen by a whole bunch of people on TBS and more often, on the internet.
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Re/code uncovered that around a third of the games that Conan plays in the segment are featured because they’re paying for the privilege. Such is the case with Outlast, the survival horror game Conan played on the segment last year. The game’s developer, Red Barrels, had their TriplePoint PR agent speak to Re/code about exactly how the deal was done:
“(They) said the studio paid $35,000 for Outlast’s inclusion. ‘When the producers showed interest in the potential entertainment value for their viewers that we presented, they came back to us saying that they would like to have Conan try the game for himself,’ TriplePoint senior account executive Stephanie Palermo said in an email. ‘But they, of course, like most TV media aren’t going to give you those viewers for free.’ Palermo was told by show staff that the $35,000 fee was significantly lower than O’Brien’s standard rate.”
Re/code points out that while Conan played three survival horror games that day, he more or less dismissed the first two titles and said Outlast was “fantastic” and he “love(d) this game.” A part of these review deals is allegedly that Conan isn’t under any obligation to say anything nice about the game in question, though again, this cuts to the heart of the “pay for opinion” issue. Did Conan like Outlast, or did he give them a kind word or two because they were a paid sponsor (whether he had to or not)?
Conan’s camp responded by saying that since the segments are satirical, the paid reviews don’t need to be branded as such when they air: “These Clueless Gamer segments are not serious reviews nor endorsements — they are strictly comedic sketches. We do not believe sponsorship identification is needed.”
Conan is a unique case because the segment is mostly him mocking the game, himself, or his co-presenter, and as a “clueless gamer,” he rarely has little substantive critique to add, as that’s not the point of the sketch. Obviously, at times he’s going to feature games because they’re hugely popular at the moment (GTA V) or when he thinks they’d be funny (him “hubba hubba-ing” at Lara Croft). Games without either of those reasons may have to wave a check in front of him to get his attention when they might not have otherwise. If I looked through the list of games Conan has featured, I could probably guess which ones he played because he felt like it, and ones that perhaps he played because he was given a nudge (I would guess something like Injustice, seen above, might be on that latter list).
In the back of my mind I have wondered if the games Conan was featuring were paying to be there, or if the inverse was happening, and he was paying for the right to stream gameplay (as we all know what a mess that can be). I guess we have our answer, and I don’t really think it’s a scandal. Conan is a comedian, not a serious critic, and if a game wants to serve themselves up to potentially be mocked in order for increased exposure, that doesn’t seem like an unethical deal in this case. So long as Conan isn’t giving one game obviously preferential treatment based on the deal, that is. Outside of a few exceptions, he seems to have good and bad to say about most games he features. And again, no one is really taking these reviews seriously. If a game is paying to be on the show, they’re paying for exposure, not necessarily positive press.
Still, it’s always disconcerting not knowing what’s all in good fun, and what’s meant to be something of an ad. But this is the world we live in now, and we’ve commercial skipped and ad blocked our way into sneakier and sneakier types of advertising.
Watch Conan’s survival horror skit featuring Outlast below: