Twitch streams are tremendously diverse in their purposes. Some aim to educate, teaching viewers how to paint intricate landscapes or how to make their own games. Some aim to entertain, showcasing lightning-fast speedruns or covering the world’s biggest eSports events. Some even aim to change the world for the better, raising money for various charities through the power of video games.
The one area Twitch streams have long shied away from, however, is paid advertising. Under Twitch’s terms of service, streamers must disclose when they’re being paid to endorse a product or service, making it clear that their praise is part of a promotion.
This is all set to change, however, with Twitch’s foray into selling games. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to click a button below the stream you’re watching to buy the game being streamed, no need to boot up Steam or search through Amazon. There is a caveat to this convenience, though, one that cannot be ignored. For every sale made through a streamer’s channel, 5% of your money goes to the streamer.
At first, this sounds totally reasonable. If a streamer is generating sales for a game, why shouldn’t they get a cut? Problem is, this invites a whole mess of confusion: how much of a stream is entertainment, and how much is advertisement? Someone streaming their first few hours with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild isn’t explicitly trying to sell you the game–but if they’re in a position to profit from doing so, why wouldn’t they?
Opportunities for subtle salesmanship abound. Maybe a streamer starts scripting their ‘blind’ streams to paint a game in the best possible light, channeling the optimism of an E3 ‘gameplay’ demo. Maybe they spice up their commentary with exciting anecdotes about the game that, for some reason, they never seem able to capture on stream? Maybe they stage multiplayer matches with their friends to sell an idealized version of the game, one their audience will likely never experience? Heck, the streamer might not even realize what they’re doing; the allure of money can commandeer even our subconscious.
From an ethical perspective, this is all terribly dubious. Should streamers have to state up-front when they’re playing a game they have a financial stake in? What if the developer of that game has given them access to special items or exclusive bonuses the average player won’t get–do they need to disclose that? Can streamers be charged with false advertising if they deliberately misrepresent a game they then profit off?
These aren’t minor concerns. Ethically and legally, turning streamers into advertisers is a risky endeavor. If Twitch doesn’t confront such issues head-on, it’s going to be in for a whole mess of trouble down the road.