Fact: If you cover games, someone will call you a “shill” at some point. Over the weekend, a contingent of games-focused writers and influencers pushed back on that claim by plastering Twitter with tongue-in-cheek posts about the purported value of Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft’s subscription-based games-on-demand service. The moment quickly went viral. And then it died a swift death, after several official Xbox Twitter accounts got in on the action:
The internet thinks we paid people to talk about #XboxGamePass this weekend and that’s just absurd…
… almost as absurd as a service that offers access to over 100 high-quality games, all the benefits of Xbox Live Gold, and an @EAPlay membership for one low monthly price
— Xbox Game Pass (@XboxGamePass) June 28, 2021
You know how it goes. Once the brands join the party, the party stops.
As for how it started, Forbes traces the initial meme to IGN’s Destin Legarie. “Twitter is convinced that so many of us are just paid to advertise Xbox Game Pass,” Legarie wrote in a tweet on Saturday afternoon. “That’s crazy!!! Almost as crazy as having access to hundreds of games and day 1 releases for only $9.99/month and if you’re new you can even get 3 months right now for only $1!”
Others followed suit.
“‘Tony, Microsoft’s paying you to talk about Game Pass,’” writer Tony Polanco said in a tweet. “I’m not being paid… but with all the money I save from Game Pass each month, maybe I am.”
“Found a lot of salty fanboys to block in the last 24 hours, I wonder why?,” Windows Central’s Jez Corden wrote in a tweet. “One thing I’m not wondering about is whether or not XBOX GAME PASS is incredible value. Hundreds of games starting at $9.99! Absolutely crazy value!”
“The ‘rumours’ I’m hearing about creators being paid to promote Game Pass are ridiculous…,” content creator Joseph Moran wrote in a tweet appended with the #ad hashtag. “Just as ridiculous as Xbox putting their first-party games like Halo day & date on the service for the low starting price of $9.99 a month!”
All of these tweets — and others like it — ended up turning the whole meme into a bonafide viral marketing stunt for Xbox Game Pass. “Xbox Game Pass” started trending on Twitter. Xbox higher-ups Phil Spencer and Aaron Greenberg offered their public approval.
To be clear, it is highly unlikely that many of these tweets were paid for by Microsoft. FTC regulations require social media users to plainly mark paid advertisements as paid advertisements — via text that reads “ad,” “paid,” “spon,” “sponcon,” or something to that end — and will hand down serious ramifications for those who don’t. Most of the tweets in the meme du jour don’t have that indicator. But some do, which muddies the waters. (Kotaku reached out to an Xbox representative about whether or not any tweets of this nature were paid for by Microsoft. At press time, the representative was still looking into it.)
It’s also fairly obvious that the whole charade started as a sarcastic pushback to an insidious subset of the gaming readership. The insinuation — or the often blatant claim — that cash-loaded companies will pay you, the journalist who covers video games, significant sums under the table. You write positively about Xbox Game Pass, people will say you’re in Microsoft’s pocket. You say that a Sony-published game is among the best of the year, and you’re in Sony’s pocket. No matter what, you can’t win. The impulse to set the record straight is natural.
But it’s also poking a bear. Just scroll through the quote tweets on Legarie’s original post: Some people understand that the line is a bit, because it very obviously is. Others don’t get the joke, or, in bad faith, pretend not to. Plus, this whole meme really only resulted in one thing: Xbox Game Pass — an enormously popular service that’s used by 23 million people and recently received spotlight treatment on the industry’s biggest stage — scoring a weekend of (almost certainly free) publicity.