Carolyn Jewel was the first to notice, and she posted on the topic a couple days ago. She had heard via a mailing list about one author finding a set of bizarre reviews on her books.
After doing some digging, Carolyn figured out that many of the spam reviews were related to a game called WarriorCat. This game is loosely related to Warriors, a series of books published by Harper Collins. A game grew up around the books, and it now spans several websites where the players well, play the game as well as talk about it and soon.
So it's a gaming culture, which by this point in time is merely one of the many aspects of the web. It wasn't much of a story until some players decided to stop acting like Warhammer and start acting like 4Chan.
It's not clear when, why, or how this started, but over the summer several WarriorCats players moved the game onto the B&N website. They used the reviews to pass messages, tell stories, and more. Most all of the spammed reviews were left by anonymous users, so it's not possible to identify who they were and how many were present, but I don't think we're looking at a small problem.
You can read this screen shot for an example of their activities. If you want to see more examples, check out this Google Search. All of those images lead to a book listing on B&N which were spammed this summer by the players. And that's just the tip of the iceberg; I only searched for a single keyword and I turned up 89 different results. Given the apparent popularity of this game there's bound to be more.
TBH, I'm not at all familiar with this RPG, so I didn't know what all to look for. But if this game is as popular as the books it's based on then there might have been thousands of players participating in the meta-game going on in the reviews section.
Over on Passive Voice one author has suggested that the reason all these kids show up on B&N's website is that social sites are blocked on most school networks. That would be a likely explanation. But it doesn't explain why Barnes & Noble hasn't made any visible effort to clear out the faux reviews. A number of authors have even gone so far as to report the spam, but B&N doesn't always respond:
Oh, I’ve got those on my reviews as well. Especially on my shifter books. And I’ve told B&N and so far–nothing!
Other authors have reported similar reviews, including some from as far back as January and even a report from last year. Would you believe some of those reviews are still up? A few have been removed, but the process would seem to be haphazard.
There's no word yet on what B&N plans to do about the problem, but there is word on the retail store level that readers should report the spam reviews. That's great, but given the extensive nature of the problem simply reporting the reviews does not seem to be enough.
I don't know about you, but this is a new one for me. I'm used to finding all sorts of dross in the review section of ebookstores, including sock puppets, crazy people, price protesters, and even reviews based on irrelevant personal details about the author. I've even seen and enjoyed watching reviewers have fun posting humorous reviews about a product (the recent assault on the Bic for Her Pens are a good example) as political, social, or humorous commentary. But I've never seen a meta-game take over.
So far as I know B&N has yet to address even the sock puppet reviews, and given that they allow anonymous reviews I think it's going to be a rather difficult problem for them to fix. While Amazon could identify a particular user as a sock puppet and delete all reviews, B&N isn't going to have things so easy.
What do you suppose B&N will do about the problem?