The Cultural Test
Posted at 20:00 on 13th October 2012 - permalink

Earlier in the year, the government announced plans to introduce tax relief for the UK games industry by April 2013.

For this plan to go ahead, the proposed tax relief programme has to be compliant with EU law. To this end, tax relief will be awarded on the basis of whether projects are deemed to be “culturally British”, and a test will be introduced to help determine this.

You can read the consultation paper for this test here.

I do not have an in-depth knowledge of European trade law and the extent to which this influences the content of the test. But in my view there are some fundamental issues with the proposed test in its current form, which have the potential to cause tax relief to be withheld from deserving projects for poorly justified reasons.

The aim of the tax relief plan is to protect and expand a competitive, commercially sustainable games sector in the UK and to redraw the boundaries of what projects can be feasibly greenlit by UK developers and publishers.

This would suggest to me that the test should focus heavily on whether the staff, studios and technology used are UK-sourced, and whether a proportion of the revenue that comes back to the UK from said projects will be invested in the UK industry. While these factors are taken into account, they are one part of a wider set of requirements.

The Department for Culture Media and Sport claim in the consultation document that “It is not the Department’s intention to dictate the content, or style, of video games.”, before outlining a series of criteria which, by misguidedly viewing games through the lens of film and television, seek to do exactly that.

The test is split into four parts. There are a maximum of 30 points that can be awarded, with 16 points being the threshold to qualify.

Section A: Cultural Content

Total points available: 16

This section, the most questionably relevant part of the test, surprisingly carries the most weight.

Up to 12 points are awarded if the setting, lead characters and narrative of a game are identifiably British or European. Straight out of the gate this penalises games where realistic settings, characters or a narrative are not relevant or are entirely absent. All abstract arcade, strategy and puzzle games and most games with a fictional setting would take a hit here. (The ‘narrative’ requirement could possibly be worked around as it counts the country of origin of the “background material” created for a game.) A payday for anyone making ‘interactive movies’, not so great for everyone else.

Another point in this section is problematic. Points are awarded if “the artistic costs represent more than 50% of the production budget”. This seems reasonable enough except that the definition of “artistic costs” explicitly excludes programmers’ remuneration.

The implication that programming is not a creative activity and doesn’t influence the artistic direction of a game is alarming. There are obvious cases (e.g. Proteus, Topia, or Introversion’s games) where procedurally generated content and effects are the medium from which the game is shaped. But even when programming is separated out as a dry engineering task, it still defines the space in which the rest of the creative actors in a team can work. Carmack leaves as distinctive a hallmark on his studio’s work as Kubrick. Games as diverse as Shadow of the Colossus, Battlefield 3 and Minecraft owe their existence to hard engineering problems being overcome.

Section B: Cultural Contribution

Total points available: 4

This section seeks to award games “which demonstrate British creativity, British heritage or cultural diversity”, which are discussed in a way that suggests they’re still trying to nail down a definition for these terms, which in any case can only collectively net a game the same number of points as hiring an English actor to provide the voice over for their main character.

Heritage is defined as whether the game deals with events from UK history or folklore.

Creativity is defined as innovations in “(i) gameplay; (ii) graphics; (iii) user interface; (iv) Artificial Intelligence, audio or physics; or (v) online or multiplayer functionality”, in direct contradiction to the previous section.

Cultural diversity covers “exploring contemporary social and cultural issues of disability, ethnic diversity and social exclusion; promoting and increasing visual, on-screen diversity”, which you would have thought deserved rather more than the measly 1.333 points on offer, considering how chronically weak mainstream games have been in addressing these issues.

Section C: Cultural Hubs

Total points available: 3

This section covers the easily measurable and obviously relevant issue of where the game and its content was made.

The requirements are surprisingly light, with two points for 50% of the preproduction or programming or graphics and one point for 50% of the audio being UK sourced.

If the entirety of a game’s production happening in the UK only nets less than 20% of the required points to qualify for tax relief, something is clearly amiss. It seems unlikely that foreign companies would parachute in talent to work on UK soil and leave no lasting benefit for the UK industry. (Not that this long-standing practice seems to rule American companies out of receiving film tax credits.)

Section D: Cultural Practitioners

Total points available: 7

This section covers whether a game’s staff consists of UK/EU citizens.

Again, I’m wondering why the point available are proportionally so few, and am a little bit wary that the specific roles covered (“Scriptwriter”?) and team size and structure assumed favour traditional console developers, who, while perhaps not the archaic dinosaurs that some would paint them as, are these days only one section of a larger UK industry making relevant and commercial product.

Summary

Reading the consultation document I can’t help but be reminded a great deal of how the film and TV industry made such a hash of setting up the BAFTA Games Awards (or “interactive awards” as they were then) at the turn of the century. That situation took a few years to straighten out, but I’m not sure we have the luxury of time in this case.

Cobbling together a quick and dirty adaptation of the existing test used for film simply won’t work. The way games are made is radically different, and the way that uniquely UKish cultural themes are expressed within them isn’t just about locations and characters. (The proposal that the BFI administer the test is daft as well, clearly.)

Where is recognition being given to games that reference, comment, play with and build upon the UK games culture that has developed over the past 30-40 years? Not the culture of film, literature and other external media. The culture that spawned Matthew Smith, Clive Sinclair, Mel Croucher, Codemasters, Frontier Developments, Rare, Bullfrog, Probe, Sensible Software, Revolution, Sports Interactive and the Bitmap Brothers, the myriad UK-originated genres, the cultural events, and the books, magazines, websites and documentaries devoted to discussing it all?

Why are Splash Damage’s first two games (Wolfenstein Enemy Territory and ETQW) more ‘culturally British’ on points than their most recent two (RAD Soldiers and BRINK)? Creative Assembly’s Napoleon more British than Shogun? I encourage anyone reading this to try running their own favourite British games (or indeed international ones, Professor Layton for instance) through the test and seeing how they fare.

If you have any concerns about how well the proposed test will serve to give the right projects access to tax relief, you can respond to the consultation via email (videogames.culturaltest@culture.gsi.gov.uk) before the end of the month.

N.B.: The above are my personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of my employers or of the wider UK industry. And are subject to change as and when I am properly clued up to the constraints put on the test by EU law.

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