UK games need public money
Posted at 12:38 on 22nd April 2009 - permalink

The United Kingdom has had an incredibly rich history as a producer of video games. Historically we’ve been the only country outside of the US and Japan to have consistently enjoyed international success (although South Korea and China are on their way to joining us at the top table).

Even though the UK games industry (like all our entertainment industries) takes pains to superficially ‘Americanise’ its output (to the extent that games like Grand Theft Auto IV are routinely assumed to be US-made), it can’t disguise the deeper idiosyncracies: UK developers grew up playing different games to their American and Japanese counterparts, and UK companies have a different culture and working methods, resulting in games that could not emerge anywhere else.

Sadly these disproportionate achievements go unrecognised by the UK government. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (which you’d think would be triply interested in games) has recently been talking up “Digital Britain“, and how the government “plan to secure Britain’s place at the forefront of the global digital economy.” This seems to be more concerned with protecting the interests of recording and broadcast content providers than acknowledging that games exist in any way, shape or form. The interim report that they’ve issued is a completely extraordinary document in this respect, like something from a parallel universe. Their only mention of games is in the context of last year’s Byron Report, a bit of populist froth which has come dangerously close to lumbering games with even more expensive, damaging censorship. Games are viewed as a bogeyman rather than a significant contributor to the economy.

While the UK government grapples with the question of whether games are a corrupting influence on ‘youth’, many other industrialised nations (whose political elites presumably don’t exclusively consist of clueless grasping Luddites) are actively funding and encouraging the growth of their games industries. Canada, France and South Korea all offer significant tax incentives to attract businesses to their shores. I noticed this week that even Australia (where it’s still illegal to sell 18-rated games) have mechanisms in place to channel public money towards game development, as can be seen in the well-publicised and enthusiastically received Scarygirl.

Nearly every British film I’ve seen in the last decade has been part-funded by the Lottery. Why don’t UK games developers have access to Lottery money? Why can’t we get tax breaks for work that have proven to have far greater international marketability than our TV and film businesses? As far as I’m aware (and admittedly I’ve not researched this exhaustively) there are no schemes set up to support games companies in this way.

I accept that there are strong arguments against ‘bailing out’ industries that can’t compete on their own merits, and that some of the actions taken in other countries (particularly Canada) are excessive and may not result in an industry that will want to stick around if the tax incentive is taken away. But surely we can at least expect a level playing field with other media?

If tax breaks aren’t the answer, maybe there are other ways that the government could try to safeguard the viability of the industry. There could be a complete package of resources in the form of education, training, guidance for start-ups, forums for easier cross-industry sharing of expertise and resources, and schemes to ensure the management staff of games companies have appropriate business training. Help the industry grow up and maximise the opportunities for creative people to succeed.

While the games industry’s trade bodies are actively lobbying the government to improve the situation, I think that there is an opportunity for developers, publishers, websites and sympathetic gamers to raise awareness of the problem to the public and the media. I imagine some media outlets would be keen to highlight the discrepancy between the government’s pledges to support the “digital economy” and their actions. There’s a slim chance that this would spur some unusually technically literate MP to champion the issue, but at the very least it would be good PR.

To this end, I propose a consumer branding program. Where films proudly announce their Lottery-funded status, UK games could display something like:


(Obviously not this, but something like it, preferably with a memorable logo, slogan and URL attached.)

Any game made in the UK with no public money (i.e. most/all of them) would be eligible to carry this logo (although it would be more realistic to expect makers of independent PC/web games to consider it than major publishers). It would be backed with a website encouraging players to sign a petition, write to their MP, or bore people about the problem at dinner parties tell their friends. Nearly everyone who uses a computer comes into contact with games in some way (through Facebook or email forwards at least), so this approach would expose the issue to a far broader audience than fretting about it in the trade press.

Is this a good idea? Would people understand it? Or does the average gamer simply not care about the difficulties faced by developers and publishers (let alone where they’re based), just as long as they get to play new games?

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