Why does it matter if a game is British?

Why does it matter if a game is British?

By Jo Twist

July 5th 2013 at 9:55AM

UKIE's Jo Twist discusses how tax relief is needed to spur on more culturally British games

The end of June was a busy time for the team at UKIE. Not only are we moving home (to an open plan office where there will be hotdesking for members to come and work at and more!) we had all eyes focused on answering the European Commission’s questions on why the tax credit for game production is necessary.

Our dedicated Policy Officer Andy Tomlinson did an incredible cat herding job by speaking at length with a wider range of industry experts from within and outside of our membership, and writing it up in what I guarantee is a compelling read.

We were delighted to have so many industry experts help make our response as strong as it could possibly be. They included David Amor, Relentless; Ed Bainbridge, former VP, Disney Interactive Studios; Simon Bradbury, Firefly; James Brooksby, Born Ready Games; Paul Canty, Preloaded; Sophia George, Swallowtail Games; Darren Garrett, Littleloud; Richard Lemarchand, formerly Naughty Dog; Ella Romanos, Remode Studios and Jim Rossignol, Big Robot.

The EC investigation has been frustrating but was always a possibility. They investigated the UK film and the French games schemes when they were announced, and have said any proposed games schemes from other EU members would always be looked at on a case by case basis.

As we know by now, State Aid is illegal in the EU unless it is given to boost the cultural output of a member state. We believe the proposed UK credit does just this and is needed to help our industry become world leaders again.

Now, to be clear, there is no doubt in anyone’s minds that games are cultural products: they are shaped by the people who make them – an obvious but important point to reiterate to the Commission. Games are recognised and celebrated as an inherent part of our culture, and they spin off cultural activities and practices around them in some sort of ludic spray, like games music symphonies, fan fiction, modding, cosplay gatherings, and so on.

Play has been a part of culture since we left our amoebic states. Even animals play. It’s how we learn about the world around us. Games are just as creative a product as films and animation are, but they are different too because they are systems with rules coded into them, in the software. Once the rules are activated, as Eric Zimmerman puts it, once humans enter the system, play begins and play is something altogether different than rules. He goes on:

“Play does not occur in a vacuum. In order to understand the whole game, it is necessary to look beyond rules and beyond play, to consider how the game fits into larger cultural contexts. What kind of people play the game and why? What does the game mean to the people that play it and to those that don't? And what kind of symbolic and representational relationships does the game have to the rest of the world? These are the kinds of questions that are raised when we consider games as cultural artefacts.”

Crucially, we want the EC to understand that cultural context, that location, identity, all matter when it comes to making a game. This is why creating an incentive through this scheme will encourage and de-risk the production of games that advocate a European or British identity.

Games bring together artistic creativity and technological innovation like no other medium. It is not just the evident skills in art, writing and design, however. The genius of the form is in the bringing together of these different crafts into a single product, tied together by creative programming. Coding is the glue that holds all the other elements together: new gameplay features, the artwork and the music, and how the player experiences these are dictated by the code, and specifically the programmer who creates it.

Just as there can be an indefinable British or French style to an animation, a film or a drama, so there can also be to a game. Richard Lemarchand, former lead designer at Naughty Dog, and now Associate Professor at USC puts it eloquently in our submission:

“The local cultural conditions of a game’s development team intimately inform the design and development of a video game, and in turn, inform the essential character of the game that results. Aspects of one’s national character inevitably make their way into the design of whatever one works on, from our interests and preoccupations, to our aesthetics and preference, to our most deeply held or profoundly sublimated values.

"Moreover, games are directed, just as an opera or a feature film is directed, and the influence of the game director is what gives a game a vital and determining aspect of its character.”

When it comes to our audiences, this is critical, especially if we want the almost 100 per cent of young people playing games to play ones that are made in the UK, so they see our industry as a career option, and that reflect their identity and the world around them.

The need for urgent help

But the argument we need to make to the Commission is not just an intellectual one, it is a political and economic one. In our submission, we also focused on showing the EC that there is a market failure in identifiably culturally British or European games being made by UK studios.

Games operate in an intensively competitive global marketplace where increasingly non-European culture is the dominant, driving force dictating which games are developed. There are simply not enough people now making games in the UK and these two factors combined have inevitably led to a fall in the number of games with British or European themes.

This becomes a vicious circle and without tax relief we’ll see the UK game industry continuing to shrink and continuing to make games that are predominantly influenced by other cultures.

The developers that we spoke to also said that having tax credits would definitely help them to make more games, de-risking the creation of games with British or European themes so they could shift from a predominant work for hire model to their own IP.

This is very much still a live issue and we’ll be exploring the question of what makes a game British issue more in our session at Develop. We’ll have Anna Mansi from the BFI (who will be administering the test) taking us through an example of how the cultural test should work and I’ll be joined by Jonathan Smith from Traveller’s Tales, Mike Bithell and journalist Simon Parkin to pick apart exactly what it is that makes a game British. You can find more details on that session here.

Until then I leave you with these final words from Mr Lemarchand:

“Isn’t it about time that we gave British and Europe and video game producers support, both political and economic, to allow them to be able to occupy a place on the world stage worthy of our cultural history?

"Video games, as a form potentially uniting every art form that comes before them, and all the interactive, digital, social arts that will come after them, deserves the same support that we rightly accord to other modes of cultural production.”

Of course it is! Now, bring it on!