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Gaming and Government: The Politics Of Play

December 16th, 2001 by

In the UK next summer a major event in British video games will occur. Bigger than a new Modern Warfare, more significant than the next Metal Gear, of greater importance to the industry than the next console from Nintendo; the place we at MLG call home will be having a general election. As Germany and Australia have found out, it is politicians that have the most impact when it comes to the games industry – they guide the regulatory bodies that say what we can and can’t play, they dictate tax breaks and additional funding for game studios, they are essentially the single most influential group when it comes to the future of gaming. Next year we vote on which party we want to be making these crucial decisions, so we got in touch with three of the most significant players in Britain’s political climate, one from each major political party, to tell us about their attitudes towards gaming and their vision of the industry as we move towards a new decade.

Xero: First question, who are you and what do you do?

Don Foster – as well as being unable to score more than 117 on ‘HarborMaster’, I am the MP for Bath and the Liberal Democrats Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

I’m Ed Vaizey and I’m both the Shadow Culture and Creative Industries Minister and MP for Wantage and Didcot.

I’m Siôn Simon, Minister for the Creative Industries.

X: Next, something we ask everyone here at Midlife Gamer, a subject that is very near and dear to our hearts; what is your favourite biscuit and beverage?

DF: During the day I’m normally not far from a mug of coffee, later the Famous Grouse may come out. I avoid biscuits so I can have the odd peanut with the whisky.

EV: Biscuits – whatever my team leave lying around for me to steal, beverage – probably coffee, though I am working on drinking more water.

SS: Coffee and moist flapjacky biscuits.

X: So, do you play interactive entertainment of any form yourself, either as a personal hobby or with family members? If so, what do you play, if not, why not?

DF: I spend too long on the games on my iPhone and, when I get the chance, with my grandchildren on their Nintendo Wii. I particularly love the sports games and the very physical nature of playing. Sadly, Wii experience has meant that the grandchildren are getting better at the real thing. It was humiliating to be beaten at table tennis recently (admittedly when slightly injured) by a 9 year old trained on his Wii. Both he and the 5 year old have a Nintendo DS and I’m left floundering when I’m allowed to have a go.

EV: I’ve played the Wii a few times, and achieved the distinction of coming last in the party conference Wii ski-jumping competition. I hope to get a bit more time to work on my skills over Christmas.

SS: The games I have enjoyed the most are old ones on the PS2 like GTA Vice City and Crash Bandicoot. I also play the usual family stuff on the Wii. Unlike your readers and listeners I can’t claim to be a serious gamer, more an occasional dabbler.

X: Perhaps one of the hottest areas of debate in video games at the moment is that surrounding violence and controversial material. Do you believe the current structure of censorship for questionable content is adequate?

DF: I start from a simple premise; censorship should be used only in very extreme circumstances. Thank goodness we have left behind us the days when even the sound of a flushing loo was banished from our theatres! Censorship can be a real brake on creativity and rarely achieves its intended purpose; it merely drives stuff underground. Of course, we should be informing people about the nature of content and judging the suitability of some material for young people. But, even there, an industry-led solution is best. That’s why I backed the PEGI system.

EV: The fact that there have been two different bodies rating games has been confusing for consumers and parents. I know the video games sector is keen to address this. The current digital economy bill will change the way that video games are rated, making age ratings compulsory for all boxed games designed for those aged 12 or above – we are supportive of this measure. I think in terms of adult games, as with film, theatre and art, individuals should be free to make their own decisions on what they buy, watch and play.

SS: As I’m sure you know, the Prime Minister asked Professor Tanya Byron to look at this question. She produced a review called Safer Children in a Digital World and in that made certain recommendations about how best to ensure that children don’t have access to material that is unsuitable for them. The Government accepted all her recommendations and that is why we have made provision for the statutory classification of video games in the Digital Economy Bill, introduced in Parliament in November.

X: Can video games be responsible in influencing young people to commit violent acts and inspire criminal behavior?

DF: Arguments like this have been made for decades. Everything from rock ‘n’ roll music and heavy metal artists to violent films or TV programmes have been accused of causing all our nation’s ills. Except in the very extreme cases – and there are some that should worry us – the evidence simply doesn’t bear out the case. Of course, video games introduce a new level of interactivity, but I still find it very hard to believe that playing a game can inspire violence or criminality.

EV: As I understand it, research in this area has not shown that conclusively. The roots of crime are complex, and personally I do not believe it can ever be as simple as the ‘video games cause crime’ headline that is often bandied around.

SS: Some researchers believe they have seen a link between playing games that feature violence and violence in real life behaviour, while others have not found any link. I share Professor Byron’s view that there is simply no benefit in continuing this polarised debate. One thing on which we can all agree is that some material in some games is quite simply not suitable for children. The debate then moves on to how best to keep that material away from children. We believe that the new provisions will strike the right balance between allowing adults to play the games they want to while keeping inappropriate material away from children.

X: Why do you believe certain British politicians, for example Keith Vaz MP, focus much of their energies on highlighting the negative areas of interactive entertainment?

DF: Like many MPs, I was not brought up with video games as a common form of entertainment. However, through my job I have been able to learn about and see first hand this thriving industry. I think among my parliamentary colleagues there is not enough understanding and appreciation of the artistic and creative skills that go into the video games. MPs would better serve this thriving industry by working to find ways of promoting it and helping it to develop.

EV: It is perhaps an easy way to generate press coverage. As video games are a relatively new medium, I think they are something that few current MPs have direct experience of – it is much easier to be negative about an area which you don’t personally know well.

SS: Well, most MPs have a portfolio of issues where they take a particular interest. And between us, members usually reflect the whole range of opinion on any subject.

X: How important is the video games industry to the nation in particular regards to economics? Is it something worth investing more in, for example at the higher education, small business and blog level?

DF: The video games sector is an important part of the growing creative industries in our country. Creative industries will, with a bit of help and encouragement, soon overtake the financial services sector in its importance to the UK economy. But other countries, France and Canada for example, are doing far more than we are to support video games companies. Job opportunities will be lost if we don’t address the issues of advocacy, investment and skills.

EV: There is a lot of talk around government and Westminster about NENJ (pronounce it ninja!) an acronym for ‘new economy, new jobs’. It refers to high tech jobs, green jobs, but also crucially jobs in the creative industries, as those which will drive our economy in the future. I think this is absolutely the case, and the video games sector has a key role to play in this. The UK has an amazing talent for creativity and this is absolutely something we should be investing in and seeking to capitalize upon.

Personally I would love to be able to invest more in the video games sector if we were in government. For me the key areas are helping UK companies retain their IP rights, access investment, increase understanding amongst investors of creative businesses, and development support.

SS: The UK has traditionally been a very strong player in games development producing a number of iconic, globally successful games, such as Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto, Lemmings and Fable. Our games industry’s reputation for originating technically and artistically innovative intellectual property is globally recognised, creating an industry worth £1bn to the UK economy*.

The industry currently employs some 10,000 highly skilled people in the development sector and in total supports 28,000 jobs. In terms of economic contribution and according to industry figures they each generated £124,000 in global sales in 2007 (compared to £49,000 for each worker in the UK film industry)*.

The Video Games sector is well-placed to provide ever-growing value to the UK economy but we will lose out unless we act now to help create the particular conditions required to exploit the opportunities. That means ensuring the workforce is equipped with the right skills and the industry is well placed to innovate and capitalise on its innovation.

(* The Economic Contribution of the UK Games Development Industry, Oxford Economics, Oct 2008.)

X: If we are to assume that video games are indeed art, does government have a responsibility to preserve them? Should Manhunt, for example, be included in the nation’s galleries or museums, and if so, are there any plans to do so?

DF: We have a huge way to go in creating a digital heritage. The British Library still doesn’t even have the power to collect and store websites as part of the national archive. Video games have become an important part of both our lives and of the nation’s economy. Of course we have to collect and display examples. I once went to a museum of fire extinguishers! Really. If they are considered (by someone!) worth displaying, it’s a no-brainer as to whether video games should also be.

EV: I think that is something that we will begin to see. I would like to expand the remit of the UK Film Council to also cover video games, and this is the kind of area where they could take the lead. The British Film Institute already keeps records of video games. I think critics are leading the charge on this, with considerable media discussion about the significance of, for example, Grand Theft Auto. So I don’t think this necessarily has to be about the government stepping in and taking responsibility, but rather, perhaps enabling the sector to work on changing perceptions and becoming regarded as a mainstream art form, alongside film or literature.

SS: Maybe we do have a responsibility to preserve video games for future generations. At the moment the government’s role is to make sure the conditions are right for the existence of a vibrant indigenous games industry producing distinctive games with UK content. The creativity involved in producing video games is in itself testament to the extremely skilled and talented workforce the industry boasts. There is a big public debate going on at the moment about the preservation of digital material with most of the focus on websites; what should be preserved? How do we know that existing formats are futureproof? I think it’s reasonable to be asking these questions about video games too.

X: What do you believe the future of Britain’s games industry is, and how do we get there?

DF: It’s potentially huge. But, I repeat, we need advocacy (singing from the rooftops about the importance of the industry), investment (sorting out the banks and looking at ‘film-like’ tax breaks) and skills (not least by changes to the way we fund – currently badly – university courses that provide many of the skills needed by the industry).

EV: I hope, as outlined above, building on and expanding on considerable successes so far. I think this does require a significant shift in attitudes, starting with Government: video games, and the creative industries, should be at the centre of our business and economic plans. At the moment, they are too easily set to the side as a ‘niche’ sector.

SS: The future of the UK games industry is bright. The existing infrastructure, combined with the ever-developing sector means that the UK is well placed to take advantage of the rapidly expanding market, particularly in light of the shift to online / digital distribution. We get there by maintaining our infrastructure; that means the skills, and the conditions to innovate. Recently I visited Realtime Worlds and the University of Abertay in Dundee, and it was obvious to me that we are incredibly adept at making the current generation of video games in the UK and in a very good position to take advantage of the huge opportunities that lie ahead in this market. There is no doubt that the talent is here in the UK but our challenge is to continue to equip the talented individuals with the skills they need to be at the very top of the game. Having highly skilled graduates is essential if we are to take advantage of these opportunities, and the work being done at the University of Abertay and across the country to equip up-and-coming developers with the necessary skills is really cutting-edge and forward thinking.

In fact the government has just announced £3.5m investment into a joint project in Abertay and Salford which will help do all of this by boosting skills and providing essential support for intellectual property development. With continued support like this from Government we can help secure the future of the video games industry so it can continue to fly the flag for the UK’s world-leading skills in design, technology and innovation.

X: If you were to sum up in one sentence why a voter concerned about the current state of gaming should vote for your party in the next elections, what would that sentence be?

DF: Hopefully you’ve already got the message; we’d offer the advocacy, investment and skills the industry needs. (In return, I need help to beat 117 on HarborMaster).

EV: We take the gaming sector seriously as a UK industry with significant potential, and we will help the sector to help itself.

SS: Because we’ve got a track record of supporting the creative sector, which has become the world’s biggest and best under Labour.

(Image courtesy of Pavlos 85)

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