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MP for Multiplayer

Mon 13 Dec 2010 2:00pm GMT / 9:00am EST / 6:00am PST
Politics

Labour MP Tom Watson on tax, TIGA and Panorama

A few years ago, the idea of having an MP in the House of Commons who openly admitted gaming would have been almost inconceivable. Now we have Members who embrace and support its cause, fighting the industry's corner in the face of reactionary media and a generational gap in understanding.

Tom Watson, MP for West Bromwich East, is one of the proudest proponents of the gaming agenda - a strong advocate of tax breaks for the industry as well as trying to get gaming on the agenda in other ways, Watson is also an actual gamer in his rare free time.

Read on for his thoughts on student fees, the tax break question and that Panorama episode.

Q: The most pertinent thing to ask first, given recent events, is how you think the new student fee charges will affect the flow of graduates into the industry?

Tom Watson: I think it will have a knock-on effect on all parts of industry and higher education, but I think the outcomes are yet to be defined. There is no doubt that some able students will make price decisions on where to attend university based on the course level.

So we may lose some of the very brightest developers from poorer backgrounds because their courses are not affordable to them. It's too early to tell yet - we don't know what kind of money games courses are going to cost.

Q: And what's your reaction to the story about ELSPA privately advising the government of the negative effects of offering cultural tax breaks, seemingly at odds with their public support? Do you think that was dishonest or were they acting in what they thought were the industry's best interests?

Tom Watson: I've not had a chance to talk to ELSPA about this. What I can tell you is that I thought the tax break was an extremely practical measure to help a growth industry in ruthlessly competitive global market. Anything that undermined that - I thought was detrimental for the UK games industry itself and the UK economy.

I'd be very disappointed if it transpired that people were lobbying against the industry tax break, but it's far too early for me to form a judgement.

Q: Do you think it's at all feasible now that we'll see the tax breaks before the next election?

Tom Watson: Well I asked Ed Vaizey this at the Culture, Media and Sports committee. He said he was still broadly in favour of the tax breaks, but he would like industry trade bodies like TIGA to stop lobbying for them for 3-4 years. When a government minister says that, it usually means that you should continue to lobby for it for 3-4 years because there's a chance of it happening.

We're clearly in a difficult period, and the government have clearly set themselves against any fiscal targeting, so it's tricky. But when you actually look at the figures produced by TIGA, that there's been a nine per cent downturn in headcount in the UK games industry, and a thirty three per cent upturn in the Canadian industry in a comparable period - then something is clearly going wrong in the partnership between industry and the UK government.

I think that at every potential spending round, the case should be made. That means the pre-budget report in autumn and the budget in the spring. I don't want it to go away, I think there should be a steady drum beat for the rest of this parliament.

After all, the industry was promised this tax-break and I think it deserves it.

Q: Do you think it's still possible for the UK to catch up with somewhere like Canada, or have they got too much of a headstart?

Tom Watson: Well I think that, in many senses as a policy maker you can only deal with a situation as it exists and some parts of the industry are saying it's too late for the UK now. I don't happen to think that.

We've still got a very capable, imaginative, innovative and quite quirky group of developers in the UK. I don't know what it is that's created that culture, but it exists. It's not beyond the wit of man to get some of the great British developers back to the UK with the right tax arrangements and the right deals with publishers.

So no, I don't think we should give up. I'm not going to run away from the fact that it's looking pretty bleak for some sections of the industry right now but I have to say that I think they've badly let down by the government.

Q: What else can people and industry leaders be asking of their government?

Tom Watson: I certainly think that, notwithstanding the cuts we're seeing in higher education, there's no doubt that there's still more work to be done to ensure that undergraduates are trained with the right skills for the industry.

So I think that there's a much greater role for a coordinating partnership between TIGA and the Department of Business and Higher Education, government and universities to make sure that courses are regularly updated that the right stuff is taught, that the graduates are sent into a marketplace where their skills are in demand.

That's actually a very complex task and it does require a lot of energy, but I think it would be very useful to the industry if we could continue down that path.

Let's also not forget - we all saw Panorama last week and tore our hair out - we've come a long way in challenging some very negative misconceptions of the gaming industry, to the point that many in the UK parliament now are fervent supporters of the industry, whereas it would have been very difficult to find an MP to go on the record and say that they enjoyed playing video games as little as three or four years ago.

But there is still a role for the industry to make a positive case for the industry per se.

Q: And do you think that that reticence to be identified as a gamer is a generational thing?

Tom Watson: I think parliament is generally behind the curve on a lot of things. The massive explosion in the diversity and reach of games in the last decade basically passed parliament by. I guess we now how that slightly weird cohort of people in their early to mid 40s for whom games were a revelation when the Sinclair ZX Spectrum came out. Some of us now in quite senior positions in parliament remember those days of playing Manic Miner and remember what pleasure it brought to us as adolescents and we don't want to deprive our children of that recreational activity.

So there's a bit of generational stuff to it, but also I think parliament has just wised up a bit, and also I think the way that the industry engages with parliament has been central to that. The kind of research that TIGA regularly produce on employment, the size of the industry, export potential, skills, average wages - it's really important for policy makers to be reminded of that and they're doing a very good job for the industry.

Q: What's tabled for the agenda for the cross-party panel next? I presume not every meeting is all about tax-breaks.

Tom Watson: Well we're going to dust ourselves off after tax-breaks. I think this year we've got to talk about skills, we've got to talk about whether there's any other transitional arrangements we can draw on for the industry, about the R&D tax credits, whether we can work with some of the structural funds, some of the other economic partnerships - whether they can be used.

We've got to help TIGA with some of their vocational courses, I think we should be pushing that agenda too - there's quite a bit we can do, but it's predominantly around skills I would say.

Q: The last time you spoke to GamesIndustry.biz you'd just started Gamers' Voice on Facebook - how has that progressed?

Tom Watson: Well, do you know what I did with that? I set it up, we got 17,000 members - I organised an inaugural meeting and hosted them on the House of Commons and then I let go. They've formed their own committee, they're doing their own thing. I occasionally drop buy on their Facebook page to make sure that they're still in a huge conversation - and they seem to be.

I'm not leading it now, I wanted to leave gamers to decide their own strategy. What I think would probably be helpful would be if some of the big players in the industry could help them get a bit more structure - they do need some funding.

Don't underestimate how powerful their social network is - whenever there's a problem with gaming I still get plenty of MPs who phone me up and say - I've just had a dozen emails drop into my inbox from Gamers' Voice members, and they're very angry about X or Y. So as a cultural force they're still there, but it for Gamers' Voice to so their own thing now, I'm just glad I was able to bring them together.

Q: One of the reasons you gave for setting it up was so that the media could have a body of people to speak to about gaming matters - the Panorama program recently would seem to have been a perfect opportunity for that but I can't imagine they were in touch. Will we ever see a balanced representation of games from the mainstream media?

Tom Watson: Well, it was a heavily editorialised piece. I wish they'd reached out a little bit more to talk to other people. They could have talked to some of the people who are doing very positive things with games - they could have talked to Graham Brown-Martin, he could have put them in touch with some of the greatest teachers in the country who are capturing the imagination of young people every day using off-the-shelf game packages.

It's a pity that they rehearsed a quite hackneyed mantra really about games doing bad things for children. We know that, in life, anything done to excess can have a downside. No-one seriously disagrees with that. But to try and project the games industry as trying to deliberately deprive people of sleep, money, time, work and social contact is basically anachronistic and inaccurate.

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