A week is a long time in politics, as Harold Wilson famously observed. In the four weeks since Labour MP Tom Watson set up a Facebook group on a whim, over 15,000 gamers have signed up to Gamers' Voice.
And today, in the first part of an exclusive interview with GamesIndustry.biz, the MP for West Bromwich East outlines his vision for securing the long-term future of the UK games industry, why he believes the new age ratings system will be passed before the next general election, and why the industry needs a "UK Games Council".
Q: What is Gamers' Voice and why did you set it up?
Tom Watson MP: Gamers' Voice came about because there was one Daily Mail article too many, knocking games, knocking gamers. I set up a Facebook group, asked people whether they were interested in trying to give an alternative platform to gamers in the United Kingdom and within two weeks 15,000 people have joined it.
Our intention is to try and get politicians and the media to dig a little deeper and show a little more perspective when it comes to reflecting games in the UK.
Q: As you say, you've got 15,000 members already. What's next?
Tom Watson MP: I've been taken on the hop a little bit because I didn't think we'd get that many, but we've got our first meeting in the House of Commons in a couple of weeks' time on December 9. I'm hoping we're going to put a structure in place so that we can give a real voice to gamers up and down the country and the kind of model I'm thinking about – although I want the members to decide how to set it up – is to be the equivalent in gaming of what the Football Supporters' Association is in football. They're going to give a platform to ordinary people who are going out there and just love playing games.
Q: Who's going to be involved in this meeting? And moving forward, do you expect to be employing staff, or are you looking for volunteers to help you out?
Tom Watson MP: It's a bit early days yet. We haven't got any money; we haven't got any pencils, any office or anything, but I've asked the 15,000 members of the group to come - so far 20 or 30 or them have said they're arriving. Really it's their group, I've just facilitated this. I want to help them obviously in Westminster, but I want gamers to get together and find their own voice and get a platform. I'm talking to as many people as I can to see if whether we can get some seed-corn funding and hopefully we'll get some kind of programme of activity going in the next month or two.
Q: Realistically what do you think a group like this could achieve?
Tom Watson MP: Well, in political terms it's already had a big impact. There're a lot of MPs who've already talked to me about how they can go about talking to gamers, what the issues are, because of course they only read the papers as well, and if the only things you read in the papers is that games are bad and they're turning our children into monsters then it's going to cloud their view.
I think we've already started to recalibrate that debate and it's just a question of being reasonable, engaging with people when they come out with these ridiculous comments, and trying to get a balanced view about what games really are.
Q: So as a body you expect to be representative in a way that, when the next Modern Warfare 2 comes along, the media would come to Gamers' Voice?
Tom Watson MP: Absolutely. What I'd like the media to do is, sure, if there's a piece of content in a game you're worried about then let's have a debate about that - like you do with film. But don't condemn the entire industry because one scene in one game is unpleasant to one journalist.
They just need to get a more reasoned view. I don't think people realise how culturally significant games are in the lives of many people in the UK, and what big business it is for the UK economy, and they've got to take that into account.
Q: With Modern Warfare 2, you spoke about it in Parliament and we know the scene ['No Russian'] that has caused offence. It is an 18-rated game. With that scene, in the game it came with an option to skip should you wish to avoid it. You wouldn't get that in a film, to be asked to skip an offensive scene - do you think it was a mistake to include that in a videogame?
Tom Watson MP: I think it was probably the right thing. Look, I don't buy the argument that games are different to films. People say they're more immersive and therefore it's a different experience. I've never cried at a videogame, I've cried at plenty of films. I think what that did with that game - the classification and the extra content warning - I suspect there's a bit of PR involved in that, but also I think it's the industry wising up.
Keith Vaz... I disagree with him on his views on the industry, but one of the things he has done is make sure that the games industry gets its act together with things like classification, and the retail outlets are pretty responsible about how they sell games.
The challenge now is how parents realise that they've got a responsibility to make sure that some of the content their kids are exposed to in games is dealt with appropriately.
Q: Let's talk about the ratings. The Byron Review was June 2008, the recommendations that came from that - it was announced that the PEGI system would be adopted and come into law. Where are we at with that? Do you expect that to come into law before the next election?
Tom Watson MP: I would hope so. If there are clauses in the new Digital Economy Bill, which is going to be debated in the House of Lords in a couple of weeks' time, that should get to the House of Commons in February and PEGI will be the system that's adopted.
It's not the PEGI system that people remember from a few years ago. They've really upped their game on this and I think the labelling and classification is better, simpler, easier to understand and I think the industry is pretty committed as well that once this ratings system goes through they're going to invest in a public education campaign so that people actually know what the ratings mean and they're aware when they can make choices in retail outlets.
The one thing I do think perhaps going forward and in the medium term we probably need on games, and I say this as a parent, is some kind of usability rating. There is a degree of confusion I think with people buying games for children about whether the current ratings, it actually rates the content rather than the playability, and it would be very good if we could improve on that. But right now we've got to get the classification right for content and I'm pretty certain that will go through.
Q: It has taken a very long time since the recommendations were announced. For a government that says it takes the safety of children very seriously, some might argue that it doesn't look like it's one of their priorities.
Tom Watson MP: There was a fiercely fought battle between different entities that wanted to actually win the classification system and I think it was right that the government let that debate take place. In the end PEGI won through, quite a close battle with the BBFC, and it was appropriate that they took a bit of time just to bottom out what the argument is.
I was personally convinced that PEGI is scalable to a European level and that is why I went for it and I think the industry took on a lot of concerns of parliamentarians and campaigners about how they simplify their ratings. It's there now, it's going to be in the bill, let's hope it goes through before a general election and the industry can get a bit of certainty in their lives and get on and promote it.
Q: What are your feelings about what should be done to enforce the ratings for both retailers and parents; whether there should be penalties legislated for?
Tom Watson MP: As long as we've got a ratings system and as long as parents know what they're purchasing, that's the key thing. And I actually think the retailers in the games space know full well they've got to make sure that's done. From my personal experience they're pretty good at this.
I do think there's work to be done on public education so that parents are aware of the system and that's going to take a year or two to bed in. I would never dream of letting my kids anywhere near Modern Warfare 2, although my kids are pretty young and wouldn't be able to play it, but parents should make that same judgement.
This is about families sorting out their own affairs and we should equip them with all the information they need to make those judgements.
Q: The education aspect - some would argue the games industry has already gone further than others in terms of putting the parental locks on consoles and they've done as much as they can so far. The industry has agreed to help fund marketing of these new ratings, to spread education. Do you think the government has a responsibility here, too?
Tom Watson MP: Yeah, look, we're in this together and this is about building a better society. We had this same debate when VHS came out 25-30 years ago, about will kids be exposed to 18-content films. Yes they were, we had some education, and now parents are pretty responsible about what their kids can watch on DVDs.
Let's go through that process. I think the industry has really come a long way in the last few years on this stuff and we should give them credit for that.
Q: You are the advocate for the games industry in parliament. Outside of that in the games industry, do you think bodies like ELSPA are doing enough?
Tom Watson MP: I thought ELSPA handled themselves very well on the ratings system. To be honest, everyone thought PEGI didn't have a leg to stand on after the Byron Review. They listened; they listened to people's concerns and they responded, they amended what they did, they fought a very good campaign, they got their message over and they've won the day.
I'm pretty certain they'll do that in the public information campaigns they're going to run as well, but let's see how they get on with that.
Q: The government - what do they really know about the industry? Every now and then - like DCMS [Department for Culture, Media and Sport] Questions when Call of Duty was raised - you hear the generic statements from [Minister for Creative Industries] Sion Simon saying the videogames industry is very important. There's a feeling that, whenever there's a report, they stick a line in to say the games industry's great, and that'll keep them quiet for a few months. Does the government really understand the importance of the games industry?
Tom Watson MP: I think some sections of government do. But if I'm being honest I think there's a lot more we can do in this area. Firstly, I would like to see a UK games council that's run along the lines of the UK Film Council. Locking the games industry into the machinery of government means that you can take a much wider strategic look and instead of doing small tactical campaigns, be it on tax breaks or classification. We can really think about what the long term interests are for the industry: skills, training, job, publishing, copyright.
These are the kind of things that require a bit of seasoned discussion. And a Games Council would mean that the government can't ignore the games industry. It's part of the machinery. I'd like to see the government go down that route - I don't know whether they will yet, but I think it would benefit the industry and I think it would benefit the understanding of the industry by government.
Q: You've been quite vocal about calling for tax breaks - with the UK haemorrhaging talent to places like Canada - to protect our talent and creative industry. In the Digital Britain report it said they were evaluating that - and there was high praise for the industry. I think the phrase was that games could ultimately become as culturally relevant as films in the future. Do you have any insight into where that process is at?
Tom Watson MP: I think games, I'm pretty certain games will be the dominant cultural phenomenon of this century and for a country to ignore that is a mistake. Times are tough at the moment: we're in a recession; it's very hard to find any tax breaks for any industry. But I think it's really important that we put a big strategic stamp on the games industry and say, this is an industry we want to nurture and support.
Tax breaks are part of that but there's a much wider piece of work to do that perhaps the industry should start thinking a little bit more about. What kind of a games industry do we want in 10 years' time? Where are platform games going? What are we doing with social gaming? Where are we at with games-based learning? How do we tie all these strands of work together so that we can have a really deep, strategic approach to the industry rather than these piecemeal issues that flare up like sunspots and die down again. There needs to be an institution that deals with that.
Q: Given the current economic situation, as you highlight - with the call for tax breaks, it appeared in the Digital Britain report, but again is that a sop? Is there any realistic prospect of that getting addressed in the short term?
Tom Watson MP: I don't know, I honestly don't know. I'm putting pressure on the Treasury, I know the DCMS guys are doing their best, but who knows what the numbers are going to look like in the next budget. But I'm pretty certain that if it doesn't happen in the next few months, in the next few years we're going to have to act to protect the industry and help it grow and weather the current global recession.
The Rt Hon Tom Watson is Labour's MP for West Bromwich East. Interview by Johnny Minkley.