This is an opinion piece, reflecting the views and analysis of its author.
One cannot logon to the internet or turn on the TV without being barraged by the latest developments on this unpredictable, yet crucial Parliamentary election. It seems like everyone has an opinion (here is one more), and yet the games industry has maintained a deafening silence. Granted, it may be risky to appear more sympathetic to one party and end up having to deal with another, but the most defining election in a generation is only a few days away. Surely all companies have a responsibility to get the best deal for their staff.
Several sections of the Conservative and Labour manifestos are relevant to the games sector, and unlike any other recent general election the difference between the policies is stark. This article is an invitation for the directors of British games studios to consider the facts and, for the sake of the future of their companies and their workers, be assertive about what sort of industry we want and who precisely has the answers to the challenges that lie ahead.
It has been encouraging to see game companies starting conversations about the importance of good mental health in the workplace - most notably, Jagex recently discussed its collaboration with charity Mind to provide support and advice for its staff. In practice, this involves facilitation of discussions and workshops, a 'quiet space' for its employees, and a set of resources on the company's Intranet.
"Several sections of the Conservative and Labour manifestos are relevant to the games sector, and...the difference between the policies is stark"
Even putting aside the fact that Mind maintains close links to the Department of Work & Pensions, which is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people with disabilities, who were suddenly found 'fit for work' under the Conservative government, it is only clear policy commitments in addressing the crisis of mental health that will create any sustainable change.
Despite the Conservative manifesto promising further investment, actions speak for themselves: between 2010 and 2015, mental health trusts suffered real terms cuts of 8.25%, losing the equivalent of £598 million from their budgets each year; Theresa May's new package has offered only £15 million in additional funding for crisis cafes and community clinics; and 40% of NHS trusts saw cuts to mental health services across 2015 and 2016. Instead of offering token promises, Labour plans to give mental health the same priority as physical health, even creating the role of Mental Health Minister in its cabinet.
Game companies have often been accused of inducing anxiety at work; reliance on 'crunch time', a lack of unionisation, precarious job security and constant competition are a recipe for poor mental health. If the British industry really wants to facilitate structural change, it must not remain silent.
Supporters of Brexit may have already won the battle, as statistics indicate a rise in emigration following the referendum. This effect may create an unprecedented skills-shortage in the games sector. According to UKIE, "40% of businesses are already seeing negative impacts on their ability to recruit and retain talent as Brexit is perceived as weakening the UK's attractiveness as a destination." While game companies are probably savvy enough to make use of a growing workforce abroad through outsourcing, with the pound dipping and unlikely to go up any time soon the focus must urgently be brought towards home-grown talent.
There are currently 28 Bachelors and Masters games design & development courses across the UK, but with another tuition fee hike proposed by the Conservatives, and the scrapping of the Maintenance Grant already in effect, they are becoming increasingly inaccessible. Unless the games industry wishes to only be made up of the privileged few that can afford to go to university and learn the necessary skills, it must support free education, doubling of the number of apprenticeships, and the return of the Maintenance Grant. All of these, it should be noted, are commitments made by Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.
"Game companies have often been accused of inducing anxiety at work... If the British industry really wants to facilitate structural change, it must not remain silent"
There have been numerous articles written about the negative effect Brexit will have on the games industry. Ukie has also provided an excellent report voicing the concerns studios have about the implications of the UK's divorce from the European Union.
While the Labour Party promises to gain full access to the Single Market and guarantee rights for EU Nationals, it is only the Liberal Democrats that are truly pushing for a second referendum once a deal is agreed. The problem with the Liberal Democrats, of course, is that we have already heard centre-stage pledges from this party before, and they didn't go well; as soon as the Lib Dems sense power their commitments tend to disappear, as evidenced by the tuition fees debacle back in 2010.
The Conservative Party is gearing the country towards a car-crash Brexit with sky-high tariffs, the lowest corporation tax in Europe, closed borders and no investment in national infrastructure. Labour, on the other hand, is likely to adopt a Norwegian model with access to the Single Market and equal ability to recruit European talent - if they wish to live here, of course. 74% of companies that responded to Ukie's survey had non-UK EU nationals in high-skilled positions, and non-UK EU nationals equate to between 20 - 29% of the total workforce at these companies. Most of the companies surveyed state that they wish to continue to have easy access to the high-skilled workforce from abroad post-Brexit.
A Conservative image of Brexit would include long-term residence visas only being granted to 'high-skilled' individuals from abroad. A work visa from Canada, for example, can currently cost between $500 and $1500; covering such fees for as much as 29% of staff is a serious blow to the budget of any company. Indeed, if these changes to migration policy are implemented, it may mean that only bigger companies are able to pay for work visas, making it close to impossible for smaller studios to provide security for their current EU workforce, or to accommodate new employees from other countries.
Let's talk about workers' rights. Bosses of game companies, you can look away now; the person who has coded 20hrs/day for the past three weeks trying to finish a game with little monetary reward, your attention please.
Similar to fashion, film and other creative industries, workers' rights are hardly discussed in the games business. Workers in this sector often feel extremely lucky to be paid for doing something they love, but their labour still creates profits for somebody. While it is inspiring to see the Writers Guild of America, for instance, bringing the entertainment industry in the United States to its knees in 2007 and 2008, that culture of defending workers' rights has yet to come to fruition in the games industry in Britain.
"Similar to fashion, film and other creative industries, workers' rights are hardly discussed in the games business"
Although often criticised for being in cahoots with the unions, the Labour Party's mission is to simply guarantee that the lowest paid workers in any given public or private sector job has some parity with the people at the top. The fact that this is seen as a radical idea is one of the biggest progressive losses in recent history. Sick pay, holiday pay, pensions, living wage, regular shifts, paid overtime - these are not extraordinary demands, but the basics of a social contract. These rights have come under threat or been completely eroded during the seven years of the Conservative government in Downing Street.
In the fashion industry, 40% of jobs are currently unpaid There is no data on this for the games industry, but the hope is that we stop such work practices before the sector becomes dependent on them.
The most fundamental difference between the Labour and Conservative manifestos are the costings. Theresa May's government will continue its austerity policies, while cutting the top tax brackets and inheritance tax. Corbyn's Labour is proposing a substantial tax hike to pay for the big investment in public spending.
The Conservative spin is that lower corporation tax, for instance, will bring more business into the UK, especially in the Brexit climate. At 19%, the UK's rate is dramatically lower than competitor countries; the United States has a rate of 40%, Germany's is 29.9%, Japan's tax rate is 32.3%, and France's is 33.3%. Margaret Thatcher cut corporation tax from 52% to 35%, and the 2010 coalition government lowered it from 28% to its current level. The Conservative manifesto proposes to further lower it to just 17%. Labour has proposed a rise to 26% (still lower than 2010 levels), which would net approximately £19bn. Canada's corporate tax currently stands at 27%, for instance and it has the third largest video games industry in terms of employment numbers following the USA and Japan, generating over $3bn in 2015.
"A healthy future of the games sector currently requires a clean break from the elitist and close-minded policies offered by the current government"
The Conservative line on corporation tax is that increasing it will discourage investment, but it was the hike in business rates that has choked small entrepreneurs in recent years - George Osborne's policies resulted in some small companies facing a rise in business rates of up to 3000%. With the creation of Labour's proposed National Investment Bank, small indie companies will be able to take out loans at a very low interest rate to boost their growth.
The issue most likely to effect the future of gaming is how the internet will be shaped. While proponents of net neutrality have openly criticised the European Union's plans for a Digital Single Market, it now appears that the current British government cannot be trusted on that front either.
"Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree," the Conservative party's manifesto reads. "While we cannot create this framework alone, it is for government, not private companies, to protect the security of people and ensure the fairness of the rules by which people and businesses abide.
"So we will establish a regulatory framework in law to underpin our digital charter and to ensure that digital companies, social media platforms and content providers abide by these principles... We will also create a power in law for government to introduce an industry-wide levy from social media companies and communication service providers to support awareness and preventative activity to counter internet harms, just as is already the case with the gambling industry."
In other words, the the Conservatives plan to create a new national network to replace the Internet as a means of allowing the government full control over what is said and done online. If unopposed, it has the potential to result in Chinese-style walled garden system over which the UK government can exert complete control. Even if none of the issues cited in other parts of this article resonate with the reader's experience in the games industry, surely this extreme reconfiguration of the internet must form an objective necessity to intervene.
With the Parliamentary election days away, there are too many defining policy differences here to stay mute. For both the benefit of the staff and the direction of the business, studios must use their voice in helping to turn the vote around. The recent shift in the polls suggest that people are tired of politics as usual and brave policies are starting to be rewarded. There is no need any longer to appear more conservative, just for the sake of business.
A healthy future of the games sector currently requires a clean break from the elitist and close-minded policies offered by the current government. Video games are by far the largest cultural outlet that engages with the working classes, and studios have immense influence - there has never been a better time to use it.