Games and the Govt - Part Two

Labour MP Tom Watson on games in education, the role of the BBC and parents monitoring kids' play

In the first part of the exclusive interview with Labour MP Tom Watson - the founder of Facebook support group Gamers' Voice - he talked about what such a movement might be able to achieve, as well as the progress made on getting PEGI ratings into law.

Here, in part two, he talks about the role of games in education, how the BBC might play a part in the industry moving forwards, and how parents should approach the subject of their kids playing games.

Q: With your vocal support of the games industry and being a gamer yourself, how do your parliamentary colleagues view you?

Tom Watson MP: Most of them think I'm a nutcase if I'm being honest with you. They think I'm slightly eccentric; although there are a few of them that are secret gamers and we occasionally have Guitar Hero nights but they've told me I'm not allowed to name them on camera because they'll get murdered in their local paper, which is a bit of a shame.

And the sensible ones know that they've got a lot of constituents for whom games are a really big deal in their lives. They're listening, I think, and their opinion is shifting.

Q: That's part of the problem, isn't it? What a sad state of affairs when ministers and MPs feel that playing videogames is something to keep secret, almost something to be ashamed of.

Tom Watson MP: Yeah. You know, when I was first elected in 2001, you suddenly appear in 'Who's Who'. It asked for recreations and I put 'PlayStation 2' as my recreation, which actually at the time it was, and was ridiculed in half a dozen diary columns and a load of MPs said it as well.

It's actually recognition that games are just part of our lives now, they're not trivial they're just what people do to amuse themselves and get some kind of enjoyment.

Q: Precisely. And people of a certain generation might be baffled by the technology, might not understand it, but kids just get on with it, they consume media and information through many different forms of technology. You've spoken previously about the role games and gaming technology can play in learning and education - if you look at education at the moment and school leavers, the level of people leaving with even pass grades in maths and English is not good enough. My feeling is teaching methods are increasingly anachronistic and videogames could play a role in that.

Tom Watson MP: Ironically I'm in my early 40s, so I'm of the generation that learnt to code in school. I remember the first Commodore Pet arriving in my school and learning routines in BASIC, and then Sinclair BASIC on the Spectrum with those little thermal printers. We don't teach kids to code now, we teach them to use Microsoft Word and I think that's a shame.

I do think there's work that can be done at a much lower level in the system at an earlier age for people to think about how to make things, about electronics and how to code that will benefit the industry - not just the games industry - the wider industry going forward. Yeah, I'd like to shake it up a bit in that area.

Q: That would be Ed Balls' brief at the moment. Do you know what his views are on this? Does he view them as part of the potential solution or part of the problem?

Tom Watson MP: I think his department, they look in different ways, but Ed himself has said he would like his department to be the most digitally enabled department in government.

They're on a long journey; but you look at the Games Based Learning conference that takes place in London every year. There are some amazing, creative teachers out there using games to capture children's imagination, to teach them the basics: literacy, geography, history. Whatever can get a child enthused with learning we should be learning, and I know his department are looking at how they can embed this and scale it.

Q: My six year-old niece's favourite game is Brain Training on DS. I asked her why and she said, "It helps with my homework".

Tom Watson MP: My four-and-a-half year old's favourite game is an Apple app called ABC Phonics. His mother and I love that because he comes in on a Saturday morning at some terrible hour, 5:30am, and it gets me 20 minutes in bed extra because he can then run his finger across the top of an Apple iPhone.

That is amazing: he's learning phonics, he's learning to write, and he's using a piece of technology imaginatively to do that. And he's letting his dad have a lie-in in the morning - that's perfect for me. If other kids were doing this...

Which is why I think the educative games industry has a big growth in this country if we get it right.

Q: Getting cultural recognition from the government is one thing - do you think, if videogames are as a cultural form on a par with film and TV and should be treated as such, that the BBC should be doing more to reflect this in its output?

Tom Watson MP: Yeah, I do. And I'd like it reflected in their output and in the way they procure games and digital content. The BBC have spent GBP 1 billion on their website since 1994 - they could have breathed life into a lot of gaming companies if they'd got their contracts right and been generous with their licensing.

I'm not blaming the BBC as all this is new and fast-moving, but I would like to see a point where they can use their muscle to help the small guys in the industry to get on with making great games, great applications. Yeah, sure, use it on the BBC site but let the developer go and come up with a commercial offer around that as well.

Q: One of the things mentioned in Digital Britain was the creation of a Centre of Excellence [for games] up in BBC Media City in Salford that would somehow utilise the resources of the BBC, so maybe that's an area where that could happen?

Tom Watson MP: I think it is, definitely. I just think it needs the BBC to be a little more agile with small games businesses. They could really, really help if they used their clout to bring a bit of life to it.

Q: Just in terms of their general programming, we don't see much in terms of videogames - certainly not as a cultural phenomenon.

Tom Watson MP: That's the great cultural divide in Britain. I see so many people for whom TV is just mood music now; it's ambient images. They're either on consoles playing games, or gaming on their laptops. There is a generation out there for whom TV is not the centre of their lives, it's just another form of content and that's hard for the telly guys to take on board. It's been their lives for so long - it's not going to be won overnight that argument.

Q: If there is a change of government after the next election, with the Conseratives coming into power, what impact do you think that will have on the videogames industry and what you're trying to achieve as well?

Tom Watson MP: There's absolutely no prospect of the Conservatives winning the next election so I think the videogames industry will be safe in Labour's hands!

Q: ...

Tom Watson MP: You're not supposed to laugh at that bit!

Q: Well, it's good that you're confident...

Tom Watson MP: [laughs] Let me just answer that seriously. Actually I've been very impressed with the Tory front bench on some of this as well. Sion Simon gets the games industry, so does [Shadow Minister for Culture] Ed Vaizey, so I would hope whoever wins the next election we can work cross-party on trying to get this industry some support. Obviously I'd like my side to be the ones doing it.

Q: You're feeling is that in general there are MPs across the board that are slowly starting to understand and appreciate the industry?

Tom Watson MP: In parliament there are. There's a bit of a generational thing, and there's also a bit of people who just made it their business to go out and understand the industry. But they exist on both sides of the House and actually there's quite a lot of conversation that goes on between the two parties about what can be done in this space.

What I would hate is for this to become a party-political ping-pong match - we should actually be working together to see what we can do.

Q: Would it concern you that if the ratings didn't go through before an election that that could cause a big problem in terms of getting them through afterwards?

Tom Watson MP: The key thing on the back of the ratings is how you do public information and get parents wising up a bit, so if it didn't go through it would be a problem. I'm pretty sure that whatever happens to the Digital Economy Bill, the ratings bit both parties really want to go through so they'll make sure it does.

But it's a little bit random towards the end of a parliament; we can't be certain but everyone's going to work on it to try and get it through.

Q: Your life as a gamer - you've talked about the coding. What were your first gaming systems and what do you enjoy playing now?

Tom Watson MP: My first computer was a ZX81, but I found real gaming through the Spectrum. I remember Manic Miner, and I used to go around to my friend's house - he had a bit more money and had a BBC Micro - and we'd play Defender on that.

These days I've got two kids so I'm afraid I'm strictly a Super Mario Kart boy, although I'm desperate for a PlayStation 3 down in London so I can play some harder core stuff. But it's quite hard to find time to do it.

Q: And when you play Guitar Hero with these secret ministers, do they ever beat you?

Tom Watson MP: Rarely. I practice a bit more than them - but we're still only three-fingered Guitar Hero players, we're still pretty rubbish. I'm just better than them.

Q: That's the important thing. Do you monitor closely the amount of time your children play games? Is that something you worry about?

Tom Watson MP: Not at the minute. They're still a little young - my eldest is four-and-a-half so I will do it when he's older. He plays a bit of Super Mario Kart, he's got a DS, he plays a few of the CBeebies games, but he's not of an age where I need to worry about that. But sure, he will get rationed when he gets a bit older and I'm sure we'll have the usual dad-son conversation about that kind of thing.

Q: Do you have a view on what is too much gaming, or is that up to parents?

Tom Watson MP: Oh no, I think you work that out at your own pace. I do have a view of Nintendo DS games and the ratings there, because I've no idea what games he can and he can't play at that age. Which is why I think playability and usability is an issue the industry should look at a bit.

Q: What would you say now to the games industry as a whole on what you're trying to do and what you think the industry should be doing, should be saying?

Tom Watson MP: I'd like to see TIGA and ELSPA working collaboratively together - they did so over the ratings system. And I'd like to see them forming an idea about what a UK Games Council would look like. I think that's a real prize for them. I know it's fairly new and we've only just sketched it out as an idea, but if they could put some meat on the bone on this in the next few months they could really motor with this stuff.

Q: How quickly do you think something like that could be formed?

Tom Watson MP: It takes a little bit of thought. You have to make sure you get the right balance of interests around the table and that you get the definition right, but with the right intent you can get these things done pretty quickly. It would be good to get something in place before the general election; it would certainly be good to get both parties committed to that in the manifestos for the general election so they can move quite quickly after it.

Q: Finally, what would you say to gamers about how they can get involved?

Tom Watson MP: Come and join us. Email me if you want to know more, or find our Facebook group and come and join us. If you're really serious about gaming then try and help us recalibrate the conversation and stand up for the games industry and gamers up and down the country.

Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East and founder of Gamers' Voice. Interview by Johnny Minkley.

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Latest comments (2)

Fran Mulhern , Recruit3D10 years ago
Why are you calling him the Rt Hon? Isn't it only the Hon if he's just an MP? The Rt Hon is reserved for members of the Privy Council, and that tend sot be mainly cabinet ministers and I don't think Tom has been one?
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Phil Elliott Project Lead, Collective; Head of Community (London), Square Enix10 years ago
You're right, Fran - I've elevated him beyond his position. Duly edited - thanks for pointing that out.
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