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Everyone hates games and we don’t care (but we should) | Opinion

Skillfull's Gina Jackson discusses the barriers to the UK industry's future growth – including perception from those outside the business

Gina Jackson

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Games are the most successful creative industry in the UK, bigger than TV, film and music. How often have you heard this statement to justify us as a sector?

We all know and feel how the UK mainstream media, especially print, likes to portray us. Whether it’s The Sun declaring "Mum’s Guilt – I found my son in a trance at 2am hooked on his games console... and I felt it was my fault for buying it" or The Mirror's "Mum bans son, 12, from adult game – but husband’s decision put marriage at risk." Even The Guardian, who is in my opinion the gold standard of games journalism, doesn't feature games significantly on its culture page. When I say "significantly," I mean "if at all."

But we don’t really need mainstream media, do we? We have our own media channels as well as YouTube, Twitch and Discord, our global revenues are predicted to be $339.95 billion by 2027 (Mordor Intelligence), games are predicted to be played by 3.32 billion players by 2024 (Statista), the average gamer is 34 years old, owns a house, and has children (ESA). 36 years is the average age of a game’s purchaser (Digital Australia) and 67% of parents play video games with their children at least once a week (ESA).

So, we are really successful, we have loads of players, our games are played by mainstream people, and families, so what is the problem?

We are really successful, we have loads of players, our games are played by mainstream people, and families, so what is the problem?

Well:

  • We are currently in a skills crisis
  • We lack diversity in our workforce
  • Our audience struggles with being gamers
  • We lack diversity in our content
  • We haven’t really got started on interactive content

In the last 12 months in the UK alone, we have advertised more than 10,000 jobs, from a workforce of around 20,000. Most of these roles are at mid to senior level and this recruitment boom is creating spiralling wages and huge business disruption. We are still struggling with company cultures including toxicity and crunch, and we have rates of anxiety and depression levels within our employees twice as high as the English average (UKIE Census 2022).

So, it appears that our sector growth is being limited by our access to talent. We are also struggling to engage and welcome career changers; we lack flexibility from AAA studios which, too often, request that applicants must have AAA experience, and we focus on knowledge over ability.

As a constantly evolving and innovating industry, we seem to be obsessed with finding people who have done the role before, rather than those who have the skills to take us forward to evolve and innovate.

But it’s okay, right? After all, we have 20% of the workforce from the EU/EEA and a further 9% from the rest of the world (UKIE Census 2022) so why not just hire in overseas workers (if we can justify the potential £9,000 visa costs a year, let alone the admin and additional stress in sorting it out)? Because we are the most successful creative industry in the UK and we make so much money, right?

Erm...

Well, while we now have great industry engagement and involvement in education, we had to fight to get programming on the curriculum. This has had a positive impact, but that remains one of the few ways that we have impacted education. Art is still focused on paper, music on instruments, and English, well, it does have some storytelling elements, but not all games are about storytelling. We expect our artists, audio designers, and designers to start their real learning at post-18 and not before.

So, back to our challenges. Workforce diversity hasn’t gotten much better over the years. Just looking at the number of women is one indicator, although this is a tiny part of diversity.

The 2022 UKIE Census shows, from the surveys completed, that women represent 30% of the UK workforce, but the gender pay gap reports from games companies indicate women are just 18%. This statistic comes from a much larger sample of the workforce and focuses on companies with more than 250 employees.

In 2021, 45% of US gamers were women according to Statista. The US' Entertainment Software Association found that 48% of people who play games identify as women, while 29% of gamers are people of colour. So we may not be diverse as a workforce, but seeing our stats (although these stats don’t consider repeat purchases) show our audience is, is there really a problem, as we are the most successful creative industry in the UK and we make so much money? Right?

We seem to be obsessed with finding people who have done the role before, rather than those who have the skills to take us forward to evolve and innovate

Well, actually, our audience may not be so comfortable declaring they are, in fact, our audience. Only 6% of women identified as "gamers" compared with 15% of men (Pew Research).

Research done by the Mental Health Foundation in 2022 discovered that players felt a sense of guilt or shame based on a perception that society doesn’t see their hobby as worthwhile. Players believed others saw their hobby as unproductive, a waste of time, for isolated young men or nerds, bad for your health or, ultimately, something you should grow out of.

Surveys suggest that although many UK adults report playing video games, far fewer identify playing games as a hobby as they feel judged.

But we are still making loads of money, so everything is fine. We are the biggest creative industry – we are bigger than TV… And so on.

How are we viewed by those playing politics? Members of Parliament surely love commercial success stories like ours!

Greenstone Research released a report in 2020, 'Ahead of the Game', that showed that 39% of MPs thought that there needs to be more regulation of the video game industry. Only 2% thought there should be less regulation. The report also highlighted that 56% of references to video games in Parliament in 2020 have been negative in sentiment, with only 23% being positive.

It also appears that MPs weren't too keen to be seen as gamers. Alex Sobol MP, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for video games and esports, was playing Civilisation 6 and Elite Dangerous on his laptop, before trying to finish Red Dead Redemption 2 on PS4, before starting on the Final Fantasy VII reboot, according to an interview on the UKIE website. Owen Thompson MP has computer games on his list of recreations.

Surveys suggest that although many UK adults report playing video games, far fewer identify playing games as a hobby as they feel judged

But then Jonathan Gullis MP, who is pushing hard for Silicon Stoke (the proposed digital transformation of Stoke-on-Trent), has no mention of being a gamer. I got very excited to see that Dehenna Davison MP had worked at a video games retailer — however, I couldn’t find any reference to her being a gamer. Even our own industry champion Lord Ed Vaizey doesn’t seem to identify as being a gamer.

But to be fair, what have politicians ever done for us? Other than providing the UK video games tax relief (and we all understand the impact of that), delivering us the NextGen Skills report in 2013 which gave us the evidence to push through the transformation in school education, transforming IT into computer programming and being the evidence base for the NextGen Skills Academy that creates industry written qualification for FE college, write apprenticeships and continues to deliver diverse T-shaped students that we need through free education across the nation?

Politicians control the shortage occupation list that supports visa access for hard to fill roles, the skills investment fund that provided support for new trainees and subsidised industry approved training. They could give us access to the unspent games industry apprenticeship levy, reportedly worth £4 million, and they provide us with the UK Games Fund, one of the very few funds for early-stage prototype funds supporting the creation of new studios, but until now limited to just £25,000 per game.

All that sounds great, so even though they don’t see themselves as gamers or feel hugely positively towards us, they still do loads of stuff for us, but how does that compare to other nations?

Well, Germany has a major funding programme which allows companies to claim back as much as 50% of development costs. Screen Australia has grants of up to $150,000 for games production from a budget up to $500,000. The Australian Government’s Digital Economy Strategy, a $1.2 billion plan, has a tax offset policy for video game development, a 30% refundable tax to attract talent and the sector.

Anyone who has worked in the UK games industry for a while has friends in Canada (both Vancouver and Montreal). Why? Because the Canadian government really understood the potential of the games industry 20 years ago. Many people took the opportunity to move out and have stayed, have families, and are now becoming Canadian citizens.

But we have still made the UK games industry a success, we make so much money…

Imagine funding and support coming directly to groups who understand the UK games industry, rather than being tacked onto organisations run by those from other screen mediums

So finally, the potential of interactive content. Think back to the early days of broadcast and how the mass media broadcasting of content has transformed news, comedy, politics, entertainment, music, sport, health and fitness, factual/documentary, and education. We can think back to people gathering round to black and white TV, to now receiving streamed content on a multitude of devices.

With interactive content, we have made great progress within entertainment as in video games, we are the most successful creative industry and we are starting to consider health and fitness and sport. However, we haven’t even started with comedy, politics, music, and so on.

Imagine what we could do. Imagine the impact that could have on society and individuals. However, we would need to consider how to fund this. Perhaps a public service publisher, a new skills investment fund, access to the apprenticeship levy for use outside delivery, industry support for sector collaborations or even innovation funding for interactive content beyond games.

Imagine who could provide such support, and how they feel about us, and how the people who vote for them think about us, and how we are portrayed to the masses by mainstream media.

Could we create cut-through stories and events for all these groups to start to change this and change our own narrative away from being the most successful creative industry?

From the V&A Museum putting on games exhibits, the BBC Gaming Proms, the work Jessica Curry does – from presenting her Saturday night show High Score about video games music on radio station Classic FM, or Sounds of Gaming on BBC Radio 3 and hosting concerts for the BBC Concert Orchestra. Or Nigel Twumasi from Mayamada and his "Do I look like a gamer?" campaign, the amazing Jay-Ann Lopez (Black Girl Gamers) and Stephanie Ijoma (Nnesaga) appearing in Cosmopolitan magazine.

Imagine being in a society where politicians were as happy to be with game developers and esports stars as they are to meet those from film and TV

Also of note, and showing mass marketing brands targeting games, I was lucky enough to moderate a panel at EGX for Dove (yes, the people who make soap and toiletries) on real virtual beauty. In partnership with Epic Games, they are creating training opportunities and making female avatars freely available to show a more representative version of beauty.

Interestingly, all these initiatives are being led by groups that are under-represented in our industry.

Imagine being in a society where politicians were happy to discuss the games they were playing, were as happy to be with game developers and esports stars as they are to meet those from film and TV.

Imagine government funding and support coming directly to groups who understand the UK games industry and understand the best way funding could help us, rather than being tacked onto organisations set up by and run by those from other screen mediums.

Imagine the Game BAFTAs or the Develop Awards being televised, games review shows on TV and radio. Imagine the CEO of BAFTA or the BFI being from games, or us having our equivalent games-focused organisations.

Imagine telling someone you've just met what you do, and them not apologising for not playing games.

So, we can happily stay as the most successful creative industry — or we could become so much more.

Dr Gina Jackson OBE is the founder of Skillfull. Jackson has worked on around 300 games in both development and publishing roles from SNES through to PS5. She now supports developers and publishers as a consultant/coach, develops and delivers training for career changers and new entrants. She works as an activist for change across skills, diversity and mental health in the games industry.

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