Gaming the Vote
Whatever the outcome of the UK election, there will still be work to be done if British development is to remain world-class
By the time you read this, it'll all be over. The ballots will have been cast in the British General Election on Thursday, May, and while it's highly unlikely that we'll have a new government yet, we'll be starting to get an inkling of the new direction the country will be taking.
That direction is one which will be watched more keenly than ever by those involved in the games business - from the biggest publishers right down to the bedroom developers hoping to create the next break-out hit on iPhone or Facebook. Politics has always, of course, had an impact on our sector, but never to quite the extent that it's having now.
The reason for this sudden interest is because the last five years have seen a complete reversal of mainstream political attitudes to videogames. The narrative of almost three decades has been comprehensively overturned. Our industry has, for most of its existence, fought a rearguard action against reactionary politicians, defending its right to exist against proponents of censorship and hand-wringing, headline-grabbing, "won't somebody think of the children!" politics.
That kind of politics hasn't gone away, and probably never will - but it was inevitable that sooner or later, its focus would shift away from videogames and find a new target, a new and exciting Evil That Is Corrupting Our Youth to shriek at. (Online social networking? You're up, kiddo. Batten down the hatches.) Those who follow the relationship between games and politics have seen the change come about at a glacial pace over the past decade, only to accelerate to breakneck pace in the dying months of the last Parliament as the medium finally found devoted champions on the floor of the House of Commons.
MPs such as Labour backbencher Tom Watson, Liberal Democrat Culture, Media and Sport shadow minister Don Foster, and his Conservative counterpart, Ed Vaizey, have all championed and defended the games business in the House in recent months. Their efforts, and those of industry bodies such as TIGA and ELSPA, have helped to ensure that Labour's last budget included, for the first time, a commitment to implementing tax relief for game developers, similar to the schemes enjoyed by other media businesses in the UK.
This extraordinary turnabout is not a total reversal of the old suspicions which dog any new medium, of course. The House also retains a number of MPs who are happy to toe the sensationalist tabloid newspaper line, and those who have watched the excruciating parliamentary performances of censorious Labour MP Keith Vaz will be disappointed to note that his Leicester East seat, in this week's election, is considered extremely safe.
However, the fact remains that after decades in which Westminster's involvement with the games business was largely confined to sabre-rattling over violent content and dark mutterings about corrupted youth, the entire tone of the debate has changed before this election. Censorship is off the agenda, replaced by a healthy desire to work collaboratively with the industry to reinforce the age ratings system - pretty much the only sensible measure contained in the reviled Digital Economy Act, which the last government rammed through undemocratically in its final hours.
Gone is the risible "ban this sick filth" attitude, replaced with a rather more helpful question - "what can we do to encourage this thriving cultural industry?" Labour made its pledge in the budget, and the Conservatives and Lib Dems indicated that they would support such a move. Perhaps aware of the likely upswing in the youth vote in this election (and, of course, of the fact that the gamer demographic isn't getting any younger), all of the parties have tripped over themselves to ensure that the industry and the public know that the old, game-hating politics of the past has been replaced with a bright, shiny, smiling politics which wants to nurture and help this industry.
Not all promises, of course, are born equal. Labour's commitment in the budget arguably makes it into the most firmly signed up of the three parties, with the Lib Dems - arguably the most positive and progressive of all three parties on games and the digital economy in general - also being fairly unequivocal in their support. There's nervousness around the industry, however, regarding the Tories. Ed Vaizey, their spokesperson, is widely liked in the industry, but the absence of any mention of support for the industry in the party's manifesto is seen in some quarters as troubling, leading industry bodies to pressure the Conservatives pre-election for a firmer commitment.
All of this takes place, of course, under the looming shadow of Britain's national debt - which, in the wake of the recession, is simultaneously far less serious than many commentators would like the electorate to believe, and also really very serious indeed. Much of the concern over what the Conservatives would do for the games industry may arise from their commitment to tackling the deficit far more quickly than the other two parties - which seems to make it less likely that a small but vital industry such as games will get the support it needs, at least for a few years. Of course, with no major party actually outlining its full plans to tackle the deficit pre-election, question marks remain over the commitment to game development regardless of who ends up in power.
This is no small issue to bat around, either. The British game development industry has been a powerhouse for decades, turning out global hit after global hit, and doing so in what were occasionally very challenging financial conditions. That developers now seek government recognition and some measure of support through the tax system is not a sign of greed or avarice, but rather of necessity. The playing field has been tipped heavily to one side by the existence of tax breaks and other financial incentives in places ranging from Canada to Singapore, from Shanghai to - much closer to home - France. Other nations are investing heavily to bring the games industry to their shores; lacking a supportive government, Britain risks losing what it has built so painstakingly.
That would be a financial disaster, precipitating a gradual brain drain which would send thousands of high earners, many of them graduates from top universities, to work overseas. It would also seriously reduce Britain's standing, to a degree which those of a non-gaming generation may not quite be able to understand; for there is a whole generation of young people out there to whom the fact that the Beatles were from Liverpool is meaningless, but the fact that Wipeout and Project Gotham Racing are from Liverpool is very, very cool indeed. (Guildford lacks a particular musical claim to fame, to the best of my knowledge, but I was very excited to move there in my late teens, knowing that this was the town in which Bullfrog had made its games.)
Regardless of the outcome of the election, then, the work of the games business and its proponents is far from over. How uphill the struggle of the coming months and years will be does, of course, depend on who is in power - but there will be a struggle regardless. The wider public is only slowly coming to realise how rich and vibrant Britain's interactive entertainment sector is, what an extraordinary track record of creativity and innovation it has had in the past 30 years. We can only hope that by the time this becomes common knowledge, it's still something that can be spoken about in the present tense.