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John Whittingdale MP

The vice-chair for the all-party Parliamentary committee for videogames talks society, violent games and tax breaks

Despite a tradition of non-engagement with the videogames industry, recent weeks have seen a flurry of initiatives from the UK government. Following last week's formation of an all-party Parliamentary group, yesterday saw the announcement of a new partnership between Tiga and the lottery-funded NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts).

Meeting at the launch of the Play Together initiative at the House of Commons, GamesIndustry.biz was able to talk to Conservative Member of Parliament John Whittingdale OBE, chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport and vice-chairman of the new videogame all-party Parliamentary group.

GamesIndustry.biz How difficult a subject do you find videogames to be within Parliament itself?
John Whittingdale

I have been involved in the DTMS area for about seven or eight years because I was shadow Secretary of State for a bit and then I took over the select committee. What I struggle with, with games, is that I have a passion for film, music and TV because I spent a great deal of time watching films and listening to music and watching TV. Games… I have played games and I do play games but I find it very frustrating because I'm not good enough.

What's really frustrating is when my son is playing Red Faction or Medal of Honor, or whatever he's playing, and I get killed within two minutes. It's very, very depressing! And the truth is that young people are better and faster, so a lot of my experience of gaming is actually watching. I've got a son of 16 and a daughter of 13 and they spend a lot of time playing games.

I play Civilization or Age of Empires, or games of that sort, but they're not shoot 'em-ups or quick reaction time games. I don't play a huge amount, but I do play games. But I think equally I see the importance to my children of games and I've bought them a PlayStation 3 and every birthday top of the list is the latest version of… for my son FIFA and Football Manager. The fact that he's got 2008 is completely irrelevant, he has to have 2009. Which is why your industry does so well! And indeed The Sims 3, which I bought my daughter last week and watched over the weekend… I'm sure it's hugely advanced over The Sims 2 but it wasn't immediately obvious to me, but to her it was brilliant!

GamesIndustry.biz How do you find it talking to other MPs about videogames? In your speech you alluded to games being used as a political football, but how problematic is it defending videogames in Parliament from, say, the next tabloid scare story?
John Whittingdale

There are some games which do have content which is highly disturbing and quite plainly for adults. And I've had presentations from the BBFC and others. Prince of Persia was a recent one, where there were beheadings - which is quite graphic - which is clearly only suitable for people of 18.

Then there was the furore, do you remember a game which came out called, was it… Kaboom? It was the suicide bomber game. Well, I got rung up by the Daily Mail saying "Do you know there is a game out called Kaboom? Which involves you being a suicide bomber and your job is to blow up as many people as you like." And on the basis of that I said, "Well, that sounds horrific."

I then went online and I played it and it was one of those little online streamed games with a sort of little stick man and you pressed a button and it went boom! And the idea that this was going to turn anyone into a suicide bomber was completely ridiculous. It was a tiny kind of child-like thing, which you can argue was a bit tasteless but it had no realism attached to it at all.

And the problem is that a lot of people who are asked to comment on something like this, and I don't want to attack any individuals, but it is a common occurrence that they get told there's a game out that shows you being a suicide bomber and your task is to kill as many people and they say, "Outrageous!" But they don't actually go and look at it. And I've tried where possible to look and see before I pass judgement.

Manhunt 2, I think I saw with the BBFC and I think they were probably right and I think there are some games which are quite plainly out there. GTA… I don't have any great problem with. Plainly it's only suitable for adults, but in many ways because games are more cartoon-like, are more animated than movies, I think they are a lesser threat.

And I think it is very easy to say when someone commits the most appalling crime and they own the game and then: ergo it must be the game that's caused it. I've never seen any evidence yet that playing games creates psychopaths. That's not to say that some content isn't only suitable for adults and we shouldn't make sure that people underage don't have access to it. I think that's common sense. But it's very easy to get hysterical.

GamesIndustry.biz One part of your speech, and perhaps The Daily Telegraph might disagree, but I thought the fact that you had been to South Korea and LA was very positive.
John Whittingdale

Oh, it's hugely valuable. I mean Korea was a complete eye-opener. The sheer numbers… there was a very interesting debate about whether if we have the kind of broadband speeds that they have there, whether or not the UK population is going to take up online role-playing games in the same way that Korea does. My own view is not, because they are from a different mindset. They have a wish to escape into an alternative reality world, which may be less important here.

But a quarter of a million people playing this extraordinarily banal game, CrazyRacing KartRider. It's bizarre. At least the ones that exist here. Again, I've not played World of Warcraft or anything. But it is a bit more sophisticated.

GamesIndustry.biz Now that you've seen these other countries is there one particular country or system which you will consider using as a model for the UK? Or is it just a case of taking the best elements from multiple areas?
John Whittingdale

Every government is wrestling with the same challenges and they are very, very new. We did a particular inquiry into protecting vulnerable people from harmful content. We've had a lot of time talking about child abuse and the government here has now set-up the UK council on Internet safety and that's wrestling with the PEGI/BBFC issue. People have adopted different models. We looked at the American model, we looked… I have been to Japan and I've been to Canada. There are lessons to be learned from all those jurisdictions. And I think we are better at some things but equally that's not to say that we can't get a lot better.

GamesIndustry.biz There are also the French tax reliefs and they had the curious requirement that they be culturally relevant.
John Whittingdale

That's France! France is completely obsessed with this. All their public policies in creative industries are about promoting the French language.

GamesIndustry.biz But then again it's not necessarily obvious, even to people that play games, that so many titles are actually developed in the UK. Many gamers are likely to be surprised to find out that GTA IV - one of the most successful games of the moment - is actually British-made.
John Whittingdale

But that's always been the case. If you look at the other industry that I've spent a lot of time on - which is the film industry - if you list the films that have been made in Britain, people would never believe you. Films like Star Wars, Alien and Superman and Batman. I mean those are British films.

GamesIndustry.biz From a government perspective?
John Whittingdale

Well, they were made in Pinewood. But if you were a cinema-goer, there is no obvious British content in them at all. They were made here and something like both film making and games development is an intensely mobile business and they will go where the environment is the most attractive and also where the skills are. And the reason the film industry has done so well is that we have extraordinarily skilled post production, sound engineers, cameramen and all the rest. And the last time I went to Pinewood they were making the Bourne Supremacy and Sweeney Todd.

Now, Sweeney Todd at least was set in London, even though it was a hundred years ago, but the Bourne Identity… I watched a scene in New York being filmed. And so both films and games, there might not be any sign that they have any UK relevance, but they are made here because we have the skills. Now that's what we have to preserve.

GamesIndustry.biz One last question, do you genuinely think there is any chance of UK tax breaks in the near future?
John Whittingdale

I think that it is not impossible. The trouble is now, obviously we have the economic climate, but you've also got a government… well, you've got new ministers. I mean one of the things that must be most frustrating for anyone in your industry, or indeed any of the creative industries, is that you spend a year or more briefing and getting ministers up to speed and then they've gone. And you've now got a completely new Secretary of State, a completely new minister, and neither of them have had any experience in this area and you're back to square one.

But the argument I think is a strong one. And actually, and I'm bound to say this because I'm a Tory, but I think the Conservatives have been talking to the industry for some time and they are pretty much sympathetic to the arguments, so you know maybe there's good change to come.

GamesIndustry.biz So will you hope to see some sort of announcement from a new Tory government?
John Whittingdale

Oh yes, well I would certainly hope so. I mean I'm not a front bench spokesman but I think it's a strong case.

John Whittingdale OBE MP is the vice-chairman of the all-party Parliamentary group on videogames. Interview by David Jenkins.

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