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Punched Out?

The British Government's claim to champion digital and creative industries rings very hollow

This week, as the United States went through the extraordinary political theatre surrounding the approval of President Obama's economic stimulus package, the UK has been watching a rather more low-key economic storyline unfolding as senior bankers and politicians are hauled up in front of government committees to explain their role in the financial crisis.

This morning, it was the turn of Prime Minister Gordon Brown to take the hot-seat, explaining firstly his actions during the lead-up to and blossoming of the crisis, and latterly, his plans to avert economic disaster for the nation.

Other than the obvious macro-economic interest which most of us will hold towards this spectacle, one thing in Brown's testimony struck me as being extremely interesting from a videogames industry perspective. As I watched the Prime Minister talk about economic stimulus and strong British industries which would help to lead us out of recession, he spoke repeatedly about Britain's digital industries and its creative industries, championing them as exactly the sort of businesses which would stave off the worst effects of the downturn.

In any other circumstance, the videogames industry should rightly assume that it was included fully in Brown's praise and promises of support. Instead, I suspect, any fellow BBC Parliament addicts in the industry viewed the whole exercise with a heavy dose of cynicism, anger and possibly even resignation.

In the past decade, the British games development sector has acquired a tagline which, like the best Hollywood movie taglines, has become inseparable from that which it describes. It's been said so many times at conferences, in meetings, in interviews and in speeches that "punches above its weight" is a phrase that has become ingrained in our understanding of UK development.

At the outset, this phrase was an expression of pride. Here we have a development sector in a country much smaller than rivals like the United States or Japan, but whose games have consistently ranked among the world's most popular. In recent years, however, the same phrase has become an expression of fragility. Certainly, the sector continues to punch well above its weight; yet the very strain of doing so, it's implied, means that the sector needs support or it may well be unable to continue.

It's not that game development is an industry under threat. Around the world, the games industry continues to grow apace. Team sizes on top games have expanded at an extraordinary pace in the past five years, sales are up, and the diversity of projects and audiences we see today would simply have been unimaginable only ten years ago. The future of videogames as a vibrant, profitable creative industry is simply not in question.

Britain, however, is an increasingly difficult place to develop a videogame. In order to build a game on these shores, one must be willing to ignore the huge incentives offered by other governments around the world. In Canada, tax incentives can lop huge sums off the cost of developing a game. Further afield in countries like Singapore or cities like Shanghai, a labyrinthine system of incentives and tax breaks, combined with low costs, make development hugely appealing.

For years, Britain's government muttered vaguely about the European Union preventing such tax breaks from being applied here. Then France went and did it - with the EU's blessing. Subsequently, the government decided that it would appeal to the World Trade Organisation for a halt to Canada's incentives, an appeal which ended up on the rocks this month and which apparently had no legal leg to stand on from the outset.

Gordon Brown's championing of the digital and creative industries - sectors which game development stands astride, one foot firmly in each camp - deserves to be met with utter cynicism, because under his administration as Chancellor and latterly as Prime Minister, his government has done absolutely nothing to provide economic assistance to the videogames sector. Feeble excuse has been piled upon feeble excuse, while the nation's rivals have built economic incentives that have allowed them to grow videogame development sectors almost from scratch - while Britain's plucky boxer, after punching above its weight for so many years, threatens to hit the mat.

In the spirit of fairness, it's worth noting that Brown's sins are sins of omission rather than sins of commission. Labour has done nothing to actually harm the games sector; it has simply done nothing, while international rivals have worked hard on their own offerings. In a non-economic sense, too, Labour hasn't been bad for the industry at all; this administration is the first to strongly recognise the cultural relevance of videogames, which have been strongly defended in the House of Commons on more than one occasion.

Despite the welcome comments from junior Conservative politician Ed Vaizey this week - he quite rightly blasted the government for "dithering" over its fiscal policy on the creative industries - one shudders to think what the Conservative party, in power, might have done to videogames. Extremely negative statements on the medium have been made by the party's most senior politicians, party leader David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson; Labour, at least, seems willing to pay lipservice to games culturally, even if it's been utterly useless economically.

Yet, rather than just staring at Gordon Brown talking about the creative and digital sectors on TV while unconsciously clenching and unclenching our fists, now may be just the moment to actually do something about this sorry situation.

As Britain, and the world, faces into what could be a prolonged recession, our news media is filled with tales of economic woe - which the Government tries to assuage by talking about the innovative sectors which are keeping the economy afloat despite the tough conditions.

In this climate, with an election looming ever closer on the horizon, the story of an industry with huge growth prospects, a truly British tale of creativity, innovation and passion, which is being smothered by Government apathy, can be a powerful political tool. It could give the lie to the Government's claims, or give it a chance to prove them; either way, the games industry could finally get what it so desperately needs, and Britain's fantastic developers could get a chance to keep punching above their weight for many more years.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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