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The Culture Question

The Digital Britain report proposes tax relief for "culturally British" games - but what does that mean?

Making Britain Digital

It was the news the UK games industry craved. Buried away on page 129 of the mammoth Digital Britain report, but nevertheless there in black and white for all to see: a government pledge to "review the evidence for tax relief" for UK games development.

The culmination of a long, exhausting campaign nobly spearheaded by ELSPA and TIGA, the report flatters effusively: "[Games] may in future have a cultural relevance to rival that of film".

But in truth, with a turnover in 2008 of GBP 4.034 billion, it's evidence that Gordon Brown and crew have finally woken up to the important - and growing - contribution the games industry makes to the UK economy. And suggests a belated realisation that a lack of competitiveness has been driving talent and development out of the UK to countries like Canada, which has been offering tax incentives to games companies, and tempting away British talent, for years. Well, we did say.

So, hooray for that. Now, how will it work and who will be eligible? And here's where it gets interesting. For the report adds that tax relief would be made available to "culturally British videogames".

Testing for Culture

At first scan, it could almost be a new slogan from our embattled Prime Minister: "British games for British gamers!". But with no further explanation in the report, what does "culturally British" actually mean? The truth is, no-one outside of government really knows for sure yet.

However, there is a well-established 'Culture Test' used in the film industry for determining tax relief eligibility that provides the obvious model. So, I've been scouring the small print of the UK Film Council's guideline documents to find out what the games industry should expect.

A film can qualify as "British" by meeting one of three criteria, the one relevant to games being the 'Culture Test', which was established as part of the Film Act 1985. Additionally, to qualify for tax relief, it's essential that "a minimum of 25 per cent of costs must be spent on UK qualifying production expenditure." In other words, a quarter of the money blown on making it must have gone direct into the UK economy.

Points Win... Prizes?

The test itself operates on a points based system in which a film needs to score 16 points out of 31 to pass. This is split into four separate areas: cultural content; cultural contribution; cultural hubs; and cultural practitioners. I'll deal with each one in turn.

Cultural content's straightforward enough. If it's set in Britain, based on "British themes", the lead cast are British and the dialogue's in a British language, then you'll be rolling in points. For videogames, titles like The Getaway, or the Project Gotham Racing series - both of which accurately mapped London - would surely qualify.

Additionally, in the guidelines small print it says this: "A film that is set in a fictionalised version of the UK will be considered to be set in the UK. However, a film set in a purely fictional setting will not be treated as set in the UK." Substitute that for games, and the Albion of Fable II, the sci-fi Liverpool and Hull of Resistance, and the idealised country retreat of Lara Croft would all likely pass.

It's worth noting that the four points available for each category in 'cultural content' operate on a percentage scale. If 100 percent of a film is set in the UK, it gets four points; if only 25 per cent is, it scores a single point. Going back to The Getaway and Gotham, it would be reasonable to expect Sony's title to scoop maximum points, whereas Bizarre Creation's racer - which features locations across the world - would score closer to the minimum.

Taking the Lead

For 'lead character', Lara's claim is self-evident; and so too, surely, would Henry Hatsworth's, the monocled, moustachioed, bowler-hat wearing cliché in EA's charming DS platform puzzler. But what would happen in a game where you select the nationality of the hero?

And it gets murkier when you consider something like, say, football games. If a quarter of the teams, leagues and stadia in the game are British, would that count for a point? And what of tone? Take Rare's Banjo-Kazooie - there's nothing remotely "British" about its fantasy setting; but the script and humour are as quintessentially English as pork scratchings.

'Cultural contribution' is measured in terms of making, yes, a cultural contribution "over and above" that covered by 'content'. Heritage is key. As the film test guidance states: "Britain's cultural heritage is an important determinant of the British national identity. It is therefore important to preserve British cultural heritage on screen for audiences of the present and the future."

From that, one would assume the never-ending waves of WWII games featuring British forces would all qualify for a points payday.

Meaning Comes From Difference

Diversity is also rewarded here in film. "We are recognising," say the film guidelines, "and attaching value to those aspects or dimensions of self and/or community identity relating to gender, ethnicity or national origins, religion or belief, age, sexuality, disability, social and economic background."

Now, as a medium videogames could hardly be described as a socially progressive form of entertainment. Although the inclusion of gay relationships in Fable 2 would be a strong candidate for reward. And would a title produced specifically to attract a diverse audience qualify?

Interestingly, the film test also recognises diversity on the production side. "Much has, for example, been written on the issue of the lack of women as directors, and the differing perspectives and sensibilities that women as directors bring to film." If this rationale is applied to gaming, then you'd expect teams with a female lead, or high proportion of female staff, to be duly rewarded. SingStar, when headed by Paulina Bozek (now of Atari), would be an obvious candidate. And what of female lead characters? Does Lara Croft promote diversity, or soft-porn for horny teenage boys?

Finally, we have 'cultural hub', which is all to do with where the game is made and who is making it. For film, two points are granted if 50 percent of shooting, production and visual effects work is carried out in the UK. Meanwhile, there's another point if half of the audio recording and production is done here.

For team members, there's a point each for director, scriptwriter, producer, lead actor and composer, and further points for 'key staff', 'majority of staff' and 'majority of crew'. Given the international, multicultural nature of much UK games development, it's important to note that in film, you are eligible if your nationality is that of an EU country, not just British. Residency, marriage and house ownership don't count; dual nationality does, as long as one is EU-based.

So, that's how it works for film and how it might work in games. It's all speculation for now, of course, and it seems certain that a points system would need to be adapted and tailored to the specifics of videogames production. But don't be surprised if much of this is repeated.

For a games company, the prize of passing the "culturally British" test is all too clear. In film productions costing up to GBP 20 million, up to 25 per cent can be claimed. Over GBP 20 million, it's 20 per cent, such as this example.

But is it What Was Needed?

Most people I've spoken in the past couple of days welcome the review on tax relief and the parity it would bring with film. But not everyone is thrilled by the suggested terms.

"As far as I'm concerned there's absolutely nothing the current UK government will ever do that will elicit any amount of praise from me," insisted Nic Garner, MD of independent UK studio Eclipse Interactive.

"If the government's going to give the games industry a tax break (and goodness knows it's long overdue), it should, just for once, simply do that. Don't wrap it up in conditions, provisos, and make-believe means tests. I for one have got more than enough to do just building games and making it from one month to the next without having to jump through even more unnecessary hoops."

It's a sentiment many struggling studios may share. Ignoring the fact the very notion of a "culturally British" game feels slightly absurd in itself, the government will no doubt hope this results in the creation of more "British" games it can proudly champion, as it does with British films. And in their desperation for a long-desired perk, will game makers oblige?

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Johnny Minkley


Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.