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The Politics of Play

Highlights from the recent select committee meeting about the UK games industry.

Earlier this month, Eidos's Ian Livingstone and ELSPA director general Paul Jackson gave evidence at a meeting of the parliamentary select committee for culture, media and sports.

Here, we present edited highlights of the transcript from the meeting. The topics discussed include the issues of games with violent content and game addiction, the threat posed by markets such as Korea and China, the future of distribution and the importance of protecting intellectual property - read on to find out more.


Chairman John Whittingdale MP (Conservative, Maldon and East Chelmsford): We now turn to a specific sector of the creative industries being the electronic games industry, which is of growing importance to the UK... Adam Price?

Adam Price MP (Plaid Cymru, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr): Are you confident that the UK games sector will be able to withstand the growing competition and particularly expansion from Korean firms, and maybe Chinese, into the European market?

Ian Livingstone: My experience, having visited Korea, is that Government in particular took a very early interest and viewed the industry very positively. In fact, there are three Government agencies that support the industry and they offer support in trade shows, in education, and in helping change the perception of games, which has always been fundamentally negative, in this country particularly.

They also work with the telephone companies in the mobile games sector to make sure that they understand their role, which is a pipeline rather than a content owner. In fact, you can pay micro payments on the mobile phone network in Korea using your social security number for very small amounts of money.

There has been a very positive reaction from the government in Korea, much more so than there has been in this country. They have also invested heavily in broadband infrastructure for video on demand and everything on demand, including games.

They have a desire for it to succeed and, of course, they are now exporting their content worldwide, primarily through on-line distribution. Massively multiplayer on-line games have been very successful in Korea and in the whole of Asia.

The world is a small place when it is linked by broadband. There is a threat from Korea but we can withstand it because we are very good at creating content, but we have never had the support I think we should have had.

Adam Price: To what extent is there some degree of offshoring happening in the UK industry?

Paul Jackson: I think we are starting to see an amount of outsourcing and we have seen some of the major publishers translocate to other locations, but fundamentally I think your question is about competitiveness.

We need constant more and better graduates; we need better courses in our universities to ensure that we can continue to create wonderful content. We need better protection of the products that we are making, better protection of the IP so that it is not constantly stolen from us, which causes problems and does not allow us to reinvest.

Mike Hall MP (Labour, Weaver Vale): There is some genuine concern within the industry that videogames are affecting teenage development and personality development, and there is a genuine concern about some of the nastier aspects of some of the more violent games. What is the potential for moving this market more educationally-based?

Ian Livingstone: I think games have long been misunderstood. People do view the negatives with sensationalist headlines. They do not look at the positives because we are in the entertainment industry.

The fact is that games are creative; these people learn about community, they learn about puzzle solving, they learn about problem solving, choice and consequence, they learn about trial and error, and these things are often ignored.

Just playing a game, even a football game, you do learn about manual dexterity if nothing else. Not all games are violent games. In fact, a minority of games are violent. If you look at a game like Grand Theft Auto, which has received a lot of negative press, it is rather like judging the whole of the games industry on that game - whereas you would not judge the whole of the film industry on the back of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Games are moving through society. Whether people like it or not, they are important economically and culturally as much as music, films and television. Games are to my mind educational and they can be used as is. If you set out to make games purely educational then you are going to lose a lot of the appeal, but you can use the mechanics of what we do in education.

It is an interactive experience rather than a passive experience. The fact that you are interacting, you are the central character in a game, rather than sitting like a couch potato soaking up whatever TV or film, to me is a much more compelling and entertaining media.

Mike Hall: So you do not particularly take the view that you can design games that would aid the National Curriculum?

Ian Livingstone: I think that would be fantastic. I am all for that. The trouble is, as publishers of mainline content it is not particularly economic, but for smaller concerns I am sure there should be a way.

If there is an initiative by Government to create an environment in which to say yes, we love games and we will have them as part of the curriculum that would be fantastic.

Chairman: The Committee was in Korea and we visited Nexon, where we saw demonstrations of massively multiplayer online gaming. We were told of one game which had an average of 200,000 people playing it at any one time. They are about to launch in this country. Do you believe that there is an equal market here?

Paul Jackson: I think we do not yet know the answer to that question. The type of Western-style game playing that currently persists here does seem to be quite resilient at the moment to those types of games coming in even though there is quite a large market.

Ian Livingstone: I think they will take off in future. Korea has had a history of online games brought on partly by piracy and the fact that there is no retail market.

Secondly, the culture; they have about 25,000 Internet cafes in Korea so they are used to playing games online. I think the game you are talking about is Car Rider, which is simply a game of racing cars around, where they give that product away and they monetise it by customisation and personalisation of the driver and the car to give incremental benefits when you are playing to win.

That is where they get all their revenues from and it has been a very successful business model. In fact it has moved in Korea from a subscription-based model to a free download of content, and as we become more Internet-savvy in this country and in Europe I think there will be a great increase in that way of playing games, definitely.

Alan Keen MP (Labour, Feltham and Heston): When we went to Korea I could not believe that people did this sort of thing. What is the next stage? Will it be where people will wear something and be affected physically by what they play?

Ian Livingstone: I do not think they will actually get to wearing stuff. They might take a digital image of themselves and have their avatars in the game world, and connect with their friends via the Internet.

People are scared of games, rather like my parents were scared of my Superman comics and Rolling Stones records, but if you have grown up with games you are not threatened by them. The powers that be running this country in 20 years' time will be so games-savvy there will be a new evil on the horizon rather than games.

Paul Farrelly MP (Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme): Is there a level of use that the industry does consider excessive or addictive and what can you do about it?

Ian Livingstone: Games are addictive in the sense that anything you enjoy doing you want to repeat endlessly. It is a question of balance and parental control. I would probably play golf all day given the chance but you have got to have a balance in life, and most people do.

Paul Jackson: I think the industry takes it very seriously. We have set up a programme, Ask About Games. You can go on to that website and they give you advice about age ranges, what that means, the sensible use of games and the sensible use of computers.

Paul Farrelly: I appreciate the practical point. It is really in the lap of the parents. How, in your experience, does the industry approach enforcing age restrictions and how easy or difficult is it?

Paul Jackson: It depends what you mean by enforcing age restrictions. It is very easy for us to ensure that every game that is sold in the UK is properly age-rated and it is something we take incredibly seriously.

In terms of enforcement at shop level, most games are now sold in very professional environments and all retailers understand how the age ratings should be used.

If we have a problem, it is potentially in the theft area where car boot sales can sell anything unrated and unregulated to anyone they want, but I think in terms of the formal, legal commercial industry we are in good shape.

Online, we are still in relatively early stages. PEGI are working on a European age rating scheme and I am more than happy to give the Committee more information about that in the future.

Chairman: You will be aware of the concern that has been expressed in the House by some Members about the effect that particular games have had. I am thinking of Manhunter and Bully. To what extent does the industry believe or accept that games can have a damaging effect on the psychology of young people who are exposed to inappropriate content?

Paul Jackson: Well, I am not the best person to talk about the evidential basis for those sorts of issues, but I would say that it is inappropriate for young people to see inappropriate material and they should not.

We take incredibly seriously those issues and we think age rating is incredibly important. We spend an enormous amount of time ensuring that it is done properly.

Mr Livingstone: We do take our publisher responsibilities very sincerely. We try our best to educate people, but from my awareness and knowledge there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that playing a game can affect how you behave in real life. If I could play a football game and get better at football, I would love to do that.

As long as we have got mature people buying mature content, they should be able to act responsibly.

Chairman: Can you tell us how the games industry is tackling [the issue of intellectual property rights] and in particular what role you think digital rights management has to play?

Paul Jackson: Theft is a major issue for us in two ways. Firstly, it obviously deprives us of revenues that we can reinvest in that creative content. Secondly because in a more subliminal way if what we do is not valued, if what we spend all our time and energy in creating is not protected, it knocks back the whole energy within the industry.

Probably the most important thing we can do is to come here and talk to you about what government can do to help us deal with this. I am reminded particularly of the issue of the Copyright, Design and Patents Act and section 107(a) which has not been implemented. If I understand things correctly, this law was implemented over a decade ago and this section, which would be so helpful to us in that it would empower and enforce the dealing of this issue much more vigorously, has not been implemented.

I am bemused by that, to be honest, and we would very much like to see that enacted.

Ian Livingstone: And the other thing for me is I would like Government to change the perception of theft, which is effectively what piracy is. We are moving more and more to digital distribution and it would be even more important to us to have our copyright protected. Also the Government loses huge tax revenues because we will not be getting the revenues that we should have been getting.

Chairman: Your industry at the moment is still, in the main, physical products sold through retail outlets in the high street. Do you see it also moving towards digital distribution?

Paul Jackson: We are definitely seeing a move in that direction. We would be third in line because our products are generally larger than the music and film industries, or they are getting larger, and because the technologies have not settled down yet there is some disparity.

I think that going forward, digital rights management will be very important to us being able to protect our products. I do not think we have got anything particularly constructive we can say yet because there is still such a lot of flux in terms of hardware platforms.

Chairman: If my colleagues do not have any other questions, could I thank you very much.

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Ellie Gibson

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Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.