My ideas for the edinbugh games festival:
an open letter to the industry:
Context: Computer Games Culture and Economy
In the past two decades Computer games or “Interactive Leisure Software” developed from a niche leisure acitivity into a global cultural phenomenon and economic sector. As children, teenagers and adults spend more time playing computer games on their consoles and PCs, global industry turnover in the computer games industry has come to exceed that of the international theatrical film industry.
Computer games have become more engaging as well as demanding a more complex understanding from parents, governments, players and the industry alike. Gaming is a pervasive leisure activity with games consoles and personal computers often being based in children’s rooms – it is therefore, similar to television, difficult to control by parents or government. While the narrative of computer games so far has often been based on linear stories from film and television, games developers are working on creating new modes of play that will in the future be linked to a multitude of narratives from a diverse range of media scapes. Moreover, the increased Internet-connectivity of new consoles and personal computers have introduced multi-player scenarios, where the so far solitary activity of gaming is replaced with interaction between different players from different locations. Gaming, therefore, has developed into an interactive mass media activity and it is vital to understand this phenomenon from a cultural, social and economic perspective.
According to a report – published on behalf of the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) – the latest official figures show that UK-based games companies recorded a positive balance of trade close to £200m. The UK games industry now employs 22,000 people – up 7.5 per cent on 2000.
In the UK, there are two sides to the computer games industry. While foreign companies run growing UK branches which are commercially streamlined and managed on the basis of economic rationale, the independent sector is a “Cottage Industry”. Independent developers create computer games due to their interest in gaming and often dismiss or lack business skills such as financial management or project management. As is the case in other creative industry sectors, the result of this is a slow decline of independent production activity in the UK. While the industry at large is thriving, major games publishers prefer to develop their games in-house or increasingly commission developers outside the UK. As a result, British independent games output shrunk by 6 per cent in the past 4 years. The independent games developers association TIGA has therefore called for more government interest in developing the industry, by for example, offering location incentives for developers in the UK.
3. The Idea of a National Games Institute
Along with the growing significance of computer gaming in the UK – both with regards to its cultural impact on society as well as regarding its economic importance to UK plc. – emerges the need to facilitate a multitude of relationships, support programmes and information exchanges. For example:
· As government learns about the economic promise of a thriving games sector it needs to understand how best to support the industry;
· Independent developers require up-skilling in many areas ranging from basic management skills to learning about newest industry trends in the UK and abroad;
· Computer games is a new industry that requires investment and support services;
· Global publishers and small developers require a forum that facilitates information exchange between the two groups; and
· Children, parents, government and companies all need to better understand how players interact with computer games content.
In short, in the games sector, there is a real argument to be made for the establishment of an institution similar to the British Film Institute or the Design Council – organisations which foster sector culture and advance the understanding and literacy of industry practitioners, government and citizens. Moreover, as recently established media support organisations such as FACT in Liverpool have increasingly started to gap the bridge between cultural support and business support, there is an argument to be made for equipping a “Games Institute” with business and management support and training remit.
In the UK, the games industry is not primarily based in London but in the UK regions and nations. The East-Midlands, East Anglia and the West-Midlands all boost an impressive list of computer games companies. This uncommon decentralisation of the sector provides a chance to establish a sector support organisation with national reach and ambition in one of the nations and regions and to support government’s drive to foster economic and cultural development outside the capital.