Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

OK Computer: Video Games Are Selling Well despite the Recession, but Is the Government Taking This Thriving Industry Seriously Enough?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

OK Computer: Video Games Are Selling Well despite the Recession, but Is the Government Taking This Thriving Industry Seriously Enough?

Article excerpt

The recession has hit the creative industries, for years an important element of New Labour's vision for a post-industrial economy, and hit hard. Its effect on established areas such as television and print media has been particularly brutal. Yet video games have quietly gone from strength to strength. Last year, worldwide retail sales of games rose to $32bn (overtaking those of DVD and Blu-ray), with many of the most exciting titles coming out of UK studios.

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Grand Theft Auto IV, developed by the Edinburgh-based Rockstar North and released last year, has a filmic level of involvement with its gangster characters and plot. The dizzyingly pretty futuristic racer Wipeout comes from SCE Studio Liverpool. And down in Guildford, Media Molecule has created LittleBigPlanet--an endearingly crafty-looking game that opens up development tools to players, allowing them to build their own levels. But some figures in the industry fear that a combination of limited government support and diluted educational standards will deprive Britain of the talent on which video games depend.

"Things have been left to slide," says David Braben from Frontier, developer of the Roller-Coaster Tycoon series. "And that is concerning for many reasons. You never know, we might have a different government in a year's time." Does he think a different party in power would be more receptive? "Oh, yes. Couldn't be less!"

In Canada, a system of tax breaks for games developers has helped to establish a successful industry. Braben estimates that, for a cost of half a billion pounds, the Canadian government has secured three times as much in inward investment. As long as similar breaks remain unavailable in the UK, he argues, the domestic industry will fall behind its international competitors, and the most successful and talented studios and individuals will be drawn overseas.

Meanwhile, Braben worries that changes to the university system intended to expand access have led to a proliferation of high-volume, low-quality games degrees--he describes it as a "bums on seats" attitude. His concerns are supported by figures from Skillset, the sector skills council for creative media, which found that only 31 per cent of students on specialist games courses went on to employment within the games industry. "A number of courses have come up with 'computer games' in the title, and fundamentally that was done without consultation of our industry, teaching completely the wrong things, because [the subject] was perceived as easy to teach. The tragedy there is, if our industry doesn't take them, no other industry is likely to, either," says Braben.

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One of the problems for the games industry in making its case has been the persistently negative attitude towards its work at different levels of government. When Change4Life (a health campaign aimed at families in England) was launched, one of the images chosen to illustrate bad habits was of a wall-eyed child, slumped with a games controller in hand. …

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