The suggestion of tax breaks for the UK games industry has been something of a ten pound note on a thread of cotton, yanked away just about every time the industry thinks it can reach for it. The plans are yet again being looked at, promised to appear next Spring, and this time with the rather peculiar suggestion that projects should be measured to see if they’re “culturally British”. Huh.
There is a much larger debate to be had over the merits of tax breaks for any industry, including games. Last month Osborne announced more tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, in the hope of encouraging future investment from that oh-so struggling industry, and we don’t tend to look too fondly upon it. But we like games, right! They deserve a break! Or they don’t. And that’s a debate for someone a lot more informed about the intricacies of tax and the economy than I. So putting that aside, let’s take a look at the oddity that is the latest round of consultation on gaming’s will-they-won’t-they relationship with the HMRC.
According to the BBC, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (because they’re all the same thing, right?) is “proposing a test to identify ‘culturally British’ games.” This mimics a similar rule for the grey drear-fest that is the British Film Industry, ensuring that everything we create here is about a poor boy who makes good despite being poor, while his gran dies/the Queen. And Simon Pegg.
The plan is, it seems, to introduce a test. A test that measures a project’s “cultural value”, and thus whether it’s British enough to qualify for tax breaks. Breaks that should be, but of course might not be, introduced in April next year. But I have one teensy weensy question. What the heck is “British culture”?
The United Kingdom looks increasingly likely to be snapped in two in the near future, and even if it stays united, it’s impossible not to notice how culturally different the countries within the union can be. And indeed, when you remove the top and left-hand bits, you’re left with a country that’s cultural identity is the constant subject of debate, if not complete bemusement. Entire books have been written pointing out that England doesn’t have a distinct, identifiable culture, but rather is an eclectic lucky-dip of influences, themes and flavours, both integrating and conflicting in equal measure. It’s a country without a national anthem, national dress, national food… So just what exactly is considered culturally British enough for a game to receive these benefits?
Certainly not Grand Theft Auto, as created by Scottish-based Rockstar. One of the biggest game series in the world comes from the UK, but is distinctly set in a perspective of American culture. Or how about struggling Codemasters and their Formula 1 series? You could make one heck of an argument that F1 has many British roots, but you could equally counter it’s an international sport. Are Worms culturally British? Has Batman ever popped over to Birmingham?
While I’m certain that studios like Firefly (Stronghold), Revolution (Broken Sword) and even Jim’s own Big Robot are high-fiving the sky at the news, it strikes me as a deeply peculiar measure for what is supposed to be a means to encouraging more investment in the UK, when you’re excluding anything that doesn’t measure up to the spurious notion of Britishness. Especially when that excludes, well, the popular ones.
I don’t know your views on the UK film industry, clearly. And perhaps you love nothing more than costume dramas and films about people dying of cancer in run down estates. But good grief, I don’t want British games to be financially dragged into the same monotonously grey world of faux-high-brow drear. And if a tax break is something the industry deserves (and I still don’t understand why or how that works – other than it stops publishers moving studios to other countries that do have them), I really don’t want it to mean everyone is caught trying to chase the ethereal confusion of “British”. I want games about long-lost realms and spaceships and hard-boiled noir detectives and mad gardens and angry wolves.
Let me interject here. Hi, sorry, I’m Counter-John, and John’s made a mistake in his rant. There’s a good side to this idea too. Because if you look at what British culture actually is – if you acknowledge it as that lucky-dip of integration and conflict – then this test also brings in the possibility of gaming involving topics that are woefully ignored by the industry. Games that acknowledge the existence of multiple faiths, cultural clashes and integration, delve into the rich seams of British literature, and yes, heck, even acknowledge the concept of a rich/poor divide. Games that innovate on the themes of Shakespeare, games that explore British myth beyond that of King Arthur, games that recognise that Muslim people aren’t only for shooting at. While the other John has a good point about this scheme seemingly needlessly excluding many interesting and profitable projects, it also could have the effect of driving gaming into areas that are usually left unexplored.
Or of course it could mean we get more third-person action games set in castles. So what do you think? Is this a positive move? A silly gimmick? A way of ensuring they don’t lose tax money from the biggest established UK publishers? Many thanks to Luke Worthington.