At last, the UK government has declared that it will consider providing tax breaks for the UK games industry. This mini breakthrough is the result of long, hard campaigning from developers and industry bodies. The news comes as part of the Digital Britain report released in June, which is peppered with quotes praising the industry: "[Games] may in future have a cultural relevance to rival that of film." But it may not all be good news, as the tax breaks could come wrapped in a British Culture test, which will change the shape of games produced in the UK.
For years, Canada's generous tax breaks for games companies have tempted British talent away, leaving a vacuum in the UK's development industry. The games industry's contribution to the UK economy, combined with the loss of talent to other countries led the call for tax breaks and at last it looks like it could be coming. However, the report also said that it would be looking at implementing an eligibility test that would only grant tax relief to "culturally British videogames."
The UK Film Council would provide the model for the proposed test. Currently, British films must qualify in one of three fields to gain tax relief through the UK Film Council, these include co-production and ‘The Cultural Test.' Simply put, following this model, games would have to display a degree of Britishness in terms of subject, diversity, language and production. I was buoyed by this news, but it seems much of the industry feedback sees the Cultural Test as a series of unnecessary hoops to jump through.
I'm excited by the prospect of seeing more of British culture in games. So I took a look at the ins and outs of the current Culture Test UK films have to pass and how it could translate to games.
In order to pass, films must get 16 points out of a possible 31. The Culture Test is split into four major divisions: Cultural content, cultural contribution, cultural hubs and cultural practitioners. The most important, or point-rich sector is Cultural Content, which can potentially award a full 16 points. If a game is set in the UK for 75% of the film it will get four points, this goes down incrementally until one point is awarded for 25% of the film being set in the UK. Similarly, two or more of the characters must be British citizens or residents to gain four points. So for instance, Lara Croft would get a full four points for being British through and through, but the Tomb Raider games would score less for setting as she trots after treasures around the globe.
A game like Fable would score big in the points department. Not only is it set in the UK (it may be fictional, but it still counts), but it offers clearly British characters and they all speak English. Add to that the fact that Lionhead is a British development company, which means many of the team could be from inside the European Economic Area (EEA), and that could be 12 points right off the bat.
Recognising British culture, heritage and creativity gets you a full four points, so a Battle of Britain game could score high, while Ninja Galaxy Wars may not. However, the industry's propensity for plundering other media such as books and films could work for them, but only if they can figure out how to translate Jane Austen or Slumdog Millionaire into button-mashing mayhem.
It's not just the end product that needs to be British, the Culture Test also looks at the number of key staff that are from the UK and the EEA. One point is awarded for every eligible lead actor, key staff member, such as lead costume designer and director. In addition, points are awarded for films that represent the cultural diversity of Britain, whether that's ethnicity, religion, disability, gender and the list goes on. This doesn't have to be onscreen, but could mean a production with a female director gets an extra point. This could be an exciting inclusion for the games industry, encouraging more diversity within development and hence changing what ends up on our consoles and PCs.
If we do herald the introduction of The Culture Test for games, it could inject something fresh into UK games. I'm sure we'll get more titles like the Getaway, but hopefully we'll also see more of South Asian and Afro-Caribbean culture in games too.
Our games won't feature revert-to-type-American accents or manga styling. It will be exciting to see iconic British games to rival The Italian Job, 28 Days Later or Hot Fuzz. Okay, so not much cultural diversity in any of those titles, but The Culture Test is going to get creative teams thinking in a different way and that can only be a good thing if they produce games that reflect their own culture as opposed to aping other people's.