framed still
Type
Polemic
Category
the arts

Beyond startups: supporting Australian videogame culture

In late January, the federal government finally published their response to the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communication’s inquiry into the Future of the Australian Video Game Development Industry. The Inquiry’s report was published over a year and nine months earlier, and Communication Minister Mitch Fifield himself had promised to table a response by the end of 2017 after pressure from the Greens. The Australian game industry’s reaction to the government response has been primarily one of frustration. While many senate inquiries receive no response at all, and the Abbott and Turnbull governments have never shown interest in supporting Australian videogame developers, the response nevertheless disappointed a burgeoning industry that has long struggled for recognition.

Of the committee’s eight unanimous, cross-party recommendations, the government response merely ‘notes’ five, ‘does not support’ two, and ‘supports in principle’ one recommendation – although they stress that it is not the government’s responsibility to implement it. No tangible promises are made; instead, the government points repeatedly to its National Science and Innovation Agency (NISA) as already providing all the initiatives the game industry has asked for, despite these initiatives in no way targeting the particular challenges of videogame development. Essentially, the government washes its hands of the Australian videogame industry. It wasn’t the tax breaks, direct funding, or even the basic acknowledgement that many in the industry had hoped for.

The story of Australia’s post-GFC videogame industry has been told in several places by this point, but a quick recap: in the 2000s, Australia had a relatively healthy industry working primarily in a ‘fee-for-hire’ model for North American publishers. Lured by the cheap Australian dollar, American publishers would outsource the heavy lifting (but rarely the creative authorship) of their blockbuster console games to Australian studios, not unlike how the clothing industry and telcos outsource manufacturing and customer service labour to the Global South. When the Global Financial Crisis struck and the Australian and American dollars hit parity, there was no longer a financial reason for these foreign companies to keep their studios in Australia open, and the closures came hard and fast. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the domestic game industry shrunk from 1431 employees to 581 between 2007 and 2012.

At the same time, however, the number of businesses in the industry nearly doubled from 45 to 84. The industry effectively recreated itself, pivoting away from the foreign corporation dependent fee-for-service model towards a grassroots – one of small, independent studios releasing original intellectual property for digital (especially mobile) platforms. In late 2012, in recognition of the potential of this reformed industry, the Rudd government set up the Australian Interactive Games Fund: a $20 million investment scheme that would help many of these small, independents studios negotiate the early risks and costs of creative projects without a publisher safety net. However, the fund was one of Abbott’s victims in his brutal first budget, with half the funds unused. The next year, the Abbott government also explicitly excluded ‘interactive games’ from their rebranded arts funding. The paths of support that were open to Australian creators in other fields were shut off for game developers.

In spite of the government’s neglect, the industry has stubbornly continued not so much to ‘bounce back’ but to grow in radically new directions. A survey released earlier this year by the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association (IGEA) of Australia reports the industry now employs 928 people. This new industry is a complex ecology of small-to-medium-sized studios and co-working spaces, individuals and fluid collectives, students, hobbyists, artists, and videogame developers embedded in non-creative sectors. One might argue that the federal government was right to remove funding, if the industry is doing fine regardless, but it is telling that over a third of the industry is situated in Melbourne, the capital of the only state to introduce its own funding to compensate for the axed federal fund. Queensland, South Australian, and Tasmanian governments have more recently introduced their own initiatives.

In the industry itself, there is a sense that developers are ‘doing it tough’, that a lot of individuals are putting in immense amounts of work and effort to build a sustainable, homegrown industry that meaningfully contributes to Australian culture and the economy, and that this work is barely recognised by the state. This sense of neglect is evidenced in the IGEA survey where, for multiple years in a row, participants have highlighted ‘Lack of government support and understanding’ as the number one challenge facing the industry. This battler identity is also mobilised by the IGEA and the broader Australian game industry. The press release that accompanied the above survey was titled: ‘Australian game developers march on, generating $118.5 million in spite of limited recognition and support.’ Despite your best efforts to ignore us, we’re still here and we’re growing.

As such, when the Greens announced the Senate Inquiry in mid-2015, there was a sense of optimism that the recognition so many Australian developers had become so invested in might be finally on its way. The industry responded to the inquiry with gusto, with 111 written submissions and public hearings in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. Hopes were heightened further when the committee unanimously, across party lines, passed the final recommendations – which included reinstating the Interactive Games Fund. At last, it seemed, the recognition was coming.

Hence the exasperated shock of crushed expectations when the government released its brusque response. Some developers we have spoken to this past week didn’t really expect the fund to be re-implemented, but did have hopes for a refundable tax offset (one of the recommendations that the government ‘did not support’). Others commented that they expected no tangible support from this government, but were still shocked by the sense of a dismissal of the entire industry.

A common response to the government’s lack of interest in the game industry is to remark that this is ironic considering the Turnbull government’s slogans of innovation and entrepreneurship. If one were really interested in a more innovative Australia looking to the ‘jobs of the future’, then surely one would want to grow a videogame industry capable of developing new technologies, better digital literacies, and participating in a global game industry now worth over $100 billion.

However, it’s exactly this positioning of videogames as part of a broader technological entrepreneurship that allows the government to so easily dismiss the industry in their response. The government washes its hands of the videogame industry by repeatedly drawing attention to existing initiatives that, they claim, already support the videogame industry, including the NISA, the Incubator Support element of the Entrepreneurs’ Programme, and tax incentives to direct investors towards ‘high-potential startups’. However, none of these initiatives directly address the particular challenges and issues facing the game industry as not just a technology industry but a creative industry.

This is the crux of videogames’ funding struggle. Certainly, videogames emerged out of science and technology university departments and, more broadly, a growing interest in digital computing throughout the twentieth century. Certainly, the videogame industry is capable of innovating in the area of new technologies and is often a hotbed for technologies that are later taken up by other sectors, most recently virtual and augmented reality. And certainly, videogames are often where people (especially young people) first encounter many of the skills and capabilities required for tomorrow’s workforce. But none of this is to suggest that videogames are merely a subset of a broader technology industry.

The government’s narrow understanding of videogames as ‘technology’ was already clear in their earlier exclusion of games from arts program funding. But we see it repeated here in their response to the committee’s first recommendation: ‘the games and interactive entertainment sector is constantly innovating as its audience wants highly technically advanced products.’ This is certainly true for those core, most-visible niches of blockbuster console videogame companies, but hardly true for the majority of Australian videogame developers, who are producing clever, acclaimed, and innovative but not particularly ‘technically advanced’ videogames for a casual mobile market.

Videogames are not just a form of technology. Videogames are creative media. Videogames are art. Videogames are popular culture. Videogames are no more reducible to ‘digital technological innovation’ than cinema is to ‘camera technology innovation’. As an industry, videogame developers have unique challenges not fully accounted for in the economic lens of ‘startups’. Creative products do not have a predetermined economic value, and creative labour is often messy and difficult to account for. It is not as simple as calculating how much investment will produce how much profit. Instead, it is a question of what contributions are being made to develop a sustainable component of Australian creative culture that is capable of building our cultural identity through homegrown content in addition to creating jobs and exporting Australian intellectual properties.

A strong, sustainable domestic videogame industry would be capable of contributing to broader technology innovations through skill transferability, building entrepreneurial capabilities in young people, and making a larger contribution to the Australian economy more generally. But this does not mean the videogame industry can simply be folded into a broader ‘technology industries’ category and forgotten about. These technological and economic benefits will only be achieved if the Australian games industry is adequately supported as a component of Australia’s technical and creative sectors, alongside and just as deserving of respect and support as Australian cinema and music.

There’s a cultural argument to be made here, too. As television emerged as the dominant media form through the last half of the 20th Century, countries like Australia implemented policies (with varying degrees of success) to ensure and support a minimum amount of Australian produced content to ensure Australian culture and Australian creators weren’t completely swamped out by North American productions. Considering 67% of Australians play videogames (and 76% of Australian children), one would think the government would feel a similar imperative today to ensure Australians were producing Australian content for this increasingly dominant media form of the twenty-first century.

There’s little value in trying to convince the large North American publishers back to Australian shores, in rebuilding a fee-for-service industry set to collapse all over again the next time the Australian dollar rises. Yet, those larger publishers did provide some advantages that an industry comprised solely of small startups struggle to access: a safety net for risktaking and ambitious projects, greater employment numbers and graduate programs, better intergenerational skill transfer. Without access to these advantages, the Australian game industry, despite its stoic efforts, will continue to struggle to grow. Government support such as the Interactive Games Fund could provide that safety net to allow more homegrown studios expand to a size where they can take more risks, foster more skills, and continue to make both technical and cultural innovations.

 

Image: still from Australian-developed game, Framed.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Brendan Keogh is a Discovery Early Career Research Fellow in the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology.

John Banks is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication and researcher in the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology.

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