Playing politics in the Australian games industry

Playing politics in the Australian games industry

With a successful games industry subsidy cut from the Australian federal budget, a potentially lucrative industry faces being excluded from the Turnbull Government’s innovation agenda.

In November 2012, then-Arts Minister Simon Crean announced a three year, $20 million dollar fund designed to subsidise the development of Australian videogames. Mr Crean described the fund as a “down payment”. As forecasts stated that the worldwide gaming industry was set to generate $90 billion a year, it had grown too big for the federal government to ignore. Mr Crean told Melbourne radio “Australia… has to get a slice of the action and Australia has some of the world’s best in this space.”

Beginning in 2013, the Interactive Games Fund was administered through Screen Australia. The rationale for this was that Australian companies were “coming under increased pressure in the midst of a major market shift,” Mr Crean explained.

After operating for just one year, and through a change in government, the fund met a sudden end. Originally planned to be self-sustaining after three years, it was cut by the Abbott Government in its first budget.

The Federal Opposition condemned the cutting of a scheme they introduced in office. The Shadow Attorney-General and Labor’s spokesperson for the Arts, Mark Dreyfus, told Hyper, “Labor sees the games industry as an important part of Australia’s knowledge economy and a great example of innovative technology creating jobs.”

“The Liberal government’s decision to cut the Interactive Games Fund in the 2014 budget without consultation or warning was incredibly short sighted and disappointing,” Mr Dreyfus said.

The axing of the fund shocked games companies and the tech press, as it had supported the design and development of a number of successful projects. In a Senate Estimates hearing on 20 October 2015, Screen Australia’s COO Fiona Cameron said that the axed fund had helped finance the development of “about 40 individual games.”

“A lot of these games have gone on to make a profit - millions of dollars, which is fantastic,” Ms Cameron said. “It has enabled companies to develop a slated project, retain IP in Australia and build their companies. Undoubtedly, it has created that depth.”

Screen Australia continues to support the projects previously funded under the scheme. However, the cut means that the organisation cannot extend this support to new gaming projects. As this might suggest, supporting Australia’s gaming industry is a potential investment with economic benefits that remain untapped.

As Greens Senator Scott Ludlam told Hyper, “We’re missing big opportunities.”

“The games industry is already bigger than Hollywood; and while the film industry has benefitted from a number of programs to entice international companies to Australia, the games industry has struggled on with almost no assistance.”

Senator Ludlam is an advocate for the gaming industry. His interest in videogames dates back to David Braben’s Elite, which he last played “in about 1986.” “I'm fascinated by the medium as a new artform,” he said. “These are storytelling tools that put you in the story in a new way, and I think we're only just at the beginning.”

Senator Ludlam (right) tends not to pull punches.

In June 2015, the Greens secured a Senate inquiry into Australia’s videogames industry. This will address ways that government can help the industry and how policy makers can provide more regular consideration. Senator Ludlum said that the inquiry is “in good shape.”

“We’ve had a lot of submissions from around the country that are giving a great snapshot of the state of the industry; we’re planning a hearing schedule for March 2016 and the inquiry has sparked a good amount of interest,” he said. 

The change in Australia’s leadership on 14 September 2015 would appear to justify optimism that the government will change its approach to the gaming industry. In his first press conference as Prime Minister elect, Malcolm Turnbull referred to the need for Australia to embrace the disruptive potential of new technology. However, despite the obvious import for videogames, a sector built on technical innovation, Turnbull’s government is yet to demonstrate support.

Last December, the government’s innovation statement allocated $1.1 billion in new investments over four years. With measures including restored funding to the CSIRO and assistance for Australian start-ups in Silicon Valley, the statement contained several financial commitments to scientific and technical research. No reference was made to the gaming industry.

The Government has since remained ambiguous as to whether the video games industry will feature in their innovation agenda. Prime Minister Turnbull insisted that the innovation statement was not a one off. The Minister for Communications and the Arts, Senator Mitch Fifield, told the October Senate Estimates hearing that he was aware of the previous funding scheme. However, he told Senate Estimates that the cutting of the scheme had to be seen in the wider context of the government’s objective of balancing the budget.

“I cannot really pre-empt what may be the elements of what the government may do in the future in relation to innovation and creativity,” Senator Fifield said.

Senator Ludlam appeared to be cautiously optimistic that the government will take the inquiry seriously and potentially invest in the industry again.

“There is good economic news here if we seize the opportunity: the games industry exemplifies the innovative future that the PM is so fond of talking up,” Senator Ludlam said.

“I wouldn’t say I'm confident yet that the action will match the chatter, but at least the Government’s newfound interest in innovation gives us something to work with.”

Restoring the Interactive Games Fund would be “a sign of good faith,” he said.

The Federal Opposition is also yet to announce a policy, but that may change. “Labor is currently examining ways to support the industry in the future,” Mr Dreyfus said.

With a Senate inquiry underway, Australia’s gaming industry will find itself again receiving parliament’s attention. If it is to garner greater support from government, the industry will need to be as creative in its lobbying efforts as it is in developing new products.

This is nothing new however and the sector has engaged in effective lobbying before. Tony Reed is the (CEO) of the Australian Game Developers’ Association (IGDA). In a panel held at PAX Australia 2015, he described the strategy he deployed to convince Simon Crean that the games industry was a worthwhile investment. Refusing to meet the then-Arts Minister in his office, Mr Reed invited him to 2K Australia to see Bioshock Infinite in early development.

“Once they understand us, they never look back,” he said.

Senator Ludlam has praised the industry’s lobbying efforts for “punch(ing) above their weight.”

“I think given the resourcing available to them as an emerging sector, they do extraordinarily well,” he said.

Part of the reason that the games industry does not enjoy the same level of support as other sectors is the well-worn stigma attached to its products. Senator Ludlam told a PAX panel that parliament’s general attitude to games is that they are “kids’ stuff”. He told Hyper however that this may change: games have become ubiquitous to the point where growth in their audiences might yield the industry political capital.

“I think collectively we have to remind Government that while until recently the face of gaming in Australia was a stereotypical young man playing console or PC games, that is just not the case,” Senator Ludlam said. “Gamers are everyone.”

“People play on their tablets, on their phones. Interactive educational software is booming. The typical gamer now is the typical Australian. This is an industry anybody with a connected device engages with, and we have to get that to sink in politically.” 

Main image by Lauri Vain

Copyright © Hyper Magazine. All rights reserved.

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