Is the BGI Brexit’s silver lining? Ukie and TIGA discuss the future of UK government funding

Seth Barton
Is the BGI Brexit’s silver lining? Ukie and TIGA discuss the future of UK government funding

We think it’s fair to say that the UK games industry was largely opposed to Brexit. While the EU wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, the alternative is far less palatable – businesses like to make plans and that’s kind of tricky when the currency is volatile. Your staff might want to leave the country and trade tariffs past 2019 are all up in the air.

However, there’s usually a silver lining to any cloud, and Brexit may just help shake up some long held beliefs to the games industry’s advantage – and more specifically to the benefit of the proposed British Games Institute (BGI).

For those who haven’t come across the proposal, the BGI would function for games in a manner roughly analogous to the BFI for film. It would champion the sector as a cultural heavyweigwht, provide funding for games and help improve skills, both in development and commercialisation. Now, of course, there are already organisations that do those things, but we’ll tackle that a bit later.

Helmed by Ian Livingstone and Rick Gibson, the proposed agency is currently undergoing a consultation process with the industry. As a part of this, both men, along with Ukie’s CEO Dr Jo Twist and TIGA’s boss Richard Wilson appeared together to talk publicly about the idea at Develop:Brighton, where we caught up with them and posed some questions. 

STRATEGIC WITHDRAWAL

While the details of Brexit may be uncertain, the government’s plan to invest in UK industry post-Brexit is far more concrete thanks to the Industrial Strategy policy the government unveiled back in January.

This is the first point Gibson addresses when we question him on Brexit: “When we ran the proposal past some people in Government, they said ‘hold fire until the industrial strategy is announced, there might be something in there for you’.”

That turned out to be true, says Twist: “For the first time in that strategy, games were actually name-checked, and creative industries were one of the ten key strategic pillars. Brexit is an opportunity. I think everything now has to be reviewed, and if they want to make sure we’re still a competitive, innovative, creative economy, they need to take us seriously – and they are.”

Gibson agrees: “I think there is an unprecedented opportunity to add new funding for our sector,” he says. “The industrial strategy is trying to trigger growth across the country in existing industries that are already world class. [Minister of State for Digital & Culture] Matt Hancock describes a nexus between creativity and technology and there’s no better poster child for that than our sector.”

I think there is an unprecedented opportunity to add new funding for our sector

Rick Gibson, BGI and Games Investor Consulting

Twist is pretty damning about what the games industry, and the UK sector in particular, received from the EU in the past: “We’ve banged on for a long time about how ridiculous the criteria for qualification of Creative Europe funds is, how ridiculous some of the red tape and the old fashioned criteria is around narrative and storytelling. They just don’t get it.

“This is a real opportunity to rip that up and start again potentially, because the film and TV industries benefit greatly from that fund – while we get €2m spread across Europe.”

She continues: “I think the Government is very mindful that it needs to reinvest in skills, that it needs to reinvent the immigration system, make it more flexible and agile for 21st century businesses like us, and it needs to invest in the talent pipeline in primary school, let alone secondary school. So it’s an opportunity, but we have to really push for this.”

Gibson agrees that this isn’t a battle that’s already won: “The creative sector includes 12 different stakeholders, and the result of all those discussions is likely to be pretty levelled down, like a blancmange.”

(BR)EXIT THROUGH GIFT SHOP

While Gibson and Twist may agree that Brexit is the industry’s chance to level the playing field somewhat between games and other screen industries such as TV and film, they aren’t yet singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to the approach.

Gibson reckons a new organisation could stand out in the battle for attention: “What we’re trying to do with the BGI is create a very simple, strong, powerful idea for a brand new organisation that can solve multiple different challenges with a pretty discrete amount of money – we’re asking for £8m. That’s an accounting error for most government departments but it would have a massive impact on our sector.”

To make that happen, though, Gibson believes the BGI will need near-universal support: “It’s important that we produce something that has unprecedented support from the games industry.”

I’m still not sure, but I believe the timing is right, and timing is everything

Dr Jo Twist, Ukie

Twist is engaging with the debate around the proposal, but is not yet ready to throw Ukie’s full support behind the BGI, saying: “Should we be forcing the hand of cultural institutions to take games seriously or should we be building something separate? For me, that’s still a question that needs to be answered, because I’m still in the middle.”

She highlights a possible alternative – a “networked approach, a virtual organisation” – but then suggests the industry could also be “pulling together all the efforts and really supporting the wonderful organisations such as the National Videogame Arcade and Foundation, the UK Games Fund” to name just a few pre-existing organisations. “I’m still not sure, but I believe the timing is right, and timing is everything,” she adds. 

TIGA stands more clearly behind the proposed BGI, with Wilson in full support of its games funding proposals: “For a number of years, we’ve supported measures to improve access to finance,” he says. “Games Tax Relief is the obvious example, but we’ve also been pushing for the Games Investment Fund since 2010. So we’re very pleased to see this idea incorporates in the BGI proposal.”

On Brexit, Wilson states: “[As a country] we must look at those sectors where we have a competitive advantage, and in that case it’s very opportune. Bearing in mind the economic, political and constitutional challenges we face, I think now is a good time to be looking at those industries that the UK can really be successful in – and games is one of those.”

He does add a cautionary note, though, regarding the current situation in parliament: “Because we have an unstable government, one that may not last the five years, it’s even more incumbent upon that we speak effectively when we engage with ministers and civil servants to put games on the political agenda.”

Everyone’s in agreement, then, that Brexit could give the industry a huge chance to make up lost ground when it comes to funding, particularly compared to the TV and film industries – ridiculous though that may sound for a sector that’s been culturally and commercially active in the UK for over 35 years. What remains to be seen is whether these efforts will be spearheaded by the BGI or a broader grouping of organisations. Gibson and Livingstone have stated they need industry-wide support to get the BGI off the ground, and Ukie and its 350 members will surely be key to achieving that.

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