Getting a return for your creativity

Gerri Peev interviews Margaret Hodge about tax breaks for gaming companies and being a good shot

If talk of imminent war in the government is true, internal enemies of Margaret Hodge, Minister for Culture, Media and Sport should beware.

The minister is at her best when behind a weapon of mass destruction. Her first attempt at Destroyer Command is testimony to that.

"First shot I killed the chap," she says with ill-disguised pride. "I played tennis on Wii and I missed the ball although I am a good tennis player."

She is more puzzled about that one - indeed she is equally puzzled about the lack of games aimed at women in the market. This is a missed opportunity for the industry, she says, but Hodge acknowledges the product will evolve to reflect wider society.

Indeed the pace of change is so fast that, in between organising the interview and publication, two key industry players have merged to form the biggest games company in the world: Activision Blizzard. Meanwhile, Microsoft has unveiled a film download service for Xbox users, turning the console into a multi-entertainment platform.

UK slipping behind

Amid all this market hype and development, the UK, which is the leading consumer of games, is slipping behind on the production side. The Canadians have been propelled ahead of Britain thanks to tax breaks offered by their government.

So just what is Westminster going to do in the face of such aggressive competition? Hodge is careful not to make big promises: "What government needs to do is provide the conditions in which the creativity and the ideas can flourish. That's our job. I think that goes far, far wider than tax credits. We are all really concerned about what the Canadians are doing and we are looking at whether it's legal under the World Trade Organisation convention."

She gives her strongest indication yet to the New Statesman that tax breaks are not on the menu for the games industry here, despite a clamour from some industry voices. "You will get into a terrible ping pong on that is my view. Canadians put a bit more, we put a bit more.

"We will want to respond to that but I have always thought that having a competition between nations on who can give the biggest tax relief is a real short-term palliative, not a long-term solution.

"If we can tackle all the other issues that are important to the games industry, we will create a much more sustainable set of conditions through which the industry can flourish."

One of Hodge's solutions is to wrest away some of the £380m offered almost exclusively to the science and technology industries, such as pharmaceuticals, through the technology strategy board.

"There is a technology strategy board that spends almost £400m a year on innovation. It will spend zillions on pharmaceuticals research and development of nanotechnology. It doesn't spend anything on the creative area that leads to copyright.

"If you are launching a new game.it is a new product that needs development, research and innovation and it can lead to fantastic growth.

Technology strategy fund

"On the technology strategy fund, we want them to fund innovation in the creative sector and that is very much in games."

Hodge also knows the industry's fears over intellectual property (IP) and how the small developers are being outpaced by massive competition from abroad.

"We are looking at this in two ways: how can you protect copyright? ...That will be really important for the games world. The second is that you find new ways of getting a return for your creativity, a monetarised value for your creativity."

She cites Radiohead's recent decision to allow fans to download their music for a fee of their choice rather than dictating the price. While it was initially a loss leader, it allowed the band to promote their brand and concerts.

Green paper

A government green paper on the creative industries economy, due to be released in January, will now become a firmer strategy document, with harder resolutions.

Hodge confides that one of its offerings will be an attempt to coax students into maths and science subjects by setting out a clear link to a future in games development. This will be a welcome move by the industry, which is crying out for skilled workers.

And what are ministers planning to do about the covert state aid the French are trying to inject into their softening games sector? The French government is trying to argue the case for tax breaks for games that promote French culture.

"They are trying but they have not got it yet," she says. "They are doing what we did for films. We introduced the cultural test for films. They are trying to do it for games. They have lost their entire games industry to Montreal; it's all gone. But we shall wait and see and we shall know before Christmas whether Europeans will see that as non-state aid, and we are very sceptical."

Watch this space: if the French are successful, maybe the British government could fund games producers to promote that elusive sense of "Britishness" that Gordon Brown is so desperate to channel.

Battling bad headlines

Aside from killer competition from abroad, the industry is battling bad headlines. In recent weeks alone, computer and video games have been blamed for everything from British school children slipping down the OECD league table for reading, to making youngsters so bad at football that England failed to qualify for the Euro championships.

The government has already announced the Byron Review into video games, led by the BBC's child psychologist Tanya Byron, which is due to report back in March.

This is a subject close to Hodge's heart, as a former children's minister. She makes it clear that responsibility for children's use of games should not be entirely in the hands of the industry; parents need to make sure consoles and computers are not always tucked away in children's bedrooms but played openly in family areas.

"Of course we want to ensure our children are protected from inappropriate material, of course that's important - although making the link between criminality and inappropriate material, that's never been a proven link.

"I think the answer is three things: you have to work with the manufacturers to make sure you have mechanisms that you can filter out all the harmful stuff. Two, you do really need much, much better education with kids in school, so they also become aware of the sort of material that they should avoid. Three, parents have a role to play. One of the most dangerous things we have in our society, if you want my view, is that the kids all have this in the bedroom unsupervised."

Streamlined classification

She favours streamlining the classification system. At present, the UK is subjected to two: one by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which also classifies films, and another, Pan European Game Information (PEGI), an EU-wide system. Hodge expresses a preference for the BBFC as it carries some legal weight.

Where does she stand on censorship? She mentions Manhunt 2, which has failed to get classification for the second time, meaning it is effectively banned from Britain. "A lot of people get very sensitive about it. It is very, very violent. I have not seen it so I don't know what the content is but I imagine it was the right thing not to let it have classification," she says.

Of course, she still has a soft spot for other action-packed games such as Destroyer Command. Subsidy junkies such as Canada and France had better watch out for Hodge complaining to the World Trade Organisation and Europe respectively. She is a good shot.

Gerri Peev is political correspondent for the Scotsman

Video gamers make faster and better surgeons

Surgeons who regularly play video games are faster and make few errors, according to a study published by the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

The study, led by Dr James Rosser, tested 303 surgeons on their performance at the "cobra rope" drill, a laparoscopic training exercise, described as "trying to tie your shoe laces with three-foot-long chopsticks while watching on a TV screen".

Surgeons who did a 20-minute video-game warm-up before the training exercise surgery were found to be 11 seconds faster, and to make fewer errors, than surgeons who did not.

The study also found that young surgeons who spent at least three hours a week playing video games in the past made 37 per cent fewer errors, were 27 per cent faster, and scored 42 per cent better overall than surgeons who had never played a video game at all.

Of those taking part, 42 per cent had never played a video game but 30 per cent had played almost every day at one time. Those in the top third of video-gaming skill made 47 per cent fewer errors, performed 39 per cent faster and scored 41 per cent better overall than those in the bottom third.

The findings have led the authors to suggest that video games may be a practical teaching tool to help train surgeons.