The first video game to enter the collective consciousness was Pong, released into the world in the early 1970s. In 2016, the games industry is a Hollywood-dwarfing multi-billion-dollar behemoth. Even by the standard of the mechanisms of our government so often moving at a glacial pace, waiting more than 40 years to take a closer look at the industry seems like quite an oversight.
In June last year we succeeded in getting the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee to agree to an inquiry into the current state of the video games industry. We wanted to learn what the industry needed from their government to get back into the business of employing, mentoring and developing after a traumatic few years.
And what we saw was, hearteningly, some of the most productive and engaging committee work I’ve yet been a part of. Labor and Liberal Senators, with what could be probably be described as only a passing interest in the sector when the inquiry started, listened attentively, learned plenty and contributed positively to the process.
Senate committee inquiry reports commonly fragment into at least two – a majority report, which reflects the politics of whoever has the numbers on the committee, and a minority report, which contains the dissenting view. I can not emphasise enough how unusual it is, in this partisan and politically charged environment, and in an election year, to have a consensus report.
It says a great deal about the quality of evidence presented, the good faith that both witnesses and senators brought to the proceedings, and the clarity of the conclusions the process reached that we ended up with this piece of work. Up until now, the Greens have been a lonely voice for gamers in parliament. This process could well see that change.
And not before time. Gamers are a huge part of the Australian community. Millions and millions of us play, on phones, tablets, consoles and desktops. But aside from a brief period around the R18+ ratings debate, gamers have yet to leverage that mass appeal into a political voice, and the industry may have been treated with complacency by government as a result.
The key recommendations in our report are clear, and the challenges for the industry were evident from the outset. While the average Australian gamer is pretty much the average Australian – people of all ages, backgrounds and genders game enthusiastically – the industry itself has a major diversity problem. Proposals to make future Government support contingent on improved diversity within the industry was enthusiastically promoted by developers and spokespeople, who made it clear that diverse creators make for more appeal for the work.
The short-lived Australian Games Industry Fund should be reinstated, or a similar model put in place. As I said here a few months ago on this very site, the return for the relatively tiny public investment was massive and cutting it - just one of a swathe of short-sighted decisions in the Abbott/Hockey budget of 2013 – removed the only federal assistance the industry has had.
Industry figures were at pains to point out that they’re determined to stand independently; they have no wish to be reliant on government. That doesn’t and shouldn’t preclude government from giving the industry a jump start, in the form of grants, low-interest loans and tax offsets to foster the growth of a local industry and to ensure that local talent stays local.
The reason almost half of the Australian games industry is in Victoria is in no small part due to the assistance of the Victorian government. Shared workspaces like the Arcade – the site visit was a definite highlight of the inquiry process – have fostered talent, technologies and companies. It’s a model that should be replicated across the country.
There is not a Turnbull buzzword box that the games industry does not tick. These are the creative industry jobs of the 21st Century. This industry is innovation manifest, on every screen on the planet. New, fascinating stories are being told through the medium. ‘Serious’ games help to personalise some of the most complex challenges we collectively face. Technological changes have kept the industry evolving.
The industry is growing rapidly. It’s charging into new markets and competition from around the world is only going to get more intense. The opportunity for Australia to establish itself as a global leader in the industry is not going to last forever.
It’s time for us to get in the game – and thanks for everyone who played as this process ran its course. You did your bit – now it’s time for the politicians to step up.