State of Play
Copenhagen, 1820. A teenage boy with an active imagination is battling evil to save a princess—and establish himself as an artist. That boy is Hans Christian Andersen, and you control his destiny!
Well, you do if you're in the mood to play a Scandinavian video game. That scenario is the plot of a game, made by Danish company Guppyworks, called HCA: The Ugly Prince Duckling. It received funding—some of it from the government—based on its qualifications as a "Nordic" game. And it embodies a facet of a growing struggle in Europe over the soul of its indigenous video game industry. Government ministers, developers, and gamers themselves are examining what games mean to them. Are games art? Are they expressions of a European sensibility? And do they need to be either of those things?
"People have looked down on video games for far too long, overlooking their great creativity and cultural value." So said the French minister of culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, last year when conferring his nation's highest artistic honor, the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, on two French game designers. De Vabres isn't the only European politico who seems intent on giving video games new cachet. Danish Minister for Culture Brian Mikkelsen has also afforded games "arts" status. And a 2002 resolution passed by the Council of the European Union indicates a weightier role for games, decreeing that "cultural and linguistic diversity in Europe can and should manifest itself in the interactive content of the future." One EU spokesperson, speaking anonymously, notes that games "play a key role in the entertainment and education of millions of Europeans."
They're also big business. Though America dominates single-nation games sales with a market worth an estimated $7.5 billion annually, Europe's annual sales figure is only $1 billion less, and that number is expected to rise. Leading the pack is the U.K., where, in 2003, computer games generated an export value of $917 million. With these numbers, supporting the growth of the game industry is a political no-brainer. But tying funding to artistic value or cultural content, as some are doing, is less straightforward—and has vocal opponents. "The EU resolution itself is a product of a misunderstanding," says Patrice Chazerand, secretary general of the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE). "Placing the burden of cultural diversity on games is certainly not the way to increase competitiveness." He decries a measure approved by the French parliament in February that gives games tax breaks similar to those for films. Games with "cultural value" receive a tax credit worth 20 percent of the cost of making the game, up to a value of $3.91 million a year. (The German government may implement a similar system.) "The game industry has been global from the start," says Chazerand, "and has been so successful because it has not cared about building high culture, but just meeting a market. Applying tax breaks that have been successful for the French movie industry will take the games industry to the same low levels of exports—French movies might promote French culture, but they do not travel well. It's a fundamental mistake."
If so, it's a mistake the U.K. has avoided: The government does fund video games, but it attaches money to technology, not content. The British Department of Trade and Industry's Technology Programme is offering $631 million over three years to help game companies develop new technologies. "Giving more funds and power to developers hasn't really affected content, but it has affected the sustainability of the businesses," says Toby Barnes, director of Pixel-Lab, a U.K.-based games consultancy. Chazerand supports this approach: "State aid should be based on R&D like in the U.K., because the main feature of video games is technology."
But the ISFE is itself under fire from developers on the continent who believe that products with specific cultural content are their best route to the marketplace.
Erik Robertson is a game developer and director of the Nordic Game Program (NGP), a body he established to bring young people in Scandinavian countries games "with a distinct Nordic element." He says that smaller developers need "a niche strategy in terms of content, pricing, and distribution."
Robertson's definition of a Nordic game is fairly strict: "All text and dialogue has to be localized into a Nordic language, the developer has to be a Nordic company, and the game should also be based on Nordic ideas." Five projects were funded last year, among them SLX Entertainment's online strategy game, Nord, set in a medieval Nordic village, and HCA: The Ugly Prince Duckling, which intertwines Andersen's fairy tales with his life story.
The NGP's funding comes from Nordic countries' cultural budgets, but there's something in the pot for the games sector from other government departments, too. The Danish parliament plans to spend $2.1 million on developing Danish games over the next four years. Setting this man-date apart from the French one is the Danes' apparent flexibility regarding content. Danish Minister for Culture Mikkelsen says, "My view of the Danish games industry is that their best chance is to develop both very Danish games and games with a broader international appeal."
This openness creates the primary manifestation of local culture in internationally popular, European-made games, many of which originate in Scandinavia: The Swedish developer Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment created the Battleield series, Denmark's IO Interactive produced the Hitman series, and Max Payne is from Remedy Entertainment in Finland. The fascinating thing about these blockbuster games is that they are often cultural hy-brids. Take Max Payne. It tells the story of a fugitive New York cop, but many of its cultural references come from Norse mythology: A nightclub featured in the game called Ragna Rock is a play on Ragnarok, the battle of the Norse gods, while the blizzard that hits the city echoes Fimbulwinter, the epic winter that preceded Ragnarok. Max's DEA partner, Alex Balder, dies from a sniper's bullet; Baldur, the Norse god of innocence, was killed by an assassin's arrow.
The U.K., which creates a quarter of the world's console games, also adds what Toby Barnes calls a "stamp of Britishness" to many bestsellers. For instance, Grand Theft Auto (GTA) has quintessentially American inner-city flash, but it was developed by Rockstar North in Edinburgh. Says Barnes, "This series is an image of America through Scottish eyes, and there's a humor and thoughtfulness in the content. For example, in GTA you listen to radio stations as you're driving around, and there are adverts for made-up products. These have no relevance to the game but have a tongue-in-cheek British quality." Barnes sees this as "very different from a game like Halo, developed in the States. It's very good, but cold and clinical. In terms of cultural content, it's extremely thin."
Some gamers appreciate this distinction, reveling in GTA-style cultural in-jokes. One gamer writing under the name Gwynster on a popular U.K. gamers' forum says, "In Rag Doll Kung Fu there's a move called the ‘6 Stellas and a Kebab' technique. Up till then I thought the game was made by Americans, but I knew only a U.K. developer could strike such a fine balance between a strong Belgian lager and a Turkish meat sandwich." For others, this isn't enough. "European games are obsessed with U.S.A. gangsta-rap culture," says a gamer called The Goat Keeper. "Most European games are made mainly to appeal to a U.S. market," agrees a gamer named Grumbler. "It's quite disheartening."
There is at least one game on the market today that offers a template for truly successful—and overtly European—games. Fable, a role-playing game from celebrated British developer Lionhead Studios, has the majority of its substantial sales in the U.S. This could have something to do with Lionhead's buyout by Microsoft, but probably has much more to do with Fable's philosophically complex story—and its distinctly British flavor.
The world of Fable is called Albion, the ancient name for Great Britain, and features English-sounding place names like Bower-stone and Oakvale. Also, says Lionhead designer Rob Stevens, the voice actors were predominantly British, with various regional accents, and the dialogue "employs...humor tinged with elements of Monty Python." Stevens adds, "Making a game containing strong regional themes doesn't have to adversely affect its world-wide appeal. Fable contains many uniquely British elements and has gained a significant worldwide fan base." The sequel is currently in development, and Stevens says it remains "as resolutely British in tone as its predecessor—right down to its Union Jack boxer shorts."