Spending Not-so-liberally: Videogames Remain Unfunded

Hand of Fate 2 by Australian games company Defiant Development

It’s hardly the biggest issue to come out of the 2019 federal election, but many in the Australian games industry will be wondering where the re-election of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister Scott Morrison leaves them.

Videogame policy became an unexpected topic of discussion late in the campaign. This was largely driven by the suite of cultural policies put forward by the Australian Labor Party (ALP); among many other commitments to the arts, it promised – if elected – to restore the now-defunct Australian Interactive Games Fund (AIGF) to the tune of A$25 million.

The AIGF has had a long and storied history. Established by Julia Gillard’s ALP government in 2013, it boasted a pool of A$20 million, to be awarded to Australian game developers and their projects. Halfway through the fund’s implementation, however, Tony Abbott’s Liberal government was elected and the AIGF was cancelled; the remaining A$10 million was then redistributed to other programs in the 2014 budget.

Had the ALP risen to power this year, and the AIGF, been restored, it would’ve represented the only federal funding avenue for Australian videogames. As it stands, however, there is nothing. The only money to go to anything approximating the local games industry since the AIGF’s dissolution has been from former arts minister George Brandis’ controversial Catalyst fund (A$125,000 for an exhibition of racing games at South Australia’s National Motor Museum) and a single competitive grant from the Australia Council for the Arts (A$23,000 for Melbourne’s Freeplay Independent Games Festival, which I am on the board of).

So it was with some excitement that the games industry greeted the ALP’s promise to not just revive the ill-fated AIGF, but to actually increase the original fund’s coffers by $5 million. Of course, this was all in the shadow of a much earlier – and longstanding – promise from the Australian Greens to restore the fund with a frankly enormous investment of A$100 million.

These numbers are significant for Australian videogames, which have always received piecemeal and scattered federal support at best. The original AIGF, however, was – according to the studios whose games drew support from it – close to becoming profitable after only one year of operation. This was not a grant-exclusive program: funding over A$50,000 was treated as a recoupable investment by the government, and these investments were quickly being repaid. Videogames make money in ways that federally supported feature films, for example, often do not. This is not necessarily an argument for the need to fund videogames (it says little about the cultural worth of these industries, for instance), but it does speak to the low financial risk involved.

The strength of such an easy cultural investment was reinforced by 2016’s Senate Inquiry into the Future of Australia’s Video Game Development Industry. The cross-party inquiry, though initiated by then–Greens senator Scott Ludlam, concluded with a unanimous finding: that Australia’s games industry should be supported, and that the first order of business should be restoring the cancelled AIGF, or establishing an equivalent fund. The government at the time (led by the Liberals’ Malcolm Turnbull) noted this recommendation in a response tabled to Parliament in January 2018, but has so far done nothing more on the subject.

‘State and territory governments also offer a range of funding,’ the government pointed out in response to the Inquiry – and indeed they do. Victoria, in particular, has maintained strong monetary support for videogames for almost two decades now. The result is that, according to the Game Developers’ Association of Australia (GDAA), 53 per cent of the nation’s games industry is now located within the state, with the next-highest proportion being just 16 per cent (in Queensland). Funding is not the only factor here, but it is clearly a significant part of the equation.

It is, of course, crucial to point out that apportioning federal government money to the Australian games industry – whether in the form of investment or grants, or anything that looks like the AIGF – is not a silver bullet. There are big questions to be asked about what this money is supposed to achieve, or what kinds of game studios and projects it should prioritise. Should money be used to help already-sustainable companies take the next step, or should it be used to help start entirely new studios and projects? What is the role played by non-funding-based regulation and support, such as training initiatives, research, and cultural festivals and events? How, in other words, do you cultivate a world-class games industry?

These are all essential questions to be answered if the strongest possible form of such an industry is to be sustained in Australia. But the fact is, a debate can’t occur in a vacuum. Despite encouragement from a cross-party Senate Inquiry and decades of bipartisan backing at state levels, in our federal parliament, policy in support of local videogames is only coming from one side of politics. We simply cannot engage with a federal Liberal Party policy for Australian videogames because it does not exist. It has never existed.

Here’s hoping that, from 2019, the re-elected Morrison government will shift course and finally commit to engaging with the promise and profitability of our games industry.