The politics of cultural production

In the past year I have been preoccupied by the politics and globalization of cultural production. This might come from being located in Ireland where the European headquarters of Google, Facebook, eBay, Gala Networks and Activision-Blizzard et al. are located. It also links to our discussions on this blog about who gets to construct the social and professional imaginaries surrounding contemporary cultural productions and what impact this has on the products produced.

As in other media sectors it is clear that a national focus is unhelpful in understanding the production of digital games. In order to understand how transnational corporations operate we need to attend to the ways these corporations act in multiple places. This is not to suggest that the nation-state is no longer important, but rather to state that to understand transnational games production we need to consider how transnational corporations compete, cooperate and lobby in pursuit of their interests and how states and other political entities facilitate, regulate and collude in these actions. Often these negotiations are not very visible to media researchers but they have significant implications for shaping social discourses and concepts. Vincent Mosco (2009) has a chapter on ‘spatialisation’ in the last version of the Political Economy of Communication, building upon the work of Henri Lefebvre. If we view spatialisation as a process, and we look beyond individual corporations to their transnational networks and institutions, like trade associations, I think we gain valuable insights into the location and contours of contemporary cultural production (Kerr and Cawley, 2011).

The European Games Industry

Europe (as part of the EMEA region) is an important market for the global games industry but also an important centre of game development. While the console sub-sector is largely controlled by a small number of publishing corporations headquartered in the US and Japan, these corporations are increasingly establishing ‘branch’ offices in Canada, Ireland, the UK, Eastern Europe, China and Australia or acquiring successful ‘local’ production studios. Even in countries with historically strong local development cultures, like the UK, the majority of employment in development studios is now in companies owned by non British transnational corporations (Games Investor Consulting, 2008:9). If anything these forms of economic expansion and concentration have been accelerating in the past decade producing an extensive network of production centres controlled from a limited number of locations. Development and services are the most dispersed activities, with publishing less so and tending to locate in capital cities.

However, a second, but less examined trend is also evident and this has much more to do with politics than with economics. In the last two decades we have seen the establishment of national industry trade associations to lobby local and regional governments in relation to the introduction of ‘national’ and ‘local’ supports for the industry. Entertainment software associations have been established in many European countries, the US and Canada to lobby against content regulations and in support of financial supports. In Europe we also have trans-national European trade associations established to coordinate between national associations and to lobby the European Commission. In this ‘political’ transnationalism multinational corporations collaborate to pursue their interests locally, as well as transnationally, via ‘national’ and ‘regional’ trade associations. There is considerable overlap in terms of the membership of these trade associations at national and regional levels in Europe and as a result the same perspectives on particular issues emerge again and again – e.g. IPR, piracy, ratings and skills.

European Game Developers Federation -

However, the games industry is also ‘institutionalising’ a boundary between publishers and developers – with separate trade associations for publishers and for developers. For example, the Interactive Game Developers Association (IGDA) represents individual game developers internationally and the European Game Developers Federation (EGDF) represents national game developer associations. But the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) in the US and the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE) represents publishers and large publisher/developers. The use of ‘software’ in the title of the publisher organizations is significant – it has legal, political, social and very real economic consequences for game producers.

Publishers V Developers

This institutional separation between developers and publishers in their trade associations is intriguing in itself, but one of the places where it becomes most apparent is in the different positions they take in policy discussions. Last year I examined the documentation in relation to the different positions taken by developer and publisher associations in submissions to the European Commission in relation to a French attempt to introduce a tax credit system to aid developers of certain types of videogames (EC, 2008). In order for countries to introduce such state aids in Europe they must justify it in relation to a ‘cultural exemption’ rule. Financial supports for national film industries in Europe for example have historically done this.

The different trade associations attempted to articulate the degree to which games constituted a cultural product or not: with the developers associations and Ubisoft, the French publisher/developer arguing for games as cultural product, while the publishers association argued against. The latter argued that games were software products. This is not a straightforward state versus industry situation, but rather trade associations for publishers, trade associations for developers, individual corporations and various public and public/private bodies interacting to shape an emerging discourse around games as a cultural product. In the end the argument for games as cultural product won out in Europe, with strict limits, and without setting a precedent.

Assassins Creed from Ubisoft

What does this mean? Well it means there is now a tax credit in France which allows game developers to claim part of the costs of production back against tax if they include very specific cultural markers in their games. It means that other European countries and develop associations are looking at this system to see if they can introduce it in their countries. It also means that the publishers associations have redoubled their efforts to lobby the European Commission to have games exempt from what it sees as restrictive and onerous cultural and audiovisual policies. It is an ongoing battle which the trade associations are playing an important role in. Academics are nowhere to be seen in the current documentation.

I have a forthcoming book chapter on this ongoing struggle which goes into more detail on  how these actors are attempting to shape how digital games are perceived, measured and regulated. Beyond acquisitions, sub-contracting and labour movement between firms, the most visible form of institutional extension and networking of corporate power in contemporary games production in Europe appears to be via national and supra-national trade associations. These in turn are having an important role, I would argue, in shaping the professional imaginaries and products produced by the games industry.


The French tax credit scheme is currently under review.

EC (2008) Decision of 11 December 2007 on State Aid C 47/06 (ex N 648/05) Tax credit introduced by France for the creation of video games. (2008/354/EC). Brussels, EC.
GAMES INVESTOR CONSULTING (2008) ‘Raise the Game: The competitiveness of the UK’s games development sector and the impact of governmental support overseas’. London, NESTA.
KERR, A. & CAWLEY, A. (2011) Spatialisation and the Digital Games Industry. Lessons from Ireland, International Journal of Cultural Policy.
MOSCO, V. (2009) The Political Economy of Communication , London, Sage.

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