Video Games and Brexit: Why the Nation Behind 'GTA' and 'Batman' Feels Lost Without Europe

Video Games and Brexit: Why the Nation Behind 'GTA' and 'Batman' Feels Lost Without Europe

Glixel / Rockstar

As British politics turn inward, many game makers are anxious – but there may be a silver lining

As British politics turn inward, many game makers are anxious – but there may be a silver lining

Despite total sales in the hundreds of millions, scores of Grand Theft Auto fans are unaware their celebrated, blockbuster, slice of all things Americana is actually developed in bonnie wee Scotland.

The UK games industry has always had a prominent yet unassuming presence on the global scene. While the British film and TV industries can cite global franchises that revel in their Britishness – from James Bond to Harry Potter, Downton Abbey to Doctor Who – Lara Croft is one of the very few big game characters to make great play of her nationality.

It's not just GTA stealthily flying the British flag, either. Warner Bros.' unstoppable Lego series stems from the sleepy Cheshire town of Knutsford courtesy of Traveller's Tales, while Playground Games – the outfit behind Microsoft's Forza Horizon series – can be found not in the open plains of Australia depicted in the game, but in the comparatively quaint town of Royal Leamington Spa. From Batman Arkham's base in London to Total War's HQ in Sussex, Britain is the king at making games you'd have no idea were actually British.

Back in June, however, the studios behind these games and more were hit by a shockwave: Brexit. Britain's decision to leave the European Union – triggered by the surprise result of last summer's referendum on June 23, and furthered by Prime Minister Theresa May's signing of Article 50 on March 29 – left many developers in a state of panic. Given the overwhelming support the nation's games industry had given to remaining in the EU, the result left many worrying about what lay ahead. Would the UK's games business find itself drained of talent, drained of money and, ultimately, drained of good games when the UK leaves in March 2019?

"It was, by necessity, a vote for an introverted market," says Brit-based games marketing expert George Osborn (not to be confused with the former UK chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne). Osborn notes Brexit has already been brought up in conversation during trips to meet with game makers on the continent. "I've met people who are equal parts bemused, baffled and angered by the direction Britain has taken," he says. "While no-one took me personally to task for it, I'd say British studios will have to get used to enjoying a diminished status on the world stage."

If all that sounds a touch dramatic, consider the tone in which the UK's exit from the EU is taking place – it's a tone critics of Trump's election here in the US will readily recognize. The extremist edge that frequently set the agenda in the run up to the EU referendum unleashed the kind of nationalist rhetoric from mainstream politicians not seen in Europe since the 1930s. Posters depicting "hordes" of migrants "flooding" into the UK played on existing but previously unsaid fears a sizeable chunk of the public had about immigration from an expanded European Union and beyond.

It was a debate that sunk to the depths, and its sinister nature didn't go unnoticed in the rest of Europe. "Not only will the reduced freedom of movement when the UK leaves the EU make it harder to employ European talent, but the Leave campaign focused on immigration and basically told the rest of the world 'you're not welcome here'," says industry veteran Simon Smith.

Question people on which areas of games development will be impacted by Brexit, however, and the path ahead becomes unclear. No-one seems willing to pin down just which roles, which specific talents the UK industry currently sources from European workers will be affected. As a result, knowing whether the quality of games made in Britain will suffer has become an unanswerable question – in the writing of this article, several developers approached were unwilling to publicly discuss any aspects of Brexit, period. The venomous atmosphere that remains regarding the EU vote – particularly within Britain’s right-wing press – means speaking out is akin to sticking a target on your back.

Smith has no such qualms, having already worked for a multitude of prominent games businesses across the UK – from Sony PlayStation to Dirt and F1 makers Codemasters. He’s open about his prediction Brexit will trigger a "slow decline in the economy over the next 30 years". But he's also realistic. The fall in the value of the UK currency since the Brexit vote has, he admits, made the British games scene even more attractive than it already was for non-European publishers and financiers – they get more for their money. That means big names from across the US may now be even more inclined to invest in British studios than they have in the past, building on an already strong relationship: GTA may stem from Rockstar in Scotland, but it's published by the New York based Take Two Interactive.

I had a feeling of shock, followed by crushing disappointment

"I've spent most of my career making games for non-EU publishers – Microsoft, THQ and Sony to name a few – and so I'm used to being part of a team that looks beyond Europe," says Smith, noting that the vital tax breaks for the UK games business, which came in just a few years ago, came about in spite of the EU, not because of it. "The EU has strict rules on state aid and that was one of the main reasons it was difficult to establish those tax credits. So, on the upside, we will possibly be able to control our own state intervention more directly."

Smith's admissions highlight the split between the heads and the hearts of developers across Britain. While the heart remains tied to its European peers across the English Channel, the head is increasingly aware that a Britain "freed" from some EU red tape may actually be more attractive to potential overseas investors. When people step back from their emotions, even those unwavering in their support for the EU will admit that, almost by accident, games in the UK will benefit from the decision – and not just because of American interest, either. "Some of the Chinese companies I have spoken to regard the UK as being a little more autonomous as a result, and this is appealing to them," says Gary Bracey, director at British studio Scary Puppies. "Trump is doing a fine job of alienating American business from China, making the UK look like a very attractive alternative."

Which highlights the real problem UK developers have with Brexit – the country's decision to leave the EU will have no detrimental impact on its existing relationship with publishers in the US, nor its burgeoning relationship with Chinese investors. Instead, the damage is a mostly emotional one – a sense that the camaraderie and kinship shared with European creators has been eroded. All those we talked to spoke of either fear or anger on the night the result came through, and that's a feeling that understandably colors their take on Brexit's impact to this day.

"I had a feeling of shock, followed by crushing disappointment," says Bracey. "I realized then that this would not be positive in any way for the UK." He notes, however, that the UK remains a powerful hub for international games development, and that's a trend even Brexit would struggle to disrupt. "When this industry began in the 1980s, we were at the forefront of this new medium and the UK pioneered much of what we see today when it comes to games and associated technology. If it weren't for the complete lack of appetite British institutional investors have for video games we would dominate the global scene."

Instead, Bracey says games in the UK rely on backing from businesses in the US in particular – a nation he believes is "more willing to take a chance", and so its publishers reap the rewards. "Brexit or not, this won't change."

In truth, it's hard to pin down just what will change on March 29, 2019: for a profession that now largely exists digitally, from download-only games through to foreign freelancers working with British studios remotely, video games are better placed than most industries to cope with the realities of the UK being hauled out of a union it's been embedded in for more than four decades. Even the most Euro-skeptic of politicians will find it hard to build artificial borders here.