Tag Archives: Video Games

oneaday#52: The day I asked the Prime Minister for computer science

I should have written this up at the time, I drafted it, half finished, half dusty.

Having just read Eric Schmidt’s MacTaggart lecture from the Edinburgh Festival today, it took me back to a brisk winter morning in Oxfordshire. It was Thursday 1oth March 2011. It turned out that this was a very special day for Kirsty and I. We had been invited to the opening of the UK’s first National Accessible Games Centre in Charlbury, and I was to address the Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron no less. On the way to the opening, our hearts sank, when we heard on Radio 4 that ‘Prime Minister Cameron was on his way to Brussels to meet feillow European leaders to discuss the escalations of civil unrest in Libya’.

‘That’s us done for then Kirst’ I said, ‘the PM won’t be coming to Charlbury today to open the centre’

‘Yes, what a shame’ said Kirsty, ‘still let’s make the best of it after all Matt Hampson is guest of honour and it is a big day for SpecialEffect (the charity that had built the centre)

So we carried on and I was less nervous about my speech, given I knew Matt and the SpecialEffect team.

However, when we got to the National Accessible Games Centre, it was crawling with all sorts of men in black, complete with ear pieces and military style gaits. The word from our hosts was that Mr Cameron was coming after all. He duly arrived and I made the following speech in a small room pretty much one to one, we were literally 3 feet from each other.

I am extremely proud and honoured to be asked to say a few words on this momentous occasion on behalf of the UK video games industry. I am thrilled that SpecialEffect are opening the National Accessible Games Centre here in Charlbury and is a tribute to the hard work put in by the whole of the SpecialEffect team.

This Centre is the first of it’s kind in the UK and we believe in the world and it is a real landmark not only for this wonderful charity, but for the video games industry in general.

The video games industry prides itself on providing true interactive entertainment. But it was only when this very special charity reached out to our industry, the multinational corporations and the smaller businesses, when they nudged us if you like, that we realised that that we could do so much more and make our games truly accessible to those
people with disabilities.

We feel that video games and interactive entertainment products offer a unique opportunity to level the playing field so to speak, to allow all people with or without disabilities to compete, play and enjoy games with each another. We are in an unique position as an entertainment industry and through interaction with initiatives such as SpecialEffect we can
truly start to ensure that we make games that are inclusive.

Our industry charity, GamesAid of which I am chairman, has been massively impressed by their work. So much so that for two years running the members of GamesAid have voted to support SpecialEffect.

Indeed the highlight of the UK’s premier consumer games show, the Eurogamer Expo last September in London was not Assassins Creed Brotherhood, Dance Central or Gears of War 3, it was the work that SpecialEffect showed wowing media and gamers alike. SpecialEffect certainly left a massive impression with their amazing Eye Control technology allowing everyone to play Need for Speed with nothing more than their eyes.

I would also like to say a few words about the synergies between the UK games development industry and SpecialEffect as these
are important to us all.

Driven by a technical expertise, fuelled by passion and commitment and often against all the odds and without a book of rules to follow, the UK has produced some of the greatest video games ever produced. From Elite to Grand Theft Auto to Fable to Little Big Planet, the UK has shown a propensity for technical innovation and awesome gameplay. In short we have punched above our weight on the world wide stage and our UK games developers have contributed and will continue to contribute significantly to the creative industries sector.

In the same way, SpecialEffect led by Dr Mick Donegan and his wonderful team have showed exactly the same approach to their cause. They are doing amazing work, writing the rules as they go, innovating and pioneering along the way. They have showed true leadership and are a massive asset to UKPLC.

Today is the day that SpecialEffect have taken an important step on the road to building this very special place – it really is a little big accessible games centre, built for games and above all open to everyone.

The Prime Minister gave his response, which was straight off the bat, without notes and highly impressive. There were some pictures and then we were instructed to move outside for more pictures. At this point Mr Cameron asked if the industry was getting behind SpecialEffect, and ‘are there any stragglers that I need to help along?’. I said that the industry had got behind the initiative and support was forthcoming and from multiple sources.

He then asked me if there was one thing he could take back to his Government to make a difference to the computer and video games industry. I paused, thought about it, and then said ‘yes, as a matter of fact there is one crucial message you could take back to your Government. Please ask Mr Gove to consider putting computer science back on the National Curriculum’. I referenced the recently published Livingstone Hope Report on skills for the computer and video games and VFX industries, commissioned by Ed Vaizey at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and that it had called for 20 recommendations, the
first of which was to put computer science back on the map. Mr Cameron asked why we should do this. I couched it in simple terms.

‘Prime Minister, we are very creative nation and the creative industries are an example of where we are winners. We have an amazing music, TV, film, and games industries and are
respected the world over. One of the many reasons for this is that we own the English language and it gives us and other English speaking peoples a unique advantage. It is almost a code which allowed us to create art and entertainment relevant to the 20th century. But now in the 21st century, we are all touched and influenced by technology beyond our wildest expectations. Technology requires a different language – the language of computer code if you will. If we do not equip our children to both read and write code, then they will only
ever be consumers of that technology, not inventors. Our culture and economy will be threatened and we will lose
.’

‘But we teach IT in schools’ said the PM.

‘Yes, but that teaches children how to use Word, Excel and Powerpoint. It does not teach them how to design, develop and build those products. Think of it as the equivalent of being only
able to read and not be able to write. Communication is one way and we have no ability to express ourselves culturally and thus economically’
.

‘I see, that is interesting. In fact it reminds me of the Baltic Conference I attended recently. There was much talk of the big technology companies eyeing Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia as possible sites for expansion. I was told all of these countries have skilled technicians and education standards in the science , technology, engineering and maths (STEM) are high. ‘ said the PM.

‘Yes Prime Minister, they all have a greater command of the new languages, the code, than we do.’

Our conversation ended and we had a series of pictures for the media and guests , before the Prime Minister left in a car, headed for an aircraft to take him to the important European summit on Libya. But before he left, I shook his hand, tapped my nose and said ‘Prime Minister, don’t forget it’s all about the code’.

Mr Cameron looked me in the eye, tapped his nose and said ‘yes, it is all about the code’.

And so to today, Eric Schmidt chairman of one of the world’s greatest technology companies, Google, spoke at the Edinburgh Festival about many things – but the line that did it for me was that the country that
invented the computer was “throwing away your great computer heritage” by failing to teach programming in schools. “I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even
taught as standard in UK schools,”
Schmidt said. “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.”

Let’s hope our leaders listen up and take some action. If we don’t, then Britain may not have talent for too much longer.

Full articles on Eric Schmidt’s speech can be found at www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/aug/26/eric-schmidt-chairman-google-education#start-of-comments

and

www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14683133

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#oneaday 6: Viking, Forties, Dogger Bank

What do the numers 00.48, 05.20, 17.54 have in common? No they are not the runs scored by an out of form Michael Clarke in the last 3 Tests, but the times that the BBC broadcasts the shipping forecasts on Radio 4 Long Wave. These times are relied on by mariners around the UK waters and are broadcast like clockwork, literally. So at 00.48 on Thursday night, the BBC broke off Test Match Special just as the 91st and last Australian wicket in the Ashes series fell and England duly won the series and therefore The Ashes,  3-1.  Typically British, typically BBC. Cricket is only a game afterall and the shipping forecast is a matter of life and death.

Not that you would know this if you were a citizen of Australia, where clearly any sport, national or otherwise is a matter of life and death. Often famed for their ‘winning’ attitude, it is obvious that the post Warne/McGrath/Gilchrist team are having to get used to losing, indeed this concepts seems to be spreading like a pandemic through the nation’s psyche. But losing is good for the soul. It brings balance, perspective, hurt, disappointment  and crucially ensures that arrogance is reigned in. No one likes losing in general, as a race we are all hard wired to like to win, whatever that actually means. Sport is a crude and effective way of defining the black and white, win or lose, mentality that most people want or in some cases need to experience. It is both primeval and compelling, and in the case of the great game of Test Match cricket, brilliantly complex, subtle, exaggerated and of course tough. In short, Test Match cricket  is like a  ‘core’ computer game. Not easy to pick up and play or understand, requiring patience, practice, knowledge, experience and an ability to appreciate the finest nuances that may leave the less experienced player or viewer cold. It has a language and symbolism of its own and does not pander to modernity.  It is certainly not a casual snacking experience, that was the realm of the one day game, although that is now deeemed to be just too long for a game to last. In recent years we have seen unprecedented  growth of the vulgar and indecently short Twenty Twenty cricket, the Nintendo Wii or Kinect of cricket if you will. Bright colours, guaranteed results, club nicknames,  loads of gamification style stats pervade and for those of us who prefer the tradition of the Test Match game, this really is cricket lite.

Aussie fans going retro

Thus for England, for so many years the losers in all forms of cricket, to have won the Ashes series in Australia for the first time since 1986-87 (ie actually 1987) is a wonderful achievement. Given that it is a 2 horse race, some will say that it is not as significant as winning the World Cup in rugby or football, and that would be absolutely correct. But we have seen 23 days (out of a possible 25) of a sporting contest that will test the finest and hardest of cricketers all the way and the key is that there is no guarantee of a winner. On this occasion England were so superior to Australia, bar one aberation at the WACA in Perth, that the series win was convincing and comprehensive. Funnily enough, and perhaps this is where Australia and Australians could do with some tips from us, given the win was not really acknowledged by the Australian media as a great performance by a very good England team. Rather it was lost ‘the worst team Australia had ever fielded’. That is a tad disappointing. When we were getting stuffed on a regular basis by Australia and the West Indies before them, the cricket press around the world acknowledged and actively recognised that both Australia and West Indies put out teams packed with class players, just too good for England. It would be good for Australia if they acknowledged that they were beaten by the better team, led by a captain, Andrew Strauss (lovely Christian name incidentally)  who, aside from his own ability with the bat and in the field, was both modest, cool, steady and able, with a coaching team led by Andy (that name again) Flower who demanded professionalism, togetherness and resilience, backed up with impeccable preparation.  In order to make progress in life, you need to indentify weaknesses and resolve ways to overcome those whilst retaining dignity and confidence. I for one, hope Australia can grasp this nettle and ensure that the competitiveness of the last 5 years between our 2 great nations carries on and on and produces excellent cricket along the way. 

 As an aside, an Australian media owner, well known for taking a personal interest in his TV stations and newspapers was responsible for one of the worst teams that Australia ever put out, namely the 1977 Ashes team who visited England and lost 3-0. Australia had been split by the launch of the infamous World Series Cricket and divisions existed between players who had signed up to the Australian media mogul’s idea of the game and those who had stayed loyal to the traditional game, with rules copyright of the M.C.C. That Australian media mogul was a not Rupert Murdoch owner of Sky and exclusive broadcaster of The Ashes, but a certain Kerry Packer who was a great rival. I digress.

Other than the England team, I think the big winners have been the fans, the wonderful Barmy Army. For those of you who have experienced The Barmy Army, led by Vic Flowers (or Jimmy Saville if you prefer), you will know that their support is certainly full on. The Barmy Army  have set an example that has at long last been followed by the supporters of the England football team. Actively supporting England’s cricket team on overseas tours, often when there is zero chance of winning anything, they have showed that it is not about the winning, it is about the taking part. This approach is a very English thing, indeed it is a very ‘cricket’ thing. Rather ironically, it was the Australian media who coined the name ‘Barmy Army’ back in the nineties, when they were totally bemused by the endless chanting and support from English cricket fans who had travelled across the globe at great expense, even though England were on the end of yet another Aussie hiding. As Oscar Wilde famously said, ‘if you want to tell the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they will almost certainly kill you’, and  ‘always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much’. Never a truer set of words and words which go right to the core DNA withoin our wonderful players and supporters.

What a magnificent  series, that once again showed that we English, or British (more on this confusion soon, I promise) can laugh at ourselves, often with good reason, and can win now and again. Hats off to the England cricket team and their wonderful supporters. Hats off also to the BBC for sticking to the rules and ensuring the sailors in our national waters could remain safe. Above all hats off to the game of cricket and all its foibles and beauty. We love you.

PS  did I mention that England are the current holders of the 20:20 World Cup, ssshhhh don’t carp too loudly, we must not be arrogant and boorish as that approach just isn’t cricket.

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#oneaday 3:Tax Lax

On the day that saw the UK’s value added tax rise from 17.5% of the sales value to 20% of the sales value of goods and services, with some notable exceptions, there has been much debate as to whether this is a ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’ tax. All 3 party leaders seem to have had conflicting and changing views on this aspect, indeed a bout of memory loss seems to have been doing the rounds over the Christmas break. But hey times change and all that, and we are all rightly concerned about the ‘national interest’ so needs must, pay your part.

Today was also the day that the 38 Degrees Campaign ran its rather irreverent ‘Artful Dodger’ ads in some of the national newspapers – The Guardian, The Independent and the i. Allegedly, The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Metro (part of the same group as the Mail) pulled the ads, or put their prices up. That is their right and their call, both the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph have shown their hands in recent times, so we all know where their allegiances lie. But we have a free press and for that we should be thankful.

This is the rather dodgy ad run by the 38 Degrees Team

However, one issue or number that I am totally perplexed about is the quoted £150 billion per annum which tax avoidance, tax dodging or working within the tax laws depending on how you view these things is supposed to cost the UK Exchequer. £150 billion – ie just shy of the deficit we are all being told must be chased down with extreme vigour and haste.  This is a serious amount of money and I for one would like know where this figure comes from – does anyone know or is it an urban myth? Have Vodaphone avoided, legitimately or otherwise, paying UK taxes to the tune of £6 billion last year? We need some facts, please.

This whole issue of tax and tax avoidance, indeed use of individuals’ or companies’ earnings to put against their tax allowances is relevant in the computer and video games industry, given our disappointment when the much campaigned for production tax credits. The Film Council has used the tax breaks system and National Lottery funding to part fund many films on the basis of cultural relevance. The net result of all these systems to offset tax against production of creative industrial output is that we have a pretty healthy film industry. Only today I watched ‘Tamara Drewe’ and ‘Another Year’, two very British films that would never get made in Hollywood, or if they did, would be dramatically altered in their final delivery. Last week I watched ‘Made in Dagenham’ and ‘The King’s Speech’ and the same observation could be made. These films define our culture both in an historical context as well as a contemporary one. They also earn the UK money, provide key jobs, and get us noticed in an ever competitive world. In short they feel like a good thing.

A quick look at the UK Film Council’s website tells quite a lot, namely:-

  • The core UK film industry now contributes approximately £4.3 billion per year to the UK economy – up by 50% since 2000, when the UK Film Council was created;
  • In 2009 UK films took 7% of the global box office and 17% of the UK box office; Independent UK films took an 8.2% share of the UK box office, the highest figure of the last decade;
  • UK film grossed $2 billion at the worldwide box office last year;
  • UK box-office takings are at record-breaking levels, worth £944 million in the UK in 2009, up 62% from 2000;
  • The overall territory box office gross for the UK and the Republic of Ireland exceeded £1 billion for the first time in 2009;
  • UK Film Council investments in British films have been hugely successful – for every £1 we have invested, £5 has been generated at the box office;
  • Over 173.5 million people went to the cinema in the UK in 2009 – up 31 million from 2000, the highest since 2002 and the second highest since 1971;
  • The UK has more digital cinemas than any other European country – 365 and counting;
  • Overall UK audiences had a far greater choice of films in 2009 – 503 films were released, 31% more than a decade ago;
  • The UK film industry directly provides jobs for almost 44,000 people, with extended employment impact of 95,000 jobs;
  • The film industry earns over £1.3 billion in export income from film rights and film production services;
  • In 2009 alone, British films and talent scooped 36 awards. 

Impressive stuff. Now, what if we could convert some of that ‘tax avoidance’ into ‘incentives to back creativity and innovation’ to produce a win win for the tax payer/avoider and the creative industries? Rather than blaming the bourgeoise or the benefit classes in some outdated class war, if we really are all in this together, let’s get creative and encourage big earners to contribute to things that can earn the UK vital export Dollars, Euros and whatever China uses as currency. After all, I actually think we could do with some culturally British computer and video games, rather than every game that is based on earth being impregnated with American or Japanese cultural reference points.

More on this in the coming weeks.

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