Culture is a difficult term to define; in fact, according to Williams, it is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (Williams, 1983). However, several institutions have attempted to define it for video games. In 2014, the BFI created the Cultural Test for Video Games, enabling studios to get tax relief if their game scored enough points from their checklist (BFI, 2017). Using this example as a test case, can we truly define what constitutes a cultural game?
Should games’ cultural potential be defined by their staff’s nationality and production location? For the BFI, this is an important matter: the checklist requires a minimum number of EEA/UK staff in the team, and also that at least half of the development process takes place in the UK. In a multicultural (and multi-national) country like the UK, especially in cities like London, this can be an odd requirement, especially when considering that roles in a team, including creative roles, are meant to be awarded on talent and merit from a large pool of international candidates, and not on nationality.
The second part of the checklist then requires that games touch on British subject matters (undefined in the list), involve British citizens as characters, and represent British heritage and diversity. This raises many questions on nationalism and culture in general, but with regards to games, this is also problematic, judging that only a very particular type of culture (British-centric) is worth funding in games in the UK.
For example, Assassin’s Creed II, set in Renaissance Italy and developed by a Canadian studio, would not be funded despite featuring numerous cultural facts. This is also a problem for more creative worlds, such as Dishonored’s Victorian dystopian setting: while it is based on Victorian England and can arguable teach the player a lot about this time period, this link is not explicitly mentioned, and therefore may fail the BFI test despite being relevant to British history.
Finally, it is also worth mentioning that this test was created for money-saving purposes (tax relief). This raises further difficult questions: why should money be involved in conceptualising a game? Will this influence game designers’ ideas, knowing that one “more British” idea will get a tax-break, and another, perhaps more creatively inspired but not fitting the BFIs’ criteria, will not? Is it right to encourage British gamers to expand their culture by playing games strictly related to their own country and culture? If every country enforced such rules, how would it affect creative freedom and diversity in games?
As with culture in general, there are no answers, only many opinions. However, it is worth questioning what we are told is a game deserving a cultural accolade, and consider the problems that might arise from such unilateral thinking.
BFI (2017). The Cultural Test for Video Games. Available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/film-industry/british-certification-tax-relief/cultural-test-video-games (Accessed: 23 October 2017).
Williams, R (1983). Keywords. New York: Oxford UP, p. 87.
Assassin’s Creed II Screenshot (2009). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh_XZNqonv4 (Accessed 23 October 2017)
Dishonored Screenshot (2015). Available at: https://www.windowscentral.com/dishonored-digital-xbox-360-owners-can-get-xbox-one-definitive-edition-just-20 (Accessed 23 October 2017)
Union Jack Reproduction (2017). Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Jack (Accessed 23 October 2017)