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November 9, 2006

'Just like music and the cinema, video games should be supported by the state' — Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, France's Minister of Culture


He was quoted in this past Tuesday's (November 8, 2006) New York Times story about how France is seeking to have video games recognized as a cultural industry eligible for tax breaks, similar to French cinema.

Here's Thomas Crampton's article.

    For France, Video Games Are as Artful as Cinema

    France is proud of its contribution to culture in such forms as existentialism, Impressionism and auteur films. Now the French culture minister wants to add Donkey Kong to his country’s pantheon of high art.

    “Call me the minister of video games if you want — I am proud of this,” the minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, said in an interview last month. “People have looked down on video games for far too long, overlooking their great creativity and cultural value.”

    Mr. Donnedieu de Vabres is seeking to have video games recognized as a cultural industry eligible for tax breaks, similar to French cinema.

    In March, he pinned medals from the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres — a prize awarded to acknowledge cultural accomplishments — on three prominent video game designers, including Shigeru Miyamoto [top, receiving his medal from Donnedieu de Vabres], the Japanese creator of Donkey Kong. The game, popularized in the 1980s, stars an Italian plumber called Mario.

    Video game creators should receive a tax break of 20 percent, up to a ceiling of 500,000 euros, Mr. Donnedieu de Vabres says.

    “Video games are not a mere commercial product,” he insisted. “They are a form of artistic expression involving creation from script writers, designers and directors.”

    An increase in game players and game sales relative to other cultural goods underscores the need for video games to be recognized as a part of the broader culture, he said.

    For instance, the best-selling video game for 2005 in France, Pro Evolution Soccer 5, had better sales than the Harry Potter books or the DVD of “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” according to the market research firm GfK France.

    But economic interests may also play a role in pushing the tax break. France is home to Vivendi Games, Ubisoft Entertainment and Infogrames Entertainment, which owns Atari. All three companies were among the top 10 video game companies in the world by revenue in 2005.

    With a total of roughly 100 video game companies, France, along with Britain, has long produced more video games than the rest of Europe combined, according to the market research firm Idate, of Montpellier, France.

    Of late, however, the French companies have been facing tough times. Infogrames has been struggling against high debt, and an American rival, Electronic Arts, bought 19 percent of Ubisoft’s shares in 2004. And Vivendi Games earns most of its revenue from one best-selling game, World of Warcraft, said Laurent Michaud, head of the video games division at Idate.

    “It is true that the French video game sector is fragile,” Mr. Michaud said. “But this is true for companies in all markets due to the quick-changing nature of industry.”

    The minister’s push to have video games characterized as cultural goods faces challenges from the European Union and the video game industry itself.

    Since a tax break could constitute state aid to an industry, Mr. Donnedieu de Vabres went to Brussels in mid-October to argue his case with the European Union competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes. He said that the tax break would protect cultural goods and did not go against the European Union’s subsidy reduction policies.

    The Interactive Software Federation of Europe, a group of international video game companies, however, is opposed to enshrining video games as a part of cultural heritage for fear of government interference, and has resisted the tax breaks.

    “The French concept of culture is that the government knows better than consumers,” said Patrice Chazerand, secretary general of the group, based in Brussels. “It is unhealthy to have the French government using discriminatory subsidies to influence video games.”

    Those producing video games outside of France warn that financial assistance would make French game producers lose touch with their audience.

    “Similar to what happened with the French film industry, these plans will prove bad for the industry and for consumers,” said Gerhard Florin, the executive vice president in Switzerland for international publishing at Electronic Arts, which would not directly benefit from French government support. “French cinema’s financial assistance supports only a few well-connected producers who no longer need to pay attention to consumers.”

    In 2004, French cinema received support equivalent to 523 million euros, or $665 million, according to a study released in May by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

    To Yves Guillemot, chief executive of the French video game giant Ubisoft, tax breaks are necessary to keep French salaries internationally competitive. Partly because of high French salaries, only 600 of the 3,500 employees at Ubisoft are in France, Guillemot said. About 1,500 employees work in Canada, where most production occurs, with the rest spread among China, the United States, Romania and Spain.

    “Without production in France, we lose the creativity and diversity that this country offers,” Mr. Guillemot said. “When we create games in a country — if it is China or France — we put our way of life into that game.”

    Arguments for cultural diversity echo strongly with Mr. Donnedieu de Vabres, who wants to ensure France’s continued role in the video game industry. “We need a public policy to help stop this sector from outsourcing,” he said. “Just like music and the cinema, video games should be supported by the state.”

    But not all video games would receive support. Funds would go only to those that have creative input from France and are deemed to have artistic merit.

    “Video game characters will not be required to wear a beret and carry a liter of wine under their arm,” Mr. Donnedieu de Vabres said. “But we do need to protect what is different in video games produced by each nation.”


I dunno, it seems to me that video games should be at least slightly subversive, like art, music and movies: once government gets mixed up with creativity, nothing good can come of it.


Donnedieu de Vabres does seem to have a knack for publicity: he popped up again yesterday in the Financial Times, where Peter Aspden interviewed him in conjunction with a new exhibition, part of "Paris Calling: A Season of Contemporary Art from France," which opened this past summer and by the time it ends next month will have featured more than 30 exhibitions and events in England.

By the way, his full title is "Minister of Culture and Communication."

Talk about babblespeak — George Orwell couldn't have done better.

November 9, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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