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How Brexit made the UK’s video games industry play on a more difficult level

One of Britain's success stories is taking a direct hit from Brexit and its impact on labour

Image: Getty

The value of the fishing industry in the UK in 2021 was £921 million. £921 million is a lot of money, but just 0.03% of the UK’s GDP that year – a drop in the North Sea.

And yet politicians – especially Brexiteers – can appear obsessed with the fishing industry. Wild claims, since disproved, were made during the referendum campaign about its huge expansion in a post-EU Britain. As Jonty Bloom wrote in The New European last month, “distant memories of a fish and chip shop on every street corner, Cornish fishermen and their sea shanties, the famous claim that the British Isles are ‘made of coal and surrounded by fish’ and the Royal Navy taking on Iceland during the Cod Wars give the industry a romantic aura”.

Conversely, politicians only seem to mention video games in terms of confected dangers, such as one Boris Johnson who, in 2007, declared it was time to “garotte the Game Boy and paralyse the PlayStation”, blaming falling literacy rates on games (he offered no evidence beyond “I refuse to believe that these hypnotic little machines are innocent”).

And yet video games are a much bigger industry in the UK than fishing. The value of the UK games market reached a record £7.16 billion in 2021. The industry adds £5.26 billion in GVA (gross value added) to the UK economy each year. And there are 2,200 games firms in the UK, supporting 73,300 jobs (11,000 are employed directly in fishing).

But the two industries share something in common – both are taking a direct hit from Brexit. And in large part for the same reason – that perennial Brexit favourite, a shortage of labour. Prior to Brexit, around a fifth of those working in the UK games industry were from other EU countries. And while that figure is still broadly similar, the industry worries that European talent is no longer applying, put off by an onerous visa application process, while the UK itself is still not producing the very specific talents the industry needs.

Colin Macdonald is director of Games Jobs Live, a platform for the industry, and previously ran Dundee-based games studio Realtime Worlds. They employed around 300 people, about a third from the EU.

“It was just an amazing wealth of talent,” he says. “We struggled to source all the talent from within the UK so we got some brilliant people from right across the EU. We were probably slightly heavier on EU talent than most people, is my sense. We were in Dundee so we just found it slightly harder to recruit compared to the Midlands or Brighton or something.

“[The industry is] not getting nearly as many people interested in moving over now. It’s partly the time… I think it’s partly just the mindset, that they’re not by default entitled to work in the UK, that there is a process to go through. So it’s more difficult for the companies. It’s just not straightforward. The money’s not going to be hugely significant – if we recognise somebody’s brilliant, in the scheme of what you would pay someone the price of the visa application’s not significant. The timescale is. If somebody’s wanting a job they’re typically wanting it sooner rather than later and not waiting whatever it is, three-plus months, to go through the visa process. I think it’s sort of a general feeling of whether they feel welcomed, in the widest sense.”

It is, says Macdonald, a “huge problem” for the industry.

“We’ve always struggled. It’s a fast-growing industry, so we’ve always struggled. I think at peak in June [2022] we had 2,800 open jobs, and most of those are senior positions. That’s a lot of jobs, that’s a lot of lost productivity that the industry just isn’t able to hire for at the moment.”

Jo Twist is the CEO of UKIE, the industry’s trade body. She says the skills shortage in the UK means it is necessary for it to import talent.

“The positive is the Tier 2 visa system, which was previously clunky for international talent, that has been streamlined and that has made an impact, I think, for a lot of people, and we’re very, very pleased to see that it has because we did lobby on that previous to the referendum to make that process a lot easier and quicker,” she says. 

“We are in a very, very competitive industry where our skillsets are required not just by other games companies all over the world – and it’s a growing industry with more demand every year – but also demand and potential competition from other sectors using similar sorts of talent, particularly if you’re talking about virtual production, in film production or VFX [visual effects].”

“There is more red tape for companies, it does cause delays if there is red tape. A lot of the companies don’t necessarily have the expertise within them if they are a micro-SME, if they’re a studio of three, four, five people, sometimes that can be a barrier. And we don’t want to see those barriers increasing, we’d rather see those barriers reduce.”

The problem, she suggests, is that the government does not talk about the video games industry like it does other sectors, despite its size.

“When you compare it to other sectors, particularly in the creative industries like television or film, you will hear more mentions and I think that’s a matter of perhaps just being more familiar with that,” she says. “And we are an industry that requires you to actively play a game in order to understand the beauty and the magic and the joy of these creative products. But I really think that government needs to perhaps embrace the industry with more confidence on the global stage in particular.”

Rishi Sunak may well be the UK’s first prime minister to have played video games – he’s revealed his favourite is Super Mario Kart. Will he listen – or will the UK be left on the starting grid?

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