Amid the hoopla surrounding the Prime Minister’s party last week for British stars of stage and screen, a significant announcement went largely unnoticed.
Vince Cable has appointed Ian Livingstone as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ creative industries champion.
The importance of the news is twofold. One, it shows that despite the razzmatazz of celebrities being feted by David Cameron, the Government really is serious about our creative sector. Two, instead of plumping for someone from the glamorous worlds of film, music, theatre or fashion, as might be expected, it went to the less voguish end of the business – to video gaming.
It’s an all-too often overlooked area – a real British success story. In film, we obsess about the Baftas and Oscars; in books there’s the Man Booker prize; fashion has all the fanfare of London Fashion Week; theatre has the Evening Standard Theatre Awards and the Oliviers. But the biggest, most successful entertainment release in the world last year, taking in £1bn in less than a week, across any medium – film, music album or book – was Grand Theft Auto V. It was developed in the UK.
For Mr Livingstone to be handed this role – which also covers creative areas like design, architecture, advertising and broadcasting – is recognition that gaming not only belongs in such company but is a growing, powerful force.
Another noteworthy aspect of the news was from where it came. Creative Industries is normally the domain of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It still is, with Ed Vaizey, the minister, as a great supporter.
This, though, was Mr Cable’s business department making the running. And what that showed was long-overdue joined-up thinking. “We’ve asked a giant of the games industry, Ian Livingstone, to act as our champion,” Mr Cable said.
Mr Livingstone, 64, is co-founder of the best-selling Fighting Fantasy game books, a co-founder too of the Games Workshop store chain, and ex-head of Eidos, the creator of Tomb Raider.
Mr Cable hailed him as “a key figure in helping to negotiate the tax treatment for the industry. He’s also a highly successful entrepreneur and really understands those links between business and creativity, which is at the heart of what we’re doing.”
The Government is right to take it seriously: the creative industries contribute more than £71bn a year to the UK economy – a figure that has grown by almost 10 per cent since 2011, more than any other sector – and 1.71 million people now work in the sector.
“The creative industries is often seen as a fluffy industry run by luvvies,” said Mr Livingstone. “We want the world to know it’s a strong sector in its own right, same as manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and property.”
It’s also a rare British success story. “We’re great at creativity – we’re the envy of the world,” added Mr Livingstone.
He’s right, but we should not kid ourselves either. “One of the problems I want to address,” he said, “is that very often we’re very good at being creative, but we’re not good at retaining the intellectual property that stems from that creativity. We have the ideas, we commercialise them, and we can scale them up for a global audience, but too often we give away the intellectual property in them so that the profits, and taxes, go elsewhere.”
The difficulty usually occurs at the funding stage. In a creative industry, the only asset is the rights, and they’re frequently exchanged in return for extra support, often to a larger foreign player. It’s music to the ears to hear Mr Livingstone assert that he wants to try to stop us being such a “for hire” nation.
He’s got what he terms his “five Ps” to attempt to stem the flow: perception – to raise the profile and importance of creative industries among politicians and the media; pipes – to ensure we have the best broadband available for downloading and uploading digital content; property – a strong copyright regime that enables creators to hang on to the rights for as long as they can, which is how you build value; pounds – get investors to understand the value of the intellectual property we create; and people – we’ve got a booming domestic film industry but still, 80,000 Brits are working in Hollywood. Just as in fashion, too many of our designers are employed by foreign houses.
With the support of the Department for Culture, and the understanding of the value of the creative industries to the economy shown by the Business Secretary, Mr Livingstone is confident of having the cross-departmental backing that he needs. He’s especially keen on the last “P” – people.
Mr Livingstone is something of an evangelist about children being taught computing as part of the national curriculum. “I want to change our kids from consumers of technology to creators of technology.”
He wants schools to build environments in which technology skills flourish. He’s also keen to see art and design given more prominence, to stop them being marginalised.
Right now, if anything, the move is in the other direction, with additional emphasis being placed upon standardised testing in the core subjects. “It seems to me we’re in danger of not encouraging diversity but increasing conformity,” said Mr Livingstone. “We must not drain that creative spark, because we are the most creative country in the world.”
To that end, he is pursuing the setting up of a new free school in Hammersmith, west London, which will focus on equipping pupils for the digital jobs market. It will concentrate on science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.
He also believes children should learn through playing video games, rather than be subjected to “Victorian” rote learning – being forced to memorise facts that can be discovered at the click of a mouse. “Our children need skills for jobs that don’t even exist yet. They need inquiring minds, to push themselves, to be team players, to take risks, and to communicate.”
In this, he has incurred the wrath of Toby Young, the columnist and developer of a free school, also in Hammersmith. Mr Young stressed that the proximity of Mr Livingstone’s proposed school to his had nothing to do with his criticism, but rather “wrong-headed” ideas about education.
Mr Livingstone wants children at his school to aspire to be Mark Zuckerberg. But, as Mr Young has pointed out, the Facebook founder learned Latin until he was 18. “Yes, Zuckerberg studied Latin ,” said Mr Livingstone, “but Toby Young forgets to mention he studied computer science at university. I suspect the skills needed to invent Facebook came from computer science – that computer science had a greater bearing on creating Facebook. Computer science, it’s the new Latin; it underpins the digital world in which we live.”
We need to teach our kids, he said, to try and try again – to take risks, and to keep trying. “People forget that Angry Birds was [developer] Rovio’s 51st game, not the first.”
Those who dismiss video games as shoot ’em ups – exercises in teaching children violence – are wrong. Some do but others, such as Minecraft, now dominating computer and tablet screens across Britain, do not. “Those who say games have no value in learning are totally missing the point,” said Mr Livingstone. “They approve, rightly, of their children playing Lego, but Minecraft is like Lego except in digital form. The prejudice comes from people who have never played a video game in their lives.”
As someone who has children devoted to Minecraft, I can only agree. And where is home for Minecraft’s developer and owner? Sweden.