The Canadian video game industry is growing rapidly — but not in Alberta.
On November 18, Alberta Culture Minister David Eggen announced an $11 million increase to the Alberta Media Fund, bringing it to a total of $36.8 million. The fund provides support to groups and individuals involved in “screen-based media production, book and magazine publishing and sound recordings.” One of its parts is the Alberta Production Grant, which is meant to provide “funding for the creation of screen-based narrative content.” But under the requirements and limitations, video games are specifically excluded from the grant.
It’s ironic that the grant page specifically mentions “screen-based narrative content” because the industry leader in narrative video games comes from Edmonton. Although it’s now owned by the monolithic Electronic Arts, BioWare was founded by three University of Alberta med school graduates. The company went on to create the highly successful and influential Baldur’s Gate, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect and Dragon Age series, all of which have had a tremendous influence on how video games tell stories. Today, BioWare is one of the few companies that actually employs writers instead of getting other developers or freelancers to do it.
Maybe a grant isn’t the most efficient way to encourage industry growth outside of independent studios, or smaller scale, more artistic projects. Companies are largely concentrated in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia for one reason: digital media tax credits. In BC, video game companies can claim a tax credit worth about 17.5 per cent of eligible salaries and wages incurred in the tax year. Ontario’s tax credit is 40 per cent on labour, and marketing and distribution expenses. Quebec almost cut their tax credit of 30 per cent on salaries in 2014, but brought them back after pressure from their large industry. Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island also offer digital media tax credits.
The Entertainment Software Association of Canada releases an annual report with data on the Canadian video game industry. Their most recent report on 2014 shows that the number of active studios in Canada increased by 143 to 472 since 2013. The industry added $3 billion to the Canadian GDP, up 31 per cent since 2013. It also generates 36,500 jobs nationwide, and the report anticipates at least another 1,300 jobs in the next 12-24 months. The industry is obviously growing fast.
It isn’t just the government’s fault. The television, film, music and performing arts industries all have well-established groups that can lobby government for more funding. Although there are organizations federally, there aren’t as many provincially, at least not in Alberta. Fortunately, we do have GameCamp, the local Edmonton chapter of the International Game Developers Association. They recently drafted a letter in which they encourage members to send to their MLAs. One line sticks out: “We are hemorrhaging talent.”
We keep making it easier to grow talent, but we’re not making enough efforts to keep it. The University of Alberta introduced a Certificate in Computer Game Development two years ago, adding a variety of game related courses to the existing roster. Although there are theoretical courses, the bulk of the certificate is focused on actually making games rather than just studying them. But if graduates aren’t willing to leave Edmonton or take a massive risk starting their own business, they’ll have a hard time finding a job that takes advantage of their skills and interests.
Video games are far from a niche industry: 54 per cent of the Canadian population plays them, and 65 per cent of last year’s Canadian games were for mobile devices which almost everyone owns. Edmonton’s games scene definitely isn’t stagnant, but it could definitely use a boost. We’re always talking about alternate sources of revenue in Alberta. We can create one, take advantage of our existing talent and promote our province’s arts and culture by investing in the video game industry.