By Bryan T. Bayne

One hundred young men rent an old Neogothic castle in southern Poland for a weekend to dress like medieval noblemen and play games. It sounds like the plot of some B-list horror movie, but it was part of a video game competition in 2019. It is one among many examples of the growing influence of video games on European culture and youth.

Video games have become a huge industry in Europe. The EU market is estimated to be worth over €21 billion in 2020, having grown 55% since 2014. The EU is home to some of the biggest companies in the world. In 2020, CD Projekt Red briefly became the most valuable company in Poland and released a game that—despite much controversy—sold 13 million copies at a €60 price tag each. The continent’s second video games giant, the French Ubisoft, is worth some €8.6 billion, four times as much as AirFrance-KLM.

Globally, the gaming industry is worth roughly three times the box office for movies. Besides financial clout, the industry also has a large, and growing, cultural impact, especially on the youth. Roughly half the population of Europe plays games, spending an average of 8.6 hours a week on them. Teenagers often learn history not from school textbooks, but from popular games like Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series—teachers have taken note and brought the game into their classrooms. A quick Google search will reveal that countless millennials have learned English as a second language through video games, rather than classrooms—and recent research corroborates this claim. The overall cultural impact of video games on young people cannot be overstated: it is likely similar, if not higher, than movies & television, and therefore it deserves more attention from the EU and European governments.

Unfortunately, Europe has scarcely paid attention to the gaming industry, brushing it off as unimportant, nerdy leisure. While national governments compete to offer evermore lavish subsidies for their film industries—aware of the influence of films—games are often neglected. Both the EU and its Member States seek to control foreign influence through film and television by establishing minimum quotas for European works. At least 30% of Netflix’s catalog, for example, must be European. The European Commission has announced that it seeks to classify British films as “non-European” and therefore cut the amount of British content on cinemas, televisions, and streaming websites. No such control exists for video games. 

Likewise, there are countless examples of European institutions getting involved with the film industry. The Council of Europe established an observatory to monitor and study film media, and the European Parliament created a film prize, among other examples. No such institutions exist for video games. The few EU-funded projects in the field, such as grants for citizen science projects, are tiny if compared to the funds devoted to other media.

This lack of attention comes with a price tag. While it is true that Europe is home to some video games giants, including in unlikely places such as Poland or Sweden, the industry does not live to its full potential and pales in comparison to American and Chinese firms. One revealing example comes from Minecraft, the world’s best-selling video games of all time. The game was developed by a Swedish firm, Mojang, which in 2014 was acquired by Microsoft. More often than not, European companies that lack capital must look either to America or China for investment—and ownership.

That is a misguided approach. Video games present many benefits and policymakers should pay more attention to them. First, because they exert a huge influence on youth. If governments care about film & television due to their potential to influence people, they should for the same reason pay attention to games. Second, because game development has the potential to support economic development across the EU, rather than in its richest members. It requires little capital spending, but provides well-paying jobs—companies invest in programmers, rather than factories. Poland for example has benefitted from attracting international talent to work in well-paying jobs in its video games industry, spurring development in its cities. Finally, a strong video games industry spurs investment in computer science, programming, and AI—all key areas in the EU’s vision of “strategic autonomy.” 

There are several steps the EU may take to bolster its own video games industry. In 2019, the EU opened for the first time a call for applications to support the development of European games. It provided €3.6 million to video game production companies to develop a “highly innovative storytelling” game that represents Europe’s “cultural diversity and heritage.” That is a tacit acknowledgment that games impact youth and should be paid attention to, but it is not enough. The EU should also establish regulatory frameworks. In 2020, the European Parliament commissioned a study about the effect of lootboxes on youth—loot boxes are controversial gaming items that have been linked to gambling and that many critics advocate banning. Both are steps in the right direction. Besides continuing and expanding such initiatives, the EU should also consider regulating and encouraging esports, as it looks likely their popularity and importance will only grow. Ultimately, unless Europe’s attitude of neglect towards the gaming industry changes, it may be game over for Europe’s video game industry.

Image credits: Lucie Liz

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