Canadian Content

I never thought I could make a living in the videogame industry. I played games for fun and dreamed of being an NHL star, a fireman or a history professor. When I tell people what I do for a living, they are baffled that someone can actually feed themselves by working on and writing about videogames. But they’re right to be amazed, given the odds. Breaking into the game industry in Canada is about as hard as making it onto a pro hockey squad.

Most countries have funding for the arts. They fund movies, television and even videogames through tax breaks, grants and loans. It’s a competitive world, and they will do whatever they can to draw high tech jobs inside their borders. Unfortunately, these initiatives usually favor big foreign companies with a history of game production. Shops like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Rockstar dominate the Canadian development landscape, while homegrown successes like BioWare and Epic Games are few and far between. Cooperation with big, foreign companies is necessary, but short-sighted. No one dreams of growing up and working at EA, they dream of being the next EA.

It’s a shame; almost all government subsidizing goes to large foreign corporations who want to set up shop. Where a startup might – if you’re lucky – employ 30 people for a few years, Ubisoft can swoop in and promise jobs to thousands with as much security as any development company can provide. They get the money. Not that it doesn’t help people looking for work, but giving money to large corporations isn’t exactly in the spirit of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Ubisoft Montreal received $6,300,000 over three years from Emploi-Québec, $5,300,000 over three years from the Quebec Ministry of Education and $6,000,000 over three years from Investissement Québec as part of their expansion plans. Telefilm Canada’s New Media Fund has been set up to help smaller interactive entertainment professionals fund their projects. For 2006-2007, the Department of Canadian Heritage allocated $14,000,000 to the fund. In three years, Ubisoft – one of the largest producers of videogames in the world – will have taken in more money from the provincial government in Quebec than the rest of Canada will receive in an entire year.

There is nothing wrong with huge companies in Canada. EA Canada was named the top development studio in the world for the second year running by British magazine Develop. Ubisoft Montreal will have 2,000 employees by 2010. It would be naive to argue that they don’t deserve funding. They bring jobs and train Canadians in an industry previously closed to them. But they’re not Canadian.

In Canada, there are laws for broadcasters on how much Canadian content must cross the public airwaves. Network television in Canada cannot, no matter how much it wants to, simply broadcast NBC’s Monday night lineup each week. It must also include original content created by Canadians. The same goes for the radio. In order to play Pearl Jam, a station also needs to play Our Lady Peace.

It can be argued that those laws have more to do with the sanctity of the public airwaves than content, but it is those same laws that have allowed Canadian artists to mature, develop and, most importantly, find an audience. Comics like Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Tom Green started in Canada, while bands and singers like Nickelback, Avril Lavigne and Shania Twain all went on to find international fame after first finding it in Canada.

Shania Twain’s songs don’t make me cry maple leaves anymore than songs by American country singer Faith Hill. But knowing that someone came from a background similar to yours has an effect on you. These laws aren’t about content. They’re about national pride and developing a country where children feel they can grow up to be whatever they want.

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Because of these stars, Canadians know they can grow up to be comedians and singers. They know they have a chance. The same cannot be said for videogames.

Does anyone know Ubisoft is working on Assassin’s Creed in Montreal? How about Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia? Many Europeans would be outraged to learn that EA’s cricket, rugby and FIFA Street franchises are created in Nova Scotia. They even make NBA Live in British Columbia! How, then, can young people outside the United States ever get fired up about making videogames, if they don’t realize so much is going on in their own back yard? Most people have no idea where most blockbusters from the big corporations are developed and assume the answer is in the United States. Outsourcing tends to be a dirty word in the U.S., so it’s in the corporate interests of companies like Electronic Arts not to promote the fact that Canadians build many of their most “American” products.

This is why governments need to provide more grants, loans and awards to local entrepreneurs who want to start their own companies and pursue their own dreams. Their products may or may not be blatantly homegrown, but they don’t need to be – people from the area will be able to pick up on colloquial nuances in a company’s product. Over time, this kind of grassroots initiative can make rules that demand a certain percentage of games on shelves be produced locally. The media is bound to pick up on these peculiar little companies, and eventually, the average local gamer will know he is playing a game made by someone just like him. Just like Canadians know Jim Carey (and Pamela Anderson … sorry about that one) came from a background like theirs, they’ll know that these games do, too.

A big difference between the gaming industry and most others is that in most other creative endeavors, the government has some control over distribution. In games, it has no control whatsoever. The model, again, is the movie industry. There are no rules that force movie theatres to stock local content, and the government certainly encourages big Hollywood studios to film in Canada, but, at the same time, they help smaller Canadian companies produce movies. In fact, Telefilm Canada currently has $93,000,000 (or $79,000,000 more than “new media” gets) to help fund Canadian films. This doesn’t even begin to count the amount of money given to American companies who film in Canada. Check the end of your favorite Hollywood blockbuster’s credits. You’ll probably see a Telefilm Canada logo at the end.

Governments exist to protect and serve their people and their national identity, but it takes more than a fat wallet to do so. It is up to the government of India to give young Indians a chance to be anything they choose; it is up to the government of Switzerland to make sure the Swiss have similar opportunities. To do that, people need at least a glimmer of hope to forge their own path in whatever field they choose. When it comes to the arts, countries like Canada have done a good job of promoting that belief in fields like literature, film and television. Now it’s time for them to catch up and start giving interactive media the same attention. Only then will a little child know, no matter where he’s born, that one day they can create the next Mario.

Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Lead Content Editor for and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.

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