Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Gaming deserves neither tax breaks, or arts funding

Yeah…nobody will agree, but sod it, here is my argument. Talk me round, tell me I’m wrong, I’m always interested in having my mind changed.

When I read about demands for tax breaks for the games industry, or more arts funding for the games industry I cringe, and I find it totally embarrassing. I wish people would not do this, and I feel bad when they do, and when such things happen. I think its actually not only a bad idea, but I genuinely believe this to be morally and ethically *wrong*. Here is my argument:

I love games, I think games are great. I love the games industry. I think both are a force for good in the world. If more people could make games and play games, I’d be happier. I think thats a pretty widespread view amongst readers of this blog. The problem is… I think government money should be spent on more deserving causes. As someone who studies politics a lot (no surprise given that i made this game), it interests me that the argument that the industry should have both tax breaks and arts funding generally comes from the left of the political spectrum. I find this slightly odd. In some respects, its understandable, as the left is generally pro-state-spending, and you can see the argument that the right opposes all government spending and the left wants to spend more, so its natural that the left hold this position but I find it strange because of the opportunity cost.

To put it another way, every government penny that gets spent on lower taxes for game developers, or on funding to make games, is a penny not spent on something else. Here is the UK, there is much debate about the huge rise in the use of food banks, and the reductions in benefit payments. Can we really make an argument that when the government cuts benefits that it should still ring-fence money to provide for game developers?


I often think that tech-savvy games people live in a bit of a bubble. I found the whole idea of ‘giving the poorest children in Africa laptops’ a bit ‘let them eat cake’. There are many problems in the world far more basic than access to portable IT. Education, decent roads, clean water, safe and cheap energy to name a few. I think the problem is that many well-meaning people who campaign for such things can only empathize with people ‘not having decent computers’, never with ‘actually hungry or in need of clean water’, because its just not in their experience.

If you gave me a hundred million dollars on condition I gave it away, I would not use a single penny of it to fund a non commercial indie game. Not one. This is because its very very far down on the list of prioritizes as I see it.

(You might think this makes me a hypocrite, because I invest in other games being made, but thats a commercial enterprise, not charity. The money earned from any games Positech makes gets taxed (and unlike most companies we absolutely 100% pay our taxes by the letter AND the spirit of the law), and hopefully spent to do good things. If I knew how to run a business that did something more worthy, I’d do it instead, but sadly it seems the thing I’m best at is this.)

If I was Prime Minister, and you insisted that I spend a hundred million pounds, it could not go to charity and had to be spent in the UK, then I’d probably spend it on a combination of Green Energy projects and Education grants for people from poor backgrounds. In some ways this looks again like hypocrisy, I’ll subsidize green energy, but not games? why? Mostly because the threat of >2 degree warming for the climate is potentially devastating, and the people who will be hurt first, and hardest are the poorest. Even if we took away every single game development job in the country, nobody is actually going to die. Its a matter of priorities.

This isn’t restricted to games though, I’m not ‘anti-games’ in some weird way. I’m against any major distortion in markets created by government which claims to be done for the ‘cultural good’. Although I think the people who back such moves are well-meaning and nice people, I think the outcomes are warped. One of the main reasons for this is I have become (in my forties) exactly the sort of person who benefits from this activity, and I see it as hugely unjustified, not to mention not needed.

In 2010, the London Royal Opera House received a government subsidy of just over £27m. Thats roughly $40,000,000. The royal opera house is not a food bank. Here is a picture:


Sadly I can’t find up to date figures for the subsidy but I doubt they are any lower. By the way, if you want a ticket for tonight a brief check shows they range from £147-£184. (They make a huge play of the tiny number of ‘cheap tickets’, which was a concession to justify the subsidy). The idea that a country that has food banks subsidizes people like me to go watch Don Giovanni is just staggering, and frankly, quite disgusting.

Now you might make the argument that opera is valuable and enriches the spirit and soul of the people, and thus must be subsidized….yeah maybe, but how about we wait until everyone is warm, educated and not hungry first? And lets see if that argument plays well in the queue at a food bank, or if it plays well with homeless people? I suspect not.

Now obviously if you disagree with me, by this point you are fuming that I’m equating the excesses of the royal opera house with funding indie games or giving tax breaks to games companies. But I am going to go ahead and tell you they are the same thing. they are the ‘great and the good’ clamoring for public money (in other words, taxpayers money) to pay for something that they enjoy because….. they think its great.

This, to me, is undemocratic. Deeply. We have a way of deciding what entertainment people prefer, and its the free market. More people listen to Gangnam Style than go to the opera because that is what they prefer. The idea that the great unwashed masses would love opera if only they could afford it is bollocks. If it were true, TV shows about opera would be ratings-busters. If it was true that what people really wanted in games were experimental arty games, then those would be top sellers. There are plenty of such games available. I believe it is morally wrong to not only tell people what they ‘should’ like, but also to tax them to subsidize things they clearly do not want. This is definitely the case with such luxuries and frivolities as entertainment.


Now I *know* that other countries subsidize games, and we have to compete, and thats the only argument I currently grudgingly accept, but I’d rather we lobbied to have others subsidies removed than add some of our own. The idea that there is a government department deciding which video games get funding is incredibly distasteful to me, and it should concern you too.

So yeah…I’m pretty opposed to arts subsidies for anything. If you want to spend your time as an experimental street-art troupe that depicts 1920s Romanian family issues, then thats great. Go for it, but don’t think I’ll applaud my tax money going to subsidize that. And if you want to make an experimental game with no interest in commercial appeal, then that sounds like a great hobby project, but again, don’t expect my tax money to subsidize that either.

Am I wrong? And if I am, argue me round. Don’t tell me I’m a fascist or an idiot. My politics are very complex, and not hard left or right. I think about these issues all the time, this isn’t an opinion I’ve picked off the internet :D.


14 thoughts on Gaming deserves neither tax breaks, or arts funding

  1. Here’s another argument against industry subsidies —

    Moral issues completely aside, it generates a surprising unintended consequence, countries start competing to offer bigger subsidies, which entices studios to move around the country, while publishers capture the subsidy value for themselves rather than trickling down to to studios and employees, and ultimately causes a race-to-the-bottom effect.

  2. I’m about as left as it goes as far as “progressives”, but I tend to agree with your opinion mostly.

    The tricky part though, is that funding for the Arts is horrible (at least in America where I live) and I do think they’re worth investing in for our future generations.

    I also tend to lean towards the idea that video games are definitely art; yet, I wouldn’t consider tax breaks for the companies that make them the same as giving money to schools or scholarships for up and coming game designers.

  3. You are right:
    Why make and preserve art anyway?
    Thousands of painters smear paint on canvas, some sell it for thousands, the majority lives off welfare. We dont need them or their work. Let all artists starve or retrain them for jobs that actually save lives or make money.

    We spend billions on preserving architecture, pictures, statures, and for what? There are 28 World Heritage Sites in the UK. They get millions in tax money to preserve these sites. What is the bloody point in preserving something like Stonehenge, or the London Tower? Why keep all these castles in the uk open? They are completely useless. Tear them down and use the money to build homes for the homeless…or better yet offices, where people can work and earn money.

    Only things humans really need such as food, warmth and education are worthy of spending money (your tax money) on them.

    No wait, you are wrong:
    Or maybe humans need art just as much. If humans didn’t need art, there wouldn’t be any. Evolution would not have allowed art to exist.
    I suppose people see art as a basic human need like warmth and food and as such it deserves public funding (even if some tiny uk-based game developer cannot see it ;) ).

    But this games are art discussion is indeed embarassing. Who cares. some game developers are so desperate for the recognition of others, they certainly behave like artists.
    Videogames have been around for only 50 years or so. The established arts have been around for thousands of years. Just give it another 50-100 years and it will be fine.

    1. I don´t think the question is so simple as “do games deserve tax breaks or art funding”, looking at it like that you lack context, this is highly situational and a contextless discussion is close to meaningless. (this got abit big, so there is a TL:DR at the bottom)

      For example. Let´s say one city decides to have some art funding because they believe that more art will improve the quality of life of it´s people. The government believes this to be worthwhile (if it is or not is another discussion).

      In that case, should videogames have as much access to this as painters, movie makers, musicians and so on? I believe, int hat case the answer is yes. Video game sshould eb treated no diferently than other froms of art.

      Regarding tax-breaks in a similar light, let´s say soemwhere decides to give some industries tax-breaks not because they have any special right to tax breaks for their own nature, but because they believe that incentives for developing that industry there will be beneficial to it´s citizens? In that case the games industry should be as worthy of consideration as any other. If they believe having that industry there will be more beneficial than the tax that MIGHT be lost, than tax breaks are a good thing. Specially if you consider that without tax breaks m,aybe the industry would not be there at all, so no tax money is lost by the place, rather they gain some money that would have gone somewhere else.

      Aditionally depending on where you are corruption varies a lot. If oen as a citizen believes that his tax money will go to important things, like health education, etc… than one is less likely to resent paying tax than if he believes it will go towards expensive dinners and parties for politicians.

      It is important to note that this should not be considered as a simple “are games more important than X” but as a return of investment problem: Will spending $ on develpoping this particula rindustry suficiently improve the economy in such a way that it will give a (direct or indirect) return of investment allowing for an increase in “X” superior to the increase that would be gotten by simply investing $ directly in “X”

      TL DR: a)Should games get funding merely because they are games? NO.
      b)If the government of a place decided to ofeer art funding because they believe it is worthwhile, should games have as much access ot it as other forms of art? YES
      c) Should games have tax breaks simply because of what theya re? NO
      d) If the government has decided that ofering tax breaks to a carefully chosen industry would be a net benefit to the place, should the games industry be as worthwhile of consideration as any other industry? YES

  4. Access to information in developing countries is not “let them eat cake”.

    I grew up in a world without IT and the ignorance that fostered is something most people cannot imagine. Many people would believe rumours and superstition because there was no access to a decent authority. Access to information allows you to sterilize water and cultivate food yourself.

    Cutting funding to the arts is basically ruling out arts. If art can only be commercially viable it isn’t art. We discover nothing that wouldn’t be invested in beforehand. We find out nothing that doesn’t require paying up front. No experimentation. No freedom of thought – all thought must be paid for. There are many examples of state funded arts that became hugely profitable only after they were released to the public. Many more careers that started funded by the state – only to bloom commercially once they were established.

    I think this argument is a bit ignorant of what the world owes to the arts. It’s all, “I don’t like art! Rubbish! Everything should only be done if it makes money!”

    Like saying that all movies should be like Micheal Bay’s Transformers movies. They make lots of money right? We should only make those right?

    1. You are aware that other styles of movie other than michael bays are commercially successful right?
      If you read my post you will see I go the the opera. I’m hardly saying ‘cut this because I don’t like it’. I’m actually saying I *do* like it, and yet that doesn’t mean others who clearly do not should subsidize my entertainment.

      1. While I understand the pragmatic logic behind backing-up projects following their apparent, physically-palpable urgency, it is based on a personal list of priorities.

        1°) First, when you wanna help people, they shall be part of the loop and have a voice in the matter. If they are/have not, then you are trying to save them

        When you decide people need this rather than that: who decides? for whom?

        Talking about food banks: why do they exist? why? why?… (famous 5-whys technique ;o) )
        The ‘easy’ solution is to provide people with state-managed solutions (either food-banks, compensatory revenue, etc.). But isn’t the problem root causes more complex? How does it impact/influence to priorities list?

        Do those people want this kind or pragmatic/down-to-the-earth ‘solutions’ which might be seen as mere patches?
        Is it acceptable to them to live with the burden of knowing they depend on the state and thus on the money of tax-payers simply to live/survive?
        Won’t that serve as a pretext for some people to force those poors doing stuff just because they kind of are ‘in debt’ of the provided ‘help’?

        This leads to my second point:

        2°) The basics needs of people are not sometimes the most obvious not the more direct ones.
        This is something people pretending to ‘help others’ and working/being active in social structures do not even remotely get nor envision.

        Here is a small metaphor:
        Pick someone in deep need of basic resources: homeless, no resources, no family links, no social life other than random homeless people each fighting for his/her own survival, etc.
        You have 2 choices:
        a) Spending 10 minutes talking to this person without giving them a penny nor anything
        b) Giving him/her £10 and walking away
        Which is best? Opinions diverge.

        You told giving children in Africa laptops was useless. Well, said like that it sounds it is.
        However, how do you think the impact of having practially no access to the Internet, thus to the world (as globalized as we know), is on their lives/economy/politics?
        There, mobile phones are the vector which ‘booms’ in big cities because they provide this sought-after connection.

        They know how to survive, otherwise they would be dead already. So they have access to basic food and water supply, even if scarce and barely drinkable.
        What they need, as a collective and as countries/mass, is an engine, which usually is the economy.
        WIth that in mind, would you rather print food stamps or welcome technological projects aiming at providing people with access to this distant ‘globalized bubble’? How do you make things change?

        I do not say you should not help providing better food or water supplies, and there are project for that already, but in the priorities list, stating technology is not a necessity compared to food or water is maybe a bit premature…

        Now back to our suject: tax spending.
        You might spend tax money on necessities because they are visible and have direct impact.
        You might decide doing so is short-lived and aim at longer-lasting projects: which are they? Giving money? Providing jobs? Subsidizing leisure activites? Making districts/areas/cities/regions more attractive to both live and work? etc.

        Which criteria whould you base this spending so it has the best impact?
        Same question again.
        In order to have the best impact, how would you spend tax money?
        Same quesiton again.
        Now, are you sure? ;o)

  5. Saw this article on this topic, some interesting statistics in it:

    I understand where Cliff is coming from, though it seems like the logic could be applied to a lot of other subsidies/tax-breaks the U.S. and other governments dole out. Seems like a byproduct of globalization and free trade is the pitting of one country against another to bribe companies with the most favorable tax circumstances possible to lure them and jobs those companies bring.

    It seems like even if we don’t go as far as removing these tax breaks (which given politics and lobbying, I’m sure won’t happen anyway), perhaps an acceptable middle ground first step might be to either (1) more strongly link tax breaks to projects and research that provide a more demonstrable public good, or (2) require that companies receiving these tax breaks dedicate some portion of their business endeavors towards projects that benefit the public., or that the games made using these funds become free after a period of time.

    If you took 50 people from the phonebook they’d probably come up with a more principled approach than exists now, but moneyed interests and lobbyists will ensure these corporate giveaways continue.

  6. The problem with arts funding in general, which Cliffski alludes to, is that generally the people who benefit from arts funding are people who least need the support (Middleclass and the Rich) whereas the people who benefit the least from arts funding are the most disadvantaged – the poor, the disenfranchised, etc.

    If we consider it a moral obligation to provide a safety net for the people in our countries, which I do as a citizen of the US, how can we justify giving tax breaks to entertainment companies when we quibble over how much we are spending on foodstamps and welfare? The pie is limited, and every cent that goes toward luxury goods industries and entertainment industries which benefits the less needy, takes away from money which can be spent on the more needy.

  7. I may be speaking from ignorance here (apologies of course, and I welcome the facts here), but the thing I think when hearing this argument is that while some targets are clearly more urgent than others when providing government funding, there is a fundamental need to diversify the government’s portfolio. This is important for two reasons:

    1) Uncertainty in the effect of spending/more spending
    2) Representing a diverse set of needs for a diverse population (local or worldwide)

    While it’s great to think that if we funnel all arts spending into feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, it’s possible that money is not enough, or that it takes more than money (or, sadly, that it’s simply an unsolvable problem without some kind of paradigm shift). Extra money certainly helps, but what if it helps inefficiently?

    In addition, even if the well-off side of the population is a minority, their needs should be represented (and not necessarily just in the free market) if we’re talking about democracy, right? If we strip all funding from the things which they may find valuable, then they may be fine for some time, but become disenfranchised in the long term, then stop supporting the system which is trying to help the less-well-off. This is obviously an extreme argument, but I think it may be a fair representation of some of the thought process behind these decisions.

    There is certainly free market money in entertainment, but to strip any and all government subsidy is to say that there is zero need for exploration in the medium in ways which may not be obviously desirable to the current consumer market. Just because something can obtain money in the free market does not disqualify it for government spending, I think. There are forces at work in the ‘free market’ besides the desires of the consumer as well, and government subsidies can go some way to safeguard the sanctity of the free market.

    Anyways, I hope I’ve made my point. It’s certainly true that the amount may be disproportionate, and this is a figure worth investigating and discussing. I guess I’m just saying I have difficulty accepting a blanket ‘This isn’t necessary, there are other things which are more necessary, let’s take all funding from it and move it there’. A similar argument could apply to advanced sciences if we’re not careful with definitions of usefulness to society.

    Sorry for the long reply.

  8. It seems the logical conclusion to your argument is that no “higher economical status” spending/subsidy will occur until poverty, unemployment, and hunger are solved, as exemplified by your examples of what you would do as PM. While the goal seems to make intuitive sense, given how much money is spent on those problems already, it’s hard to imagine taking the subsidies from arts would suddenly fix it.

    The argument presented in your post also suggests that the government is incapable and/or shouldn’t be allowed to spend money on multiple tiers of problems until the previous tier is solved. It loosely suggests that solving fundamental problems such as poverty, will fix the others, when I don’t think there’s direct evidence to suggest that’s the case. The opera house or other arts projects, while they’d benefit from a more prosperous citizenry, can and possibly will still continue to suffer financially without help from a government that values investing in arts/culture.

    mis-appropriation of funds, I’d argue, are constants across all levels of government. So consolidating the funds of arts subsidies into food banks most likely wouldn’t solve that problem. So the amounts some arts subsidies provide, however justified, are a separate argument.

  9. I think there are a few fundamental questions in this post. Are games ART? Should games be publicly funded? Should ART be publicly funded? What priority should it be funded.

    The first question has a simple answer. Yes. No. The rest are more complicated.

    Some games art clearly works of ART, just as a Hitchcock film is a work of ART. It is telling a story, and that story is different for every one that plays it. It make each participant feel uniquely.

    On the other hand, we all know games that are nothing more than fodder for the trash heap.

    Now, Art and Entertainment have long traditions in the governmental sphere, as a way to both display the wealth of the country, and as a way to appease the masses. By funding games, the government is saying they are wealthy enough they can spend money on frivolous pursuits, and it has the add benefit of, hopefully, being something they want to play.

    Traditionally, we have things such as the 6 Wonders of the World because of such excess.

    I also am of the opinion that manufacturing will continue to move around the globe until it won’t make a difference where you put the factory. We will need to replace this type of work with other things, and by funding entertainment content creation, which include games, music, tv, movies, Youtube and every other creative pursuit, the government is hedging its bets on a potential market place.

    In the last few years, these types of media have been the second largest and largest export of the US. It can make sense to foster that type of community. It can also make sense if you are trying to fight off the “Hollywood” effect having so many of the Worlds greatest blockbusters coming from the US has on culture. If you want to spread the British or Scottish culture, do you want it to be Hollywoods take, or do you want a Brittish take.

    Now, ideally, we have the resources in the world today to feed everyone. We have the technology, and it is getting better all the time. Our governments are not concerned with other governments problems, however, only with what will get them elected next election. Which is why they don’t even care about the people that go hungry in the streets, so long as it doesn’t affect the election.

    This is frankly a huge topic, and probably deserves a book to be written. But thanks for discussing the topic.

  10. In a perfect world, I agree with you. Governments shouldn’t be spending taxpayer money on this stuff, or choosing the winners and losers of an industry. My first choice would be for all of these BS expenses to stop, and the money used instead on tax breaks for lower income people.

    But that perfect world doesn’t exist, governments are going to waste money to buy votes so I’d rather they waste it here than on even more stupid ideas.

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