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Indie games like ‘Don’t Starve’ were made in Vancouver, but artists say the government should be doing more to support them here.

More arts funding for video games, Vancouver indie developers urge

According to local artists, British Columbia is not on the same level as provinces like Ontario when it comes to funding for games.

By Akshay Kulkarni , in City Culture , on March 27, 2020

Vancouver-based artists are saying now is the time for the government to provide funding to support the local independent game scene.

Though private investment into the video-game sector in the Lower Mainland continues to expand as audiences continue to grow, smaller game developers say government art grants would help advance the medium further.

For these independent developers, more government support would mean they could get more creative control over their work.

More importantly, money that isn’t tied to commercial-only ventures would also bring video games into artistic conversations, which is something creatives are fighting for Canada-wide.

“I don’t think that they [the government] have an understanding that games are objects of cultural value,” said Leanne Roed, a local game artist. “I think that they know that, maybe, there is a market there. That’s a whole different thing than seeing games as an art form, as something that’s going to move society forward, as a way of telling stories, as a way of connecting people.”

No “games” category on funding forms

The Lower Mainland has long been one of Canada’s centres for video-game development, with over 7,000 employees at multimillion-dollar companies like EA and Relic Entertainment. The province also provides a tax credit for game companies that make more than $2 million yearly.

However, B.C. lags behind other provinces like Ontario when it comes to how it provides arts funding for games, according to local game curation collective Heart Projector, founded by local game developers Roed, Brendan Vance, Ziggy, ceMelusine, and Justin Smith.

The group had firsthand experience of the problems with B.C. arts funding when they applied to the BC Arts Council to support their video game pop-ups. The council is the provincial government’s primary arts funding body and hands out more than $20 million annually through over 1,500 grants.

An image of a meet-up with multiple game developers. There are disco lights and multiple people on laptops.
One of Heart Projector’s video game pop-ups. Credit: Heart Projector

But what Heart Projector found when they applied was that games seemingly didn’t even exist as an art form for funding.

“There’s nothing even close on the form,” said Roed. “The category “media arts” was what we were closest to.”

BC Arts Council’s grant program for media artists defines media arts as “works in film, video, audio/sound art and new media, including new information and communications technologies used for artistic expression.”

This vague definition might encompass many media and disciplines but, Vance said, it doesn’t help game artists on the other side of the funding equation, because it is confusing from their point of view.

That sort of ambiguity among arts councils is common across the country, says Jim Munroe, an artist and founder of the Ontario arts organization Hand Eye Society. His experience as an author and short filmmaker gave him a broad experience of government arts funding.

“There is an institutional-size issue –-  [arts councils are] not quick at pivoting towards new art disciplines,” he said. “You could definitely make an argument that that’s not a bad thing, because potentially that could leave it open to misuse –- someone could try to create something that doesn’t have a community behind it or real cultural value. But it is frustrating when you’re on the other end of it and it takes a few years to get momentum.”

The BC Arts Council did not respond to The Thunderbird before publication.

Game literacy lacking within government

According to Heart Projector and Munroe, arts councils’ conception of games as merely profit-driven and not as a method of methods of artistic expression is one of the root causes for the lack of game-specific funding.

“One of the critical things to understanding about arts councils is that they don’t dismiss games out of snobbery,” Munroe explained. “They dismiss them because they feel like the industry –- the commercial industry –- already takes care of this.”

A Hangouts screenshot of Jim Munroe with journalist Akshay Kulkarni in his screen on the bottom right.
Jim Munroe speaking over Google Hangouts.

That can change. Munroe saw it happen in Ontario. His organization worked over multiple years with provincial funding bodies, and Roed credits him for catalyzing the provincial government’s support for Toronto’s vibrant indie scene.

“Over the period of several years, you know, we continued to start a dialogue with a lot of the grants officers,” Munroe explained. “And they slowly but surely understood the relationship between what game artists are doing and what other artists and other disciplines are doing.”

Vance has a similar wish for the B.C. government. He wants them to research independent games and recognize the artistic game development that already happens in Vancouver.

“They need to appoint a person to go and become an expert and to go and look at these thousands of projects that have been made in B.C. Because they’re just leaving it to rot at the moment.”

Roed said the government should be proactive in making games a separate art form when allocating funds.

“Once we have a category for something, people start to be able to conceptualize it in their mind and think, ‘Oh, games! Why is games on here? How do I feel about that?’ And that starts a conversation.”

Funding provides more control

Another example of how video games get left out of specialized funding for the arts is Creative BC’s yearly Interactive Fund.

Creative BC is a funding agency of the Ministry of Tourism, Art, and Culture, and its Interactive Fund annually supports 10 “original interactive digital media and software applications,” including games. Once again, though, there is a barrier to entry — applicants have to be incorporated corporations to qualify. And, again, there is no template for application thats fit video-game development.

Last year, the Interactive Fund only provided money for two traditional games, with educational and web apps better represented. One of those recipients was Fairview Games, a two-person studio that got $50,000 to work on The Gold River Project, a survival game set in the forests of B.C.

A screenshot of the game 'The Gold River Project'. A wolf is depicted exiting a cabin in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.
A screenshot from The Gold River Project.

The duo were keen to apply to Creative BC because they wanted full creative control over their project, after their previously private-funded venture went under.

Craig Martin and David Parkes, the co-founders of Fairview, say the fact their game was set in B.C. helped them win the grant.

“To [Creative BC], the setting was instantly relatable. I think they felt that there was this connection,” said Martin.

Parkes said, “When we got it, we were blown away. We were jumping up and down hugging in the streets!”

The fact that the grant money would also stay in British Columbia was also a big draw for Creative BC. Parkes and Martin said the agency was very helpful in providing connections for the duo and helping them get where they are with The Gold River Project.

With money that helped them work more creatively, they are now on the hunt for a publisher.