In most social democratic countries (that is, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, troll-infested Scandinavia and much of Europe), the government provides some state support to the arts and sport, either directly through grants and training or indirectly through subsidies for community participation and activity. Let’s consider a few examples of these from around the world that I know.
Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics the UK invested heavily in amateur sports that would be represented in the Olympics, and in that year for the first time in a long time its sportspeople performed at a level that one would expect for a country of its size: this was preparation for the UK Olympics of 2012, where it’s expected they’ll do even better and, in a remarkable turnaround, will repeat the 2008 performance of beating Australia in sports we’re usually good at (I think they beat us at swimming in 2008). The UK also famously maintains free access to its public museums, which is a great thing (though my god they are crowded).
Australia has a long-standing practice of funding sports at many levels, including a cricket academy and soccer academy. State and local governments also maintain a very large number of public sports grounds that see heavy use: this community participation is the main reason Australia has four healthy football codes, one more than the UK and three more than the US. Women’s soccer in Australia is also booming and in fact the main break on its growth was the limited availability of grounds, which put women’s soccer into competition for resources with men’s soccer. Given the nature of a soccer ground, this kind of problem is often only resolved through public funding (to make more park space available). Australia also maintains a very well-organized system of political support for sport, which is manifested through e.g. the martial arts accreditation scheme and state-sponsored inquiries into the management of elite soccer. This sort of stuff is necessary to maintain momentum in the growth of new sports. Australia also maintains a system of grants for artists (the Australia Council) which fund any kind of new art through a supposedly competitive process. In addition to separate funding for the major elite arts (like opera and orchestras), Australia’s most famous landmark building, the Sydney Opera House, was built from public funds. So the arts at many levels are funded well by the state, through our taxes.
Japan maintains a network of public halls, kominkan, which are available for use for any cultural pursuit: flower-arranging, book groups, role-playing groups, you name it. The Japanese prefectures and city offices also maintain special martial arts buildings (budokan) for the practice of all forms of combat sport – you can book rooms in these halls to practice your own. Sumo is supported through public funding to some extent, I think (a source of much dissatisfaction to many Japanese when they see match-fixing and gambling scandals, and notice that the best-behaved sumo wrestlers are the foreigners!) Japan’s public schools and universities also maintain a heavy level of sports participation through clubs. I’m sure there’s other types of arts and cultural funding over here too, if I care to look.
Of course before the modern state this type of subsidy also existed, in the form of noble or religious patronage, but this subsidy came with the rather sad downside of requiring its recipients to either directly sing the praises of their patrons, or to at least look the other way from their worst flaws. So subsidy is not new, even if it is more systematized and conducted under more complex institutional arrangements in the modern world.
Since the mid-70s, however, the developed world has seen a flowering of cultural activities that were almost exclusively developed in the private sphere and/or through private sector initiative, without a skerrick of direct state subsidy. As a few examples: plane- and train-watching; martial arts; various forms of collecting; computer gaming; lego and meccano; wargaming; and, of course, role-playing. These cultural activities have developed over a long period of entirely private investment and support, in the sense that there was no government support for them as cultural activities either on the corporate side (in setting up companies to sell the activity); the individual side (in turns of subsidization or support for involvement); or the community side (in, e.g. special halls or facilities for them). Indeed, famously, after 9/11 the state intervened actively (though not deliberately) to make plane-spotting a good deal harder than it was.
Would the government have saved us from 4e?
One obvious question that this raises is whether these activities would have been more or less successful, or even different at all, if they had received state support as burgeoning cultural activities. Looking at the history of TSR, for example, it appears to have folded or near-folded several times, and gone through all sorts of weird product-redesign and marketing strategies to save itself (plus there was all that internal nastiness). Would the company’s history, and thus the game’s development trajectory, have been different if in the period from, say, 1972 to 1985 it had been able to receive some small quantity of government support as a cultural activity? One argument would be that with “handouts” supporting it the game would have disappeared up its own arsehole, becoming some post-modern weirdness disconnected from its market of gamers; the other is that with a bit of basic financial support the designers would have been freed up to focus on quality product rather than chasing the next bonanza, or at least able to spend a few years producing a coherent game system without worrying about matching their production activities to whatever marketing scheme they thought would save the company. I guess this argument comes down to one about industrial policy (should your government pick winners like Japan and the USA do, or should it foster competitiveness like Australia and New Zealand do). But I think we can boil this issue down to one simple question: would TSR have needed to make 4th Edition if they were receiving a government subsidy?
What sort of subsidies would be appropriate?
Taking as read that social democratic societies will continue this practice of funding cultural and sporting activities, what sorts of things would be suited to RPGs if they were included under the rubric of “cultural activity”? Here are a few things I’ve thought of that I think actually would help to make gaming more widespread, more enjoyable, and perhaps more diverse:
- Sponsorship of conventions: this would enable the conventions to be held in better locations, to have budgeted conference dinners, prizes, and possibly pay for attendance by renowned designers or GMs. It would also enable the game to spread outside of its heartland areas a little.
- Recognition of some games as cultural icons, and their preservation either in print or digitally for common use: for example, the UK government might declare Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2 an iconic game and provide funds to maintain it in print or in an online archive, thus ensuring that it didn’t disappear. Some games that I think this would be a really good idea for include ICE’s Middle Earth Role-Playing, some form of OD&D, WFRP2, and the original Shadowrun. This wouldn’t preclude the companies from making new versions of these games, but it would mean that games of cultural significance were retained. Look at the effort the OSR puts into producing variants of OD&D as an example of the benefits of retaining these games in print or online.
- Funding and research support for those elements of, eg, the OSR that are trying to piece together the history of the game, for example through funds to travel and do interviews, support in archiving and organization, and specialist research tasks (including translation)
- Greater support for academic study of gaming, for example through research grants
- Support for copyright issues: no gaming company can afford the rights to Harry Potter, I suspect, but a Harry Potter game would really help to spread RPGs around. If the government fronted up the money for the rights, then maybe this could happen – even a flawed Potter game would be a huge benefit to the gaming community, I think. More generally, access to the rights for game settings and art connected to them could help the industry a lot
- Support for culture-specific games: e.g. the Australian government could hold a contest for development of a game setting that was uniquely Australian in feel, or the US govt could give out grants for the development of culturally-sensitive Native American game supplements
- Technical support: development of online platforms, more research into the complex probability models used in some games, better editing and book-binding or just provision of support to overcome barriers to entry into new media would be really useful for diversifying the style and types of game and gaming methods
- Establishment of an independent, high-quality magazine: most gaming magazines are owned by the publishing houses and have been for a long time. A genuinely independent magazine with high production values and an industry- and community-wide remit will never flourish in such a small culture industry, at least not in print, but I think with government subsidies it could and it would be interesting
- Support for the online community: Prizes for bloggers, financial support for annual physical meet-ups, perhaps technical support in the form of grants to expand the use of the internet for gaming collaboration. Also, money for me.
None of these ideas seem to fundamentally change the basic modern business model of gaming, but I think many of them would help start-up gaming companies with both the cultural background of their activities, and access to some of the technical matters that can help a game work out. Other funding ideas here are largely about supporting the community that the gaming industry is built from, because as a cooperative activity role-playing needs more than just our private money. The RPG hobby only flourishes when individuals have the space, time, money and inclination to come together to make games happen, and it’s (rightly) difficult for private companies like TSR to build this by themselves. It’s easy for us as individuals to put in the basics – our money, our time and our living rooms – but when it comes to the deeper, more complex aspects of maintaining the hobby, perhaps we could do with the same support that recognized cultural activities obtain. Communities may not require support to maintain but it certainly helps, and governments are ideally placed to provide that support.
What do you think?
fn1: I include computer gaming in this list because although in some times and places the computer game companies have received state support as start-ups (e.g. in Australia), this state support is through industry development funds, as a pure business enterprise, not as a cultural activity per se. i.e. you can approach the government of a social democratic nation (in some times and places) and say “I want to start a business selling X” and they’ll fund it even though it’s a kooky hobby; but the same funds don’t seem to have been available for “X” as a cultural activity.
fn2: My reading of the early history of role-playing in the UK suggests a lot of the early games did actually happen in public facilities, like community halls. But a lot of these were church- or school-run, and when I was gaming in London these halls didn’t seem to exist, so I think this aspect of state subsidization of community art in the UK has died off in the past 20 years. I guess this is because public halls have been defunded, and since certain religious issues arose in connection with D&D it’s hard to ask to rent a church hall for an RPG convention.
fn3: And the related question: if you were a benevolent dictator subsidizing TSR, would you have let them?