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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 January 2007, 22:02 GMT
France glimpses art in video games
By David Chazan
BBC News, Paris

Five young video games players hunch over computers in a cellar in northern Paris on a damp weekday evening.

Screenshot of Ubisoft's Far Cry game
Some experts say the majority of games have no cultural content
Wearing red team jackets and headphones, these intensely focussed men in their twenties are semi-professional players practising war-games strategies for an international tournament in Italy.

There is big money at stake and their slightly older manager stands behind, encouraging and occasionally reprimanding them.

Whatever you think of video games, many people would find it difficult to see them as a cultural activity.

But the French government wants to give video games the status of a cultural industry like its music and cinema industries, which are eligible for tax breaks and government support to preserve the cultural heritage of a people proud of their auteur films and passion for the arts.

So what is the government playing at?

Some people play video games exactly for the artistic part of it - to play nice games, for the nice music or what the story's telling, just like movies
Nicolas Cerrato
Gaming team manager

"I believe that a video game is a true creative work based on a lot of artistic talent, involving script writers, designers and directors," says the Culture Minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres.

In an interview with the BBC, he shrugged off the fact that some critics have labelled him the minister of video games.

"Cultural products are not like other goods," he said.

"States must make sure that there is cultural diversity. And we, as European countries, need to nurture that in order to maintain our cultural and artistic presence in Beijing, in New York and elsewhere."

Industry in decline

France used to be home to three of the world's top 10 video games companies but they have been facing hard times and tough competition.

That has forced a number of them to move most of their operations abroad where costs are lower.

So the government's answer is what some would consider a typically French recipe, blending high culture with lower taxes for French companies, to help them stay in a tough game.

Young gamers in France
Young people play games for different reasons, Mr Cerrato says

But the players in the "Goodgame" team, busy plotting strategy and testing tactics at their underground base in northern Paris, say the government's proposed intervention comes a decade too late to save the French industry.

"Ten years ago we had a video games industry in France we could be proud of," says manager Nicolas Cerrato.

"But the people that used to make the good video games in France have gone to other countries such as Canada."

That is disputed by the culture minister, although he acknowledges the need to act quickly. And he concedes that not all video games would qualify as cultural.

Mr Cerrato agrees. "Some people play video games as a sport like my team does," he says.

"There's no cultural aspect to it, I mean, no artistic aspect to it. They don't care about the graphics, they don't care about the sound, just the game."

But he also agrees that for some, video games can be a cultural activity.

"Some people play video games exactly for the artistic part of it - to play nice games, for the nice music or what the story's telling, just like movies."

Mr Cerrato and the players in his team are well-educated professionals, fluent in English.

'Brain drain'

They say the government should improve conditions for all companies in France, not just the cultural industries.

"The brain drain isn't just in the video games industry," says Mr Cerrato. "That's the issue we should be addressing."

His sentiments are echoed by Jean-Claude Larue, the head of the French Leisure Software Publishers' Association.

Jean-Claude Larue
Mr Larue says most games have no cultural content

"We never asked to be part of what we call in France the 'cultural exception'," Mr Larue says.

Publishers make most of their money from imported video games and he argues that state support for video games would only subsidise French developers to produce games people do not want to buy.

"The risk is that we have to support a sort of tax in order to give the opportunity to some studios, to some developers, to develop products without a real market," he says.

"The foreign companies will in this case subsidise the French developers and as we will finance this industry, it is completely wrong."

Mr Larue estimates that 95% of video games have "no cultural content".

But the Nemopolis company, just outside Paris, makes video games which do have cultural value.

Their latest product teaches schoolchildren the history of France under Napoleon while they play.

The managing director, Antoine Izarn, supports the government's initiative, but says he wishes the bureaucracy would move faster.

He and his developers are justifiably proud of the artistic quality of their games, with specially composed music, beautiful graphics and engaging plots.

Many schools or parents might want to buy them.

But will they fire children's imaginations the way more commercial games do?

And do they need state support to survive alongside war and football-based games?

Game maker Ubisoft fights back
30 May 05 |  Technology
Games giant EA buys Ubisoft stake
20 Dec 04 |  Business
France offers grants for games
22 Jul 03 |  Technology
French gamers get a helping hand
02 Nov 03 |  Technology
Country profile: France
30 Nov 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: France
29 Nov 06 |  Country profiles

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