Making Games in Peru, 4: Playing Politics
Ever since its hackerish roots, the game development community in Peru has had an ambiguous relationship with the government. Back in the day, when the community was just coming together it was built heavily on lax regulations regarding intellectual property rights. Software was hard to come by and very expensive when commercially available, which led to the emergence of quite active informal and illegal networks for circulating enterprise and entertainment software. Downtown Lima became the hot spot for acquiring all sorts of pirated software, in places such as Polvos Azules, a massive shopping center with endless collections of software, music, movies, and whatever other cultural commodity you can imagine. While crackdowns on pirated goods began happening in the nineties, widespread informal and illegal distribution channels remain even today as one of the reasons why the local games industry aims primarily at foreign rather than domestic markets, but also as perhaps the primary way through which local players can get access to the latest games way before they’re officially available, if they ever arrive.
Intellectual property has been an ongoing source of tension throughout the industry’s existence. But it has not been the only source of tension with regulation and institutions. As is common around the world, lack of proper understanding of how games are situated in culture has led to its frequent scapegoating over various social ailments. A distinct “somebody think of the children” mentality turned into controversial legislation last year when a congressman proposed the government should regulate what games children could play in public cybercafés, the primary venues for local competitive play. Depictions in various popular media portray video games as akin to addictive and toxic substances such as drugs and alcohol, as something parents should be worried about lest their children become hooked. Video games are seen as being closer to toys than software, and play is seen as a threat of distraction from more “serious” activities.
Given this pervasive framing over the last few years, it is certainly unsurprising that there has been a consistent lack of support from government agencies or public policy towards strengthening and consolidating the local video game industry. Paradoxically, this lack of support runs counter to a sentiment expressed by multiple administrations of wanting to create new technology industries that promote innovation. And it also runs counter to a trend in the Latin American where countries and cities are beginning to acknowledge the potential of games as a creative industry. To quote just a couple examples, the Colombian Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies has a digital content policy which explicitly encompasses the promotion of the games industry. The city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, also has a program to support the internationalisation of its local industry. Other examples exist, and forms of support vary, but they generally include some measure of funding to allow local creators to travel to large events and conferences to present their creations and network with international publishers and developers.
Peru has been slow to catch up in the process, and its support for gaming as an industry remains ambivalent. But changes have been noteworthy: a recent event organised by the Peruvian agency for tourism and export promotion brought together local exporters in a handful of strategic sectors with foreign investors and clients, and for the first time the video game industry was included as part of the software industry contingent. The event even had a video game workshop as one of its highlights, which featured representatives from international publishers such as Square Enix and Electronic Arts, and local companies were included in business rounds with these and other potential investors.
Other agencies are following suit. The newly created Ministry of Culture, for example, has began to explore the ways in which it can support the games industry under its cultural industries initiatives, and a similar interest has been expressed by the cultural industries area within the city government of Lima, interested in developing training programs and marketplace events for local game studios. While these expressions of interest certainly signal an important change in direction, concrete policies, programs and incentives remain to be implemented, and potential opportunities are severely limited by the systematic lack of resources successive administrations have assigned to the cultural industry promotion.
Even without major forms of support, the local industry has been able to find its way and grow to its present stage, figuring things out as it went along. Studios have been able to work out productive couplings between each other or with international partners on an ad hoc basis, and the local community has managed to consistently engage the global world of game development one way or another. Just a couple weeks ago, word spread fast throughout people in the local community as it became known that people from Finnish game studio Rovio (yes, the ones who made that game about birds being angry) were visiting Lima, and an event was quickly put together for them to present in front of local developers. In a room full of people either working in the games industry or seriously considering about doing so, Peter Vesterbacka, CMO of Rovio, told the story of Rovio and emphasized how if it had happened in Finland, it could just as well happen in Peru. But he also explained how Angry Birds was in fact Rovio’s 52nd game, and it took 51 failed projects before they finally had one that made it big – big enough that they shifted from understanding themselves as a game company, to an entertainment company capable of developing all layers of a transmedia brand.
Which speaks at the same time to both the opportunities and challenges of the industry. Their success story speaks to the fact that the game industry is not as concentrated as, say, the software industry is around Silicon Valley. But few, if any small studios in the Peruvian industry have the financial capacity to sustain themselves through dozens of unsuccessful games – for most outlets, every project is make-or-break. The pop media framing the industry gets contributes to creating a perception of high risk that drives talent and capital away from it, making it even harder for projects and studios to get through this long process of buildup. The relative lack of support and incentives from the government means making games in Peru is akin to playing a game in Hardcore mode without any extra lives, and the possibility that this may change in the near future could mean the difficulty level might come down a notch or two.