Image Credit

Eight months after official statistics revealed a booming UK creative economy, a new mapping study of the video games industry brings even better news.

“Collaboration offers a multi-disciplinary support system for a person’s progression from talented creative and/or technical student through to successful games entrepreneur.”

Using an experimental ‘Big Data’ methodology, Nesta researchers have found significantly more games companies than previously estimated. Furthermore, the number of companies grew by a phenomenal 22% between 2011 and 2013.

Leaving aside methodological and definitional differences, the statistical evidence should encourage policy-makers, ambitious games producers and educators to seriously consider the role played by higher education in what Nesta calls an “entrepreneurial boom”.

Three key drivers are identified to account for increasing video games activity across the UK: co-location, broadband and education. Of co-location, mapping analysis suggests companies concentrate in twelve hubs and particularly in London and the South East.

The twelve video games hubs identified by Nesta are: Brighton, Cambridge, Cardiff, Dundee, Edinburgh, Guildford and Aldershot, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Oxford, Sheffield and Rotherham, and Warwick and Stratford–upon–Avon.

Interestingly, none of the games hubs are located in the South West, in spite of a higher count of games companies (6.6% of the UK total) than Scotland (5%) or Wales (2%). Only one ‘potential’ cluster is identified in this large mostly rural area – Bristol – whereas two are found in Scotland (Edinburgh and Dundee), and one in Wales (Cardiff).

This is surprising, because there are four universities and an AHRC-funded Knowledge Exchange Hub in the Bristol locality that offer specialised under and post graduate games courses, knowledge exchange and business support programmes to games and other creative industries.

While Nesta’s report only briefly discusses the role of education, it highlights a positive link between the location of high levels of games clustering, and proximity to universities offering specialised undergraduate courses.

Based on earlier work, Nesta concludes that universities are important suppliers of creative and technical talent to the games industry. Around three quarters of the workforce hold at least an undergraduate degree and one quarter are postgraduates. Nonetheless, the relationship between education and industry is not, the researchers acknowledge, a simple cause and effect or supply and demand one.

For example, mapping of games companies and universities shows a significant presence of specialised courses in Bournemouth and yet no detectable games cluster. In other words, higher education is supplying talented students for games companies located elsewhere.

But higher education institutions act as more than providers of specialised undergraduate courses. Drawing on Nesta’s interactive maps and other data sources, an AHRC-funded research study found a positive connection between universities that provide knowledge exchange activity for the creative industries and their geographic proximity to concentrations of creative companies – including the games sector.

New England House, part of the Brighton games cluster Image Credit

At a local level, the Brighton Fuse case study confirms the importance of universities and knowledge exchange activity to games and digital media clustering.

University-business partnerships, such as KTPs, innovation R&D schemes, office space, AHRC-funded Knowledge Exchange Hubs, training workshops, network events, and business consultancy services are a vital component of the “entrepreneurial boom”. Collaboration offers a multi-disciplinary support system for a person’s progression from talented creative and/or technical student through to successful games entrepreneur.

Sometimes the journey takes place within a small geographical radius and sometimes not.

Without further in-depth investigation, we cannot fully understand the dynamics of games clustering and its geo-economic relationship to higher education.

Nesta’s report raises the questions ‘Does clustering create demand for courses, or does the supply of talent from games courses drive clustering?’ I suggest some additional questions to capture the unfolding ecology of the games industry:

  • Why do some games alumni remain close to their alma mater and others gravitate further afield?
  • What are the key co-ordinates of places where games activity is fast growing?

Certainly, we don’t need more quantitative data to prove that the UK games industry is on a winning streak.

But thinking about the six ‘potential’ games clusters on Nesta’s list (Wycombe and Slough, Birmingham, Nottingham, Newcastle and Durham, Bristol, Luton and Watford), and how to help move them on to full-blown games hub status, will require qualitative and place-specific evidence. Such an approach will enable researchers to drill down to the nitty-gritty of games activity in these places, and provide decision-makers with a reason to read on.

The in-depth story of Brighton Fuse’s evolution has proved a highly effective means of explaining and promoting Brighton as a magnet for games companies. It is regularly cited in governmental reports, academic journals and ministerial speeches to demonstrate the benefits of university-business collaboration and creative economy growth.

A lesson from the Brighton case study is clear:

“Cluster development is a dynamic mix of hard-nosed economics and softer cultural and institutional support”

However, the authors also warn against top-down, easy-fix interventions. Point taken.

“The growth of games companies is a UK-wide phenomenon. We’ll need, however, an ‘in the round’ understanding of successful games clustering to ensure it is replicated elsewhere.”

Policy-makers (particularly Local Enterprise Partnerships across England, and equivalent bodies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) should resist reading the Brighton Fuse story as a simple instructional manual.

Insights from UK-wide video games mapping and the Brighton cluster case studies point to the complex nature of drivers that influence games clustering. Co-location, broadband and education are singled out as important, but they play out in different ways and inter-connect with other factors such as transport links, demographics and cultural infrastructure.

The growth of games companies is a UK-wide phenomenon. We’ll need, however, an ‘in the round’ understanding of successful games clustering to ensure it is replicated elsewhere.

One thing that we can be sure of is that higher education lies at the heart of this effort.

Dr Jules Channer is a Cultural and Creative Industries Researcher. She regularly works with Creative England, Arts Council England and the South West Local Authorities Cultural Partnership

Have an opinion? Comment below, tweet us @NCUBtweets or submit your own blog

Other posts that may interest you:

Creative Economy Story Needs a Sequel
University students, the Oscars and Gravity – how collaboration brought them together
City Deal endorses recommendations of Brighton Fuse Report