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Why the EU referendum matters for games...and gamers

If you think computer games are just a fad for teenage boys, you need to look at the numbers.

Take Grand Theft Auto 5, for example - the latest release in the ultra-violent but ultra-popular series. It’s grossed about $80 billion since its release in 2013, selling over 65 million copies.

To put that into perspective, Avatar is the most successful movie of all time and it grossed just under $3 billion.

Grand Theft Auto V sold 65 million copies. Credit: Grand Theft Auto V/Rockstar Games (2013)

In fact, Grand Theft Auto 5 made more its first month than the entire global music industry combined.

So you get the picture - the gaming sector is big business. It’s part of an international market, it employs thousands of people, and it contributes a significant value to the economy.

What’s more, many of the biggest computer games - including Grand Theft Auto - are being made in the UK.

Made in Scotland, to be precise.

Companies in the 'Tartan Silicone Valley' hire many developers from the EU. Credit: ITV News

More than 100 games developers are operating in the ’Tartan Silicone Valley’ between Dundee and Edinburgh.

They are based here, they pay tax here, but, crucially, many of the developers are recruited to come here from outside Britain.

And many of these companies are saying that if they can’t recruit from the EU they simply won’t be able to make the

That’s why the EU referendum matters for games, and for gamers.

Reloaded MD Michael Boniface with ITV News Scotland correspondent, Peter Smith. Credit: ITV News

Edinburgh-based Reloaded Productions have just launched a new multi-million pounds title, All Points Bulletin.

In their offices beside the city’s castle, the Managing Director, Michael Boniface, challenged me to a game, and explained why he hopes Britain votes to Remain.

"We simply cannot recruit enough people from Britain who have the skills we need to make world-leading games," he says.

We have to recruit the best people from around the world and there are great talent pools across Europe. But if I suddenly have to go through the same visa applications to recruit someone from the EU as I currently do for someone from America or China it would affect our business.

I worry it would mean I couldn’t get the best people over here in time to meet the tight deadlines we’re given when we’re given new projects, so we’d be far less productive.

– Reloaded Productions MD, Michael Boniface

Can he see any benefits of Britain coming out of the EU for the games industry?

"Very few. Very, very few. I can’t even think of one right now, to be honest."

It’s not just computer games that could be affected. The technology that goes into something you play for fun is also used in real-life applications.

Codeplay in Edinburgh used their technological know-how to help countries around the world develop cutting-edge hardware.

Recently, they worked on a project with a Dublin-based company to create a drone camera with artificial intelligence so it can recognise, zero-in on, and follow someone from above. They also have driverless cars on their radar.

Codeplay's Andrew Richards said leaving the EU would mean leaving the top table. Credit: ITV News

Andrew Richards is Codeplay’s CEO and founder. He insists his company is a world-leader in its field, but he has concerns a Brexit could mean being left out and left behind.

"Coming out of the EU would mean more bureaucracy and it would mean we wouldn’t be part of the information-sharing that currently goes on between companies within the EU," he says.

"We wouldn’t get EU funding for our research and we wouldn’t be included in the latest research teams being assembled."

This all seems a bit pessimistic. Countries like Norway and Switzerland are in Europe but outside of the EU and they seem to get by quite well. They’re modern countries and well-equipped with the best technology.

"Yes, they are there. But they’re not at the top table. We are currently at the top of the top table."

How will the EU referendum affect gaming apps? Credit: ITV News

The economy has been pivotal in this EU debate - politicians from either side will tell you how it could affect the ‘pound in your pocket.’ But what about the phone apps in your pocket?

Outplay in Dundee is Scotland’s biggest mobile game developer - with millions of downloads for their Angry Birds, Bubble Genius and Crafty Candy apps.

They started with 20 employees five years ago. Within a year it was 40. They now have more than 100 people working for them. And about 20% of them come from EU countries outside Britain.

Outplay is neutral on the EU debate but they hope it won't affect recruitment, Emma Purvey said. Credit: ITV News

Emma Purvey is the HR Recruitment Manager for Outplay, and she told me the company is still on the fence when it comes to the referendum. They’re remaining neutral and open-minded in the debate, but whatever happens in the vote they hope it won’t impact their ability to recruit from beyond Britain’s shores and continue their growth.

"Initially we could hire locally," she says.

"We tried to hire from Dundee and from across Scotland because there was a great pool of talent here. We’ve now had to look at accessing talent hubs in Europe, though, because we’ve expanded so fast.

"That means recruiting from Spain and Italy where they have the right people with the skills we are looking for."

The campaign to leave the EU says company’s like Outplay would benefit from a Brexit, though, because Britain could start focusing on which people were allowed to come here and that could mean targeted recruitment for people with games development skills.

Scotland Leave campaigner Tom Harris says Europe holds game developers back. Credit: ITV News

Tom Harris is the head of Leave in Scotland, and he thinks the EU’s control over how companies here recruit from Europe is holding Scottish games developers back.

"Outside the EU we would at last be able to attract people with specific skill sets," he says.

People who have got specific qualifications that we actually need would be coming here for work, instead of us saying ‘come one, come all’. That would be far more efficient for the productivity of all of our companies.

– Tom Harris

What about the bureaucracy of visa applications, though? Wouldn’t that slow things down? Make us less competitive in the global market?

"We need to remind ourselves that control over our borders and control over who comes into our country is the norm in the world," he insists. "It’s only unusual in the 28 countries of the EU."

A week from now, it’ll be Game Over in this EU referendum - for one side, at least.

In or Out, Britain’s computer games developers want to know the bubble won’t burst on their multi-billion dollar industry.