At the end of the Victorian era, Dundee, Scotland, was famous for jute, jam and journalism. Since then, competition from India has seen off the textile industry and marmalade production has moved elsewhere. Journalism remains: publishers DC Thomson & Co still produces The Beano and The Dandy, Britain’s longest-running weekly comics. But Dundee now has another claim to fame: joysticks.
The city, on the east coast of the country, provides the unlikely backdrop to a thriving video-game industry. Its software houses produce international hit titles for Microsoft and Sony such as Grand Theft Auto, Lemmings and Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup. The University of Abertay Dundee is home to the world’s first undergraduate course in video games. Headhunting by big American and Japanese software houses is commonplace, even before students graduate.
Since 2000 the number of new businesses in Dundee’s digital media sector has grown by more than 10 per cent. Leading the charge is the software house Rockstar North, which produces the ultra-violent Grand Theft Auto series in which players race around cities, murder prostitutes and gun down policemen. Gangster-film veterans Michael Madsen, Ray Liotta and Dennis Hopper have all lent their voices to the series. Games are typically set in thinly veiled versions of Miami or Los Angeles, but eagle-eyed players may be surprised to spot one roadside advertisement looming out of the carnage – “Visit Dundee: City of Discovery”. The tourist board must be thrilled.
But then, Scotland’s violence is not confined to video games: the country has the dubious honour of being the most violent in the developed world. A recent UN report found that people living in Scotland were three times more likely to be assaulted than those living in the US – 2,000 are attacked every week. The country also boasts one of the planet’s fastest-growing murder rates, second only to some territories in Palestine. No wonder, perhaps, that the games are so violent.
Understandably, Rockstar North has faced a barrage of criticism from concerned parents around the world, not least US senator Hillary Clinton, who has called for stronger regulations for video games (many are already compelled to carry an age rating, like films). The company has become something of a lawsuit magnet, most recently a $600m (€460m) action from the surviving family of Cody Posey from New Mexico who shot dead his father, stepmother and stepsister, in July 2004 when he was 14. The lawsuit claims that Rockstar North is in the business of producing “virtual reality murder simulators”. It was Posey’s obsessive playing of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the lawsuit suggests, that trained him to use a gun in such a way that made him “an extraordinarily effective killer without teaching him any of the responsibilities needed to inhibit such a killing capacity”.
Jim Anker, a spokesman for Take-Two Interactive Software Inc, Rockstar North’s parent company, says, “We believe the suit is without merit and we will strongly defend the company.” Speaking last year, Paul Eibeler, Take-Two’s chief executive, went further, insisting, “Take-Two and Rockstar have always worked to keep mature-themed video game content out of the hands of children. We will continue to work closely with the authorities and community leaders to improve and better promote a reliable rating system.”
Meanwhile, US arm Rockstar Games has kept the bloody flag flying with Manhunt, featuring an escaped Death Row convict who bludgeons his victims with a crowbar, and Bully (Canis Canem Edit in Europe), set in a boarding school, where players can assault each other with fire-extinguishers, bottle rockets and weedkiller.
The origins of Scotland’s video-game industry also lie in crime – albeit of a more petty nature – as Professor Lachlan MacKinnon, head of Abertay’s School of Computing, explains when I meet him in his chaotic office. Mac-Kinnon, with his Viking-style beard, red blazer, blue polo-neck and Kickers shoes (one red, one blue), cuts a singular figure. “In the 1970s”, he tells me, “Timex opened a series of manufacturing plants in Dundee, producing cheap digital watches. Sir Clive Sinclair recognised this and used the plants to make the ZX81 and ZX Spectrum home computers [both hugely popular in Britain in the 1980s]. The technologies involved in both digital watches and those primitive home computers were very similar. As a consequence, the plants were a source of cheap goods. Every kid in Dundee in the 1980s had a home computer.” That’s because much of the Timex factory’s stock was leaving through the back door.
“We all had them lined up at home,” says Chris van der Kuyl, chairman of the Dundee-based game-development company 4j Studios. “I’ve still got two. They were yours for £10 and a packet of fags.”There was another problem. A games machine was little use without any games to play on it. Such was the lack of software in those early days, many teenagers had no option but to start writing programs themselves. “There’s no doubt that it had an impact directly on Dundee,” says Van der Kuyl. “There was a generation of kids who otherwise would never have got into programming on that level.”
One such kid was Dave Jones. He attended the Dundee Institute of Technology in the late 1980s, studying Computer Sciences. Frustrated that his fascination with the home-computing scene wasn’t being catered for, he quit the course in his final year and set up his own software house, DMA Designs. It hit big virtually overnight. Its 1991 puzzle game Lemmings was a global smash (“Warning,” read a stern note on the box, “we are not responsible for loss of sanity, loss of hair, loss of sleep”). By the mid-1990s Jones had developed Grand Theft Auto. Between that title and Lemmings, he amassed sales of more than £1.3bn (€2bn), shifting 70 million units and encouraging other games companies to spring up all over Scotland.
At the turn of the century DMA was bought out by Rockstar Games and renamed Rockstar North, and Jones formed a new company, Realtime Worlds. Last December, venture capitalists New Enterprise Associates funded Realtime Worlds to the tune of a massive £16m (€24m) to build new video-game franchises and recruit talent from around the world.
As anyone who’s paid even cursory attention to recent battles between Nintendo’s Wii, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 will attest, there’s everything to play for in the video-game industry. Worth some $40bn (€31bn), it now rivals Hollywood as the world’s biggest entertainment business. The games themselves are worth some $12bn (€9bn) annually, with the most popular titles’ first-week sales exceeding those of blockbuster films. This year Americans will spend more time playing video games than going to the cinema and watching DVDs combined. Little wonder the courses at Abertay Dundee are thriving.
“Like any university, we’re responding to the needs of local employers,” says Gregor White, Abertay’s head of computer arts & media. Still, the immediate benefits of spending three years studying video games are not always obvious.
“My parents were worried this was a Mickey Mouse course,” says Kevin Dunlop, one of Abertay’s third-year students, who, like his classmates, resembles a typically dishevelled British undergraduate rather than a hot-desking, Wired-reading San Francisco Zippie.
“You say, ‘I’m going to be a games programmer,’ and people think, ‘Get a proper job.’” No doubt conscious of this, not to mention the current clamour surrounding violent games, Abertay’s tutors insist that they offer a rounded education. “There’s a module called Games Professional Awareness,” says Dr Henry Fortuna, division leader at Abertay. “It’s really about the ethics of games. If you produce a game that allows you to go around a supermarket shooting the shoppers, what are the repercussions? What’s the moral price?”
“Still,” he adds. “That’s a philosophy course question. Really, it’s unanswerable.” Understandably, staff are also keen to play down any links between violence in video games and violence in Scotland. “I don’t think that we’re any more violent than any other race,” insists Professor Mac-Kinnon. “I think that we probably suffer from the same ills as any other western society in that respect. Anyway,” he muses, “there are very few games that realistically reflect a drunken punch-up on a Saturday night.”
The truth behind Scotland’s thriving games industry may be more prosaic, says Van der Kuyl. “From a commercial point of view, compared to the games companies in California, the terrible weather’s an advantage: “You get more work done because you’re not on the beach all day.”
1981 Sinclair Research releases ZX81
1982 Sinclair Research releases ZX Spectrum
1989 Newly established DMA Designs releases its first game, Menace
1990 DMA Designs releases Lemmings
1997 DMA releases Grand Theft Auto
1997 DMA is bought by Gremlin Interactive. Dave Jones becomes creative director of both companies
1999 Gremlin is acquired by French publisher Infogames for £24m (€36m). Infogames sells DMA to US Take-Two Interactive; renames it Rockstar North
2002 Rockstar North releases Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
2002 Dave Jones founds Realtime Worlds
2003 Rockstar North releases Manhunt
2006 Rockstar releases Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis, an apparently harmless table tennis simulation