The longer you spend with the entrepreneurs behind the video game industry cluster in , the more the forthcoming general election begins to seem a trifling, parochial concern.
Compared with the momentous significance of the vote to leave the EU, next month’s election barely registers for people such as Mark Gerhard, CEO of , a video game company (pictured above) employing 58 people, of whom about 60% are from the EU. “We don’t talk politics here. Almost all of us are disengaged from it. The cruel thing is that it doesn’t affect us; if it goes really bad we can change our situation, we can solve it,” he says.
For people working in Cambridge’s science parks, part of the hi-tech, global knowledge economy, the fallout from the Brexit vote is still the key political issue. Cambridge voted 74% to remain, and the shock of seeing things not go their way remains palpable. Bosses and senior employees in this tech cluster are highly educated and relatively well-off, and have many choices about where they base themselves. For the moment, this is Cambridge, but many are watching and waiting, contemplating their next steps, ready to leave the country should things turn unfavourable.
In the months after the Brexit vote, Gerhard (who is originally from South Africa, but has lived here for 19 years and now has citizenship) was so dismayed to feel, as an immigrant, like he no longer belonged, that he contemplated moving to America. The election of Trump put paid to that idea, he says, but he is clear that should Brexit-related developments make it harder for his company to thrive in the UK, he will relocate.
“It’s not a threat; the reality is that for highly skilled individuals, the world is borderless. People with resources have options. If I can’t get the talent here, I’d fly to California and I’d run my business from there,” he says, pointing out that it would lead to a loss of jobs in the UK and millions in lost taxation. His employees, skilled in artificial intelligence, robotics and programming, are in an equally agile position. The deciding factor will be how easy it becomes to recruit EU nationals, whether the visa situation become impossibly cumbersome for those already here, and whether the sense that the UK is no longer a welcoming environment persists.
“There is this perception of all the damn foreigners coming in and taking our jobs, but in our sector, they create jobs,” he says, gesturing towards the busy open plan office, decorated with plastic dragon warrior figurines, menacing with curled clawls, characters from Lightseekers, a role-play game in development. His colleagues remain concerned by a changed atmosphere in the UK and have had similar conversations about whether to stay or go, but the subject of the general election is not something that has come up much at the water cooler. Convinced that a vote in any direction in the general election will not contribute to a realistic prospect of reversing Brexit, Gerhard is not even sure that he will bother to vote.
“It’s not about reopening the Brexit vote, it’s about who you think will be safer to shepherd the journey from here – at which point I don’t care any more, it’s a fait accompli,” he says, adding that he might conceivably vote Conservative in the belief that with a bigger mandate, Theresa May will be in a better negotiating position in Brussels.
Writing about the disgruntled atmosphere in Cambridge in the wake of the Brexit vote, the politics professor David Runciman how some on the losing side of the referendum had an urge to respond by bypassing politics altogether. “After all, the anti-political mood doesn’t just hold for the angry and aggrieved at the bottom of the pile: it also holds for the super-privileged and super-mobile at the top,” he wrote. In a highly networked, cosmopolitan place such as Cambridge, adjusting your gaze to fix on a global horizon, ignoring local UK politics, is relatively simple.
“It is easier for a town like Cambridge, which was vehemently anti-Brexit, to fulfil that post-Brexit vision of being genuinely global, seeking new opportunities elsewhere, than somewhere that is perhaps very pro-Brexit with very few global opportunities,” Runciman says. “That was one of the ironies of the vote.”
Some game industry employees responded to our call-out for information. A young British animator at (who asked not to be named) said he was “very unhappy” at the Brexit result and was contemplating moving to Canada. “We’re in a global industry where you can easily transfer to another country. It is quite tempting when you see your own country going down a hole with no turning back,” he says. In the meantime he is fluctuating between voting Lib Dem and Labour: he likes both candidates and will vote for whichever party he feels will most effectively weaken the Conservatives’ position.
A lot of people have raised the issue of a knowledge economy brain drain from Cambridge, but this seems yet to happen. Ben (who also got in touch but asked for his surname not to be printed, and who works developing cancer vaccines, not in video games) is still an exception, rather than representative of a huge flood of departing talent. A Cambridge PhD student, in cancer research, he received his US visa last week and leaves to work in Ohio next month. He decided after the Brexit vote that he didn’t want to stay in the UK, worried that research funding would get squeezed. “I am hoping to see how Brexit pans out from a different country; if the government ends up substituting EU funding, I will come back, otherwise I will stay in the US.”
A straight-A student, who recognises that the “UK has invested all this money in me”, he is the first of his contemporaries to go, but knows others who are planning their own exit. “You have all these people who would have set up biotech companies here, who will leave – there is a sudden loss of human capital,” he says. He plans to vote (before he leaves) for the Liberal Democrats.
The gaming industry, made up of 2,000 games businesses across the country, is worth around £4.2bn (now far outstripping UK film and music revenues). It has been lobbying the government since last summer about how to reduce the negative fallout from Brexit, and its research suggests that the impact is already causing difficulties for a sector that is inherently international and outward looking. Forty per cent of games companies surveyed by , the gaming trade association, said they were already considering relocating all or part of their business outside the UK because of the referendum result, 37% reported a negative impact on their ability to attract investment and 38% said they had already experienced a negative impact on their ability to attract and retain global talent.
For people working in Cambridge’s gaming company cluster, these are all-consuming worries, which entirely overshadow the general election debate. Nina Kristensen, co-creator of , another Cambridge-based video game developer that has made games for Disney and is developing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which will take you “on a journey into savage viking heartland with Senua, a Celtic warrior struggling with psychosis”, is wrestling with the same issues.
About a third of her staff are EU nationals, and the past year has been traumatic. “We haven’t had people leave but we have potentially missed out on a couple of recruitments – people who don’t feel confident about coming here, which is incredibly upsetting. It is a very mobile workforce,” she says. “We are trying to do everything to reassure them that we will protect them and their families and lobby government but there are a lot of unknowns.”
While the subject of Brexit continues to preoccupy her staff, she says she hasn’t “heard a huge amount of discussion among colleagues” about the election.
Cambridge’s candidates are aware of the local importance of this sector and all promise that their party will provide a solution. Daniel Zeichner, the Labour candidate, says: “If Labour wins, we will guarantee the rights of EU nationals immediately.” The Conservative candidate, John Hayward, says “ensuring that Britain (and, we might say, Cambridge) remains the best place for science and innovation” and “maintaining reciprocal rights for EU nationals in Britain and vice-versa” are two of May’s 12 Brexit negotiating objectives. The Lib Dem candidate, Julian Huppert, says the companies “need to know that there is a party – the Liberal Democrats – who will stand up for the free movement of people that they need”.
But these words are of little comfort to some. David Garcia, Ninja Theory’s lead sound designer, came from Madrid two years, and put his three young children into school in Cambridge. “If I was offered the job now, instead of two years ago, I’m not sure I would come,” he says. As an EU citizen, he is not able to vote in the general election – but in any case, he is more engaged with Brexit-related issues. He is still trying to unpick in his mind what made the rest of the country vote to leave. “I think it was not driven by legitimate concerns, but by fear and anger – that we stole jobs, and money, that the NHS can be better funded if we are outside.”