Gamers of the Third World

I was in China the first time I stole a videogame. I’d been teaching English at a small mining university in southern Sichuan and discovered a back alley nook where pirated software was sold in brightly colored plastic bins. Among the hacked copies of Windows ME and Photoshop, I found a hidden jewel: a disc with twenty Nintendo 64 ROMs for 10 yuan, a little over a dollar. Around the block, a department store sold PlayStation 2s for 3000 yuan, close to four hundred dollars or about three month’s salary for an average teacher. That avenue would be impossible for me and most anyone else living in Panzhihua.

My first experiences with games like Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and Perfect Dark came with awkward mouse and keyboard controls and visuals that failed to load properly in the shoddy emulator. It was frustrating at first. I struggled to translate my joystick instincts into the deconstructed array of buttons in front of me. Simple actions like jumping and climbing ladders became abstract puzzles in themselves. The difficulty progression and game design beneath this surface complexity seemed like a distant jewel whose exact shape and quality could only be guessed.

As the videogame market has exploded over the last few decades, with 2009’s U.S. revenues close to $20 billion, it’s easy to forget what’s actually being sold. If videogames are a new medium, then they must be universal, and yet the games industry has skewed heavily towards the luxury markets of the West. Looking at how the rest of the world plays their videogames, and how they can afford to pay for them, offers a bracing new perspective on the future of the medium and what our place in it will be.

In the 1970s, arcades mushroomed across the United States and helped make the idea of owning a home computing device desirable to consumers. Think of arcades as art galleries, where those with money and inclination could go to appreciate a finely curated collection. True aficionados could, for a premium price, take home their own games with the help of a console in the same way an art collector could fill out her study with works to reflect her own tastes. In antiquity, art was commissioned by kings and churches, lending it a rarefied luster. As a reflection of the capitalist democracies in which videogames first flourished, they were contrastingly commissioned on the behalf of children, the most impressionable and avaricious demographic in any consumer culture.

For an average Chinese person, it was much more typical to experience games in an internet café, where time at a computer is rented out as a portal through which a large sampling of different experiences can be had. I was in China just after Grand Theft Auto III was released. In the West, games like GTA arrive as monolithic events, cribbing from the event-driven marketing campaigns used in the film industry. I first played GTA III in a smoky internet café in the remote tundra of the Xinjiang province. I’d traveled there for a vacation in January when mid-afternoon temperatures were minus twenty degrees Celsius.

I’d wake up every morning and spend a few hours walking around, taking in the empty parks and frozen sidewalks. When the cold became too much I’d sneak into a dirty internet café. For around thirty cents an hour, I’d get my own computer loaded with a random assortment of pirated games. I’d check my email, catch up on news, and then let my brain wander while my fingers played with the knobs and dials of a stolen game.

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The hourly rate and shared terminals helped destroy the sense of linearity that often accompanies Western games. It would be unlikely that I’d hammer through twenty hours of a single player game by normal means, so the sessions became more about the immediate experience. When I booted up GTA III, god-mode was automatically turned on and there was an option to skip to any mission in the game. Any limit of authorial intention had been removed by the “convenience” of the venue in which the game was being played.

Lacking an economy that can support the sale of expensive technology focused solely on entertainment, the language of games in China favors cyclic rather than linear play. Presented in this way, the big event games that dominate the Western market fall eerily flat. Stripped of its plot and cinematic allure, GTA III seemed dull and histrionic, lots of repetition without any systemic advancement.

A few years later I was living in Madagascar, another environment inhospitable to my Western craving for videogames. In Madagascar, even internet cafes were expensive luxuries reserved for city-dwellers and tourists. Console games were an alien creation, available only at a handful of French department stores, where overstocked Dreamcast and Nintendo 64 paraphernalia was sent from Europe to die. Even in this harsh climate, video gaming was ascendant. In the narrow cobblestone corridors of the capital, Antananarivo, I discovered a cramped shop that sold pirated Xbox and PlayStation games.

Local school kids would crowd into the store, rent an Xbox for an hour, and play Pro Evolution Soccer against one another for the equivalent of a dollar. Whenever I’d go in to rent a machine, a local boy would ask if he could play against me just as I’d sit down. The boys never seemed to have money of their own, and they’d wait hungrily for someone who did.

In the far-flung regional capital of Toliara, in the arid southern part of the island country, I discovered a small shack made of corrugated tin where lanky young boys would gather in the undulant mid-day heat. They’d take turns playing Tekken against one another on an old PS1 that an Indian merchant rented to them for a dollar an hour. There was no electricity in the little shack, everything ran on a power strip that siphoned electricity from a grimy old truck battery.

Schoolboys mixed with the sinewy Tandroy boys who’d come to the city to pull “pospos,” a rickshaw that would help them earn enough money to buy a herd of zebu with which to start a family. In Tandroy, it was culture to fight against one another in a standing variant of wrestling called “Ringa.” There was an unexpected mirror of this proud tradition in the grappling surrealism of Tekken. They laughed at the sight of a panda bear tackling a bald old man in an echo of a gesture that they knew innately.

In my own small village of Betioky, where I worked as a health educator, videogames had found their way into the most surprising places. One family owned a small hotel that catered to travelers on the one dusty highway that passed through town. It was a dingy cluster of three cement buildings, with sagging foam mattresses and one communal toilet.

As I walked past the hotel one evening, I heard the unmistakable theme of Super Mario Bros.‘ last level coming from inside. I looked in the door of the reception area and saw two young boys sitting in front of a small television, guiding Mario over the lava pits at the end of his journey. They were playing on a knock-off console from China that came prepackaged with ROMs of old Atari 2600 and NES games.

A couple decades after these recovered gems had been at the height of their financial and cultural worth, they were finally devalued enough that they were now available to those without the means to spend lavishly on entertainment. The boys didn’t even notice that I was watching. I recognized very well the rapt faces, eyes wide and mouths loosely open in those tense moments, leaping toward the still-unseen goal just beyond the right edge of the screen.

There is a cultural myopia to Western perceptions of what videogames are, and can be. Ours is a culture built around hierarchal legitimacy that most celebrates the event-driven, spectacle-oriented console game. While we’ve slumbered in the polygonal cocoon of premium console gaming, large parts of the world have noted this wondrous new medium and, within the constraints of their own societies, found ways to make it relevant to them.

Some game companies have begun to explore ways of reaching people who live beyond the developed zones of Japan, North America, and Europe. In 2003, Nintendo offered a condensed home version of the N64 to the Chinese market in the form of the iQue. It offered old games and hardware at a reduced price, a now discontinued attempt to compete against the pirated compilation market dominated by ROM hackers. Though the attempt failed, the general model is one that is still being exploited by low-end knock-off manufacturers across the developing world.

EA has invested in the migration of its brands into modular online experiences, like those heavily favored by the internet cultures of South Korea, China, India, and the countries on the Pacific Rim. Now Western gamers are being offered online versions of Need for Speed, FIFA, Tiger Woods Golf, and Battlefield Heroes. Companies like Zynga and Playfish have made a strong case that Facebook can be used as a de facto game console, while Gameloft, ngmoco, and a host of independent developers have begun to vindicate mobile gaming as a legitimate pastime.

Console gaming will never go away. It is to videogames what the movie theater is to filmed entertainment. It will continue to host the medium’s most spectacular and technically sophisticated works. In the same way that the advance of broadcast television, pay cable, and internet distribution eventually filled out the medium of film to make it accessible and relevant to the entire world, so too will the environment that surrounds console gaming continue to expand in ways that will include more and more people.

In the countries console gaming has been unable to reach, piracy has reigned. I’ve taken part in it. What’s worth remembering is that piracy isn’t simply an act of despotic criminality; it’s also an act of embrasure. A Chinese construction worker spending his off hours playing a hacked version of Warcraft III or a barefoot Malagasy boy guiding Mario through the Mushroom Kingdom; these aren’t encroachments on intellectual property rights, but an affirmation that yes, games are universal. They can speak to everyone. In the coming years, we’ll profit most in finding ways to make games for, by, and about the entire world. And by opening the medium to the entirety of the human race, we will inevitably discover a truer appreciation for that exchange between player and creator, the emergent conversation between fingers, minds, and consequences.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared on the ABC World News Webcast, IGN, Nerve, Edge, Gamasutra and more. You can follow him at his blog (

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