My name is Darren, and I’m a warezaholic.

It started innocently enough. My first forays into the illicit world of copyright theft typically involved a blank cassette, a twin-deck cassette player and a game I borrowed from a friend. I had heard about the ease with which you could duplicate Commodore 64 games, but I apparently lacked the skills and understanding to do so. My collection of blank tapes was a catalogue of white noise. All of them failed to load.

Subsequent attempts fared better. By the time I hit my teens, I owned an Atari ST and made the acquaintance of some of the older boys on the bus to school by lending them my gaming mags for the journey. They repaid the favor with a duplicated copy of Rick Dangerous 2.

These were harmless diversions compared to my assortment of legally purchased games, however. I had amassed a collection unrivalled within my social circles. (Hindsight leads me to believe that it was also unenvied, but such is the wisdom that comes with age.) At the time, every penny I earned either went toward the purchase of videogames or toward public transportation to the places that sold them.

This pattern continued until I reached my early 20s. I begged, borrowed and was tempted to steal in order to get my fix of undoing the shrink wrap on a new purchase. The teasing resistance of the cardboard box as I tried to open it, the first flick through the manual, the fresh scent of processed paper – I needed to own games more than I needed to play them.

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In the ’90s, I completed the bare minimum of games – typically only those that turned up in the “best of” lists of each format. But behind each completion lay a fortune’s worth of unloved games. I was destitute, selling every non-gaming-related item I owned to expand my collection. Food was a luxury; games were a necessity. My financial situation ebbed and flowed in sync with console development cycles.

And then a mysterious disc entered my life. I loaded it into my PC and up came an animated menu with a list of recent games. Five minutes later I was playing a rip, a pirated copy of a game with all the unnecessary movies and files removed so it could be readily distributed across hijacked web-enabled servers. A local group had gone to the trouble of downloading a few games, burning them onto a single CD with a menu and then putting it out through various channels. According to the numbering on the disc, this was the 47th time they’d done this.

It was nothing short of a revelation. This meant I could play every new release without paying a dime. I immediately logged on to their website, registered for their forums and asked where I could get more.

Fast forward six months. I moderated the group’s forums, had a collection of discs numbering in the hundreds and nowhere near enough time to play all the games I had obtained. But it still wasn’t enough. While the compilation discs had grown in popularity, so had the forum. New traders began to appear, integrating themselves into the community by offering more than just the same old rips. Full disc versions of games were now common, but still out of reach of my 56K modem. My attitudes toward ownership slowly changed. Now, only the “proper” versions would do.

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By the time I moved home after graduating from college, my collection occupied an entire bookshelf, proudly displayed like trophies. I had no intention of playing any of them. I continued adding to the collection solely to satisfy my own sense of vanity. I wanted them because I could have them – no greater reason was necessary .

This continued for years. I always looked for the easiest and cheapest way to get games for free in any format. I acquired an EZ-Flash cart for my Game Boy Advance, chipped my old PSOne and fitted my Xbox with a new hard drive set up for stealthed online play. I feigned to live by the code that I would buy everything I played for more than an hour. Except, of course, I rarely played anything for more than an hour, and if I did I simply found a reason not to buy it.

Then the first of two watershed moments occurred. Halo 2 was about to come out, and I wanted to be first in line for a retail copy. I’d been using my chipped Xbox online for a while – with an authentic copy of Project Gotham Racing – and the Live service seemed like it was worth every penny. I couldn’t wait. And then, with only 24 hours to go until release, Microsoft came down with the banhammer.

It turns out that “stealthing” thing hadn’t worked so well. I was banned, and absolutely gutted over it. This single event killed the Xbox in my eyes, and I switched back to the PC.

This was the second watershed moment. In the time I had spent playing on my modded Xbox, PC gaming had moved on. It was still easy to pirate the latest releases, but the advent of broadband ushered in a new era of multiplayer gaming. Official master servers checked for authentic keys for every game, and while it was possible to employ workarounds, I simply lost the motivation. While I had been busy getting fat on a fast food buffet, everyone else had moved on to the decent restaurant next door. I did the only thing I could think of and took some time off from gaming.

This break allowed me to gain some perspective on my addiction. I hadn’t been saving money; I was spending it on blank discs, consoles I didn’t need and PC upgrades to run games I never intended to play in any depth. Rather than giving me a true, wide-ranging appreciation of the medium, I’d simply been skimming the surface, digesting little. I’d begun to look at games as mere commodities, undermining their value with every disc I copied and shared.

Returning to gaming some six months later, I applied three rules. First, I focused my attention on those genres I knew fit with my lifestyle. Second, I only bought games with plenty of replay value, measured primarily by their online modes. Third, I got rid of every last piece of warez in my house – chips, discs and files alike.

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I now play games enough to understand the challenge within them, and spend less as a result of doing so. I played Battlefield 2 and its pseudo-sequel 2142 for nearly two years before I was finished with them. I completed each of the Call of Duty games and spent hours in City of Heroes. I’ve completed more single-player games in the past year than I did in the preceding two. Games are once again an important part of my life, and I now appreciate them more for the experiences they offer than for the space they occupy on my hard drive.

All this, just because I no longer pirate games. To be a part of a culture rather than exist on the fringes as a parasite is invigorating.

Darren Sandbach has already completed 2 games this year, but has had to put down the joypad for a while thanks to Left 4 Dead-inspired zombie nightmares.

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