Playground Piracy

When reading about Todd Hollenshead’s GDC presentation arguing that some funds from pirate organizations financed terrorism, I couldn’t help but think of the friend of mine who’d be dead if I hadn’t taped him a copy of the Sinclair Spectrum version of Bard’s Tale.

This was back in the ’80s, when our games existed primarily on tape rather than diskette, let alone CD or direct download. The Spectrum version of Bard’s Tale was relatively late, the definition of a niche game. Most people were completely unaware of it. The rich kids with their early PCs had already been playing it, but the geekiest brand of rubber-keyed urchins who hadn’t been anywhere near anything even vaguely like computer roleplaying games were hungry for Bard’s Tale. That was us.

My home town of Stafford, being the perennial cultural backwater it always is, we weren’t in much luck. There were no copies to be found. The only copy in the entire school was mine. It was my birthday, and my mum had somehow had the incredible foresight to actually order the game. Somehow, word got around, bounced across a couple of social groups and reached my future-comrade in arms.

He sidled up to me in Biology.
“You got the Bard’s Tale, yeah?”
“Tape me one?”

Been friends ever since.

A few years later, he was hit with crushing teenage depression. Unknowingly, in my default, charmless, buffoonish way, I helped him through it; that copy of Bard’s Tale gave him something to focus on other than his adolescent problems. Now, he says – in a matter of fact way, which still chills me with its casual resignation whenever I recall it – that he’d be dead today if it wasn’t for me.

No piracy, no friend. I can’t bring myself to feel too bad about it.

So, yeah, I pirated games as a kid. Didn’t everyone? Computer games – as opposed to console games – have always been rife with piracy. That’s why we bought things with keyboards rather than joypads anyway. You tricked the initial purchase from parentals with promises that it’d help your schoolwork and then were able to keep on playing games all year via the cheaper games and pirate copies to fill in the gaps. Which is the core of it: In terms of playground piracy, the industry lost no money from us. They already had all the money we had to give.

In Hollenshead’s case, linking piracy to terrorism is just counter-productive. In the same way kids are bombarded with dire warnings of what happens when you have the vaguest association with drugs, and when they or their friends experience no such immediate damnation, they disregard all the advice. What’s more, companies like id wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for pirate networks. id came from the shareware scene, whose model was pretty much entirely based around someone passing someone else a disk with a cut-down version of a game to get people hooked. What particular network of people-passing-stuff-on-which-they-like did they think they were exploiting back then?

Because piracy back then was primarily a social thing. In the relative isolation of pre-internet game culture, you pretty much gave a pirated copy of a game to your mate, just so you’d have someone with whom to talk about it. Sometimes it was formalized, with computer clubs at schools avidly swapping their games. Other times, it was illicit – not because of fact it was illegal, but because of the nerd-stigma of being a gamer. There were secret meetings before school to swap their games, the product of the iconic Saisho double tape recorder.

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The tech was the other side of it – the further you go into the ’80s, the more a dual-cassette deck was a rare and beautiful thing. Ownership of such item in a family was a route to a technological demi-godhood. “I knew about two people who actually had one,” said one of my correspondents when talking about this. “[It was] like they actually had the monolith from 2001 in their bedrooms. There was a lot of begging. Thinking back, it was probably the only way they could convince people to come to their houses after school. Their mums thought they were so popular.”

While playground lore only had a mug trying to put more than one game on each side of the tape – just too inefficient, too fiddly – there was the gaming equivalent of mixtapes; big C90s filled with pretty much random games, and my earliest Spectrum education was just working my way through these endless experiences. I came to computers relatively late – I was 10 by the time I owned anything – and it pretty much acted as my Liberal Arts education in the form.

Then there was the issue of copy-protection. For just casual playground copying, circumventing the manual protection was almost part of the game. The Spectrum classic Jet Set Willy featured an enormously convoluted grid with a color in each square. People would sit down with graph paper and manually copy it out with crayons, a square at a time. There’s few images in my head as nostalgically iconic early piracy as someone coloring on graph paper. In later eras, other devices were pragmatically disassembled. The beautiful LucasArt code wheels were dismantled, photocopied, and then assembled into functional facsimiles – to the distress of the original owner of the game. Sometimes the copying process uncovered something interesting. For instance, Team 17’s Alien Breed 3D code book was black varnish printed on black paper. In practice, it was actually easier to read after you’d photocopied it.

Connection with the actual “real” pirate community was only ever peripheral. When the Amiga-era sent dual-cassette decks to the great copyright infringement graveyard in the sky, disk copying software proliferated. Those with trickier systems were cracked by mysterious men in mainland Europe, and a copy worked its way through the one guy at the school whose older brother actually had a modem. The continental origins of much of the software had some strange effects on the gaming gene pool.

One person I talked to only passed his GCSE French because of a pirated game. Because he couldn’t stand the rote memorization required to learn a language, he was trailing in the subject, before acquiring a copy of the legendary action-game Flashback. He was obsessed with its rotoscoped glory, but there was one, small problem: It was only in French. He played through the entire game with a French-to-English dictionary beside him and somehow ended up with a functional enough vocabulary to scrape through. Saving the world and his education. That’s some doing.

Retelling anecdotes like that, I can’t help but feel romantic about it. Videogame piracy wasn’t about funding terrorism or prostitution or dirty nihilists who want to blow up Sweden. It was like scrumping apples. It was innocent. We just liked apples a lot.

The obvious argument is the nature of piracy has changed in a peer-to-peer world. It almost certainly has. But the nature of a core of pirates almost certainly hasn’t. They pirate games because they’re compelled to. They may get it from BitTorrent, but they’re still passing BitTorrent links to friends. And people, if they had the money, would still rather buy an actual copy.

It may be illegal. For most moralities, it’s wrong. But like underage sex, I’m not going to be swift to condemn it too strongly. It’s an act born of love (or lust, which is another unappreciated emotion). As long as games are too expensive for a big chunk of consumers to purchase as regularly as they’d wish, they’ll turn illicit means to satisfy their desires. Hollenshead should look around the office, even. Famously – see Masters of Doom for further details – John Carmack actively broke into a computer laboratory when he was 14 to steal an Apple II. Somehow I doubt it was to just pawn it.

Similarly, when researching this article and talking to my peers, an odd realization struck: Any game journalist of any note I’d talked to had, at one point, been a pretty serious pirate. Then I had another realization: Why do I know a lot about games? Because I played a lot of games. How did I play enough games to know enough? I bought all I could, then pirated the rest. Why? Because I cared too much about games.

If it’s true of the proto-game-journalists, it’s just as true of game designers. If they weren’t rich – to acquire the mass of knowledge of videogames to be any good whatsoever – they’d almost certainly be pirates. Due to the sheer cost, any game designer wishing to be properly literate in the form will almost certainly involve some manner of copyright infringement.

Developers can be angry at pirates now that they’re all grown up, which is completely understandable – especially the militant cracking and hacking communities. But, in amping up their vitriol and linking all piracy to the worst things in the world, it’s just too much. The majority of pirates aren’t monsters. They’re your consumers who find themselves short this month. They’re your kids and kids’ friends. Some of them are your future peers and the future of the medium. And when you paint them as abominations in league with terrorists, it does make you think, at the least, you don’t remember the intensity of passion which once drove you. And at the worst, it makes you suspect maybe – just maybe – you never had it at all.

Kieron Gillen has been writing about videogames for far too long now. His rock and roll dream is to form an Electro-band with Miss Kittin and SHODAN pairing up on vocals.

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