Third World Pirate

I’ve been a third-world pirate for almost 20 years, starting when my father bought the first PC we had, a Commodore-128, continuing up until last weekend when the Mule completed the download of the latest expansion for a popular RTS full of Marines and Orks. I don’t necessarily like being a dirty pirate, stealing thousands of man-hours of programming and hard work. I would love to own boxes and manuals. But I can’t, and in the past, it wasn’t even a viable option. This is my story.

Around 1986 my father bought the C128 from a guy that “imported” them from Brazil. Personal computers were something really new in Argentina, where I live, and almost nobody beside large enterprises owned them (not even the government had them; they kept – and in some places keep – using typing machines). The box included a couple of games (one of them was F-15, manual included, which my father and I played for months). When we got tired of those my brother and I went to the only computer shop we could find and bought more: Giana Sisters, Green Beret and Ghost N’ Goblins, which of course weren’t originals, just black disks with the names written on them. The disks were defective half the time. There was no place in the country to buy an original game for the C128 or anything else, mostly due to the terrible inflation that followed the overthrow of a military dictatorship in 1982, which made importing things like PCs almost impossible.

That was the beginning.

By 1990 we were over the C128, and we got ourselves an IBM PS-1. The first game we got was Prince of Persia, a pirate copy bought at a perfectly legal computer shop … that didn’t have original games. Then came F-19, Battle Command, Flashback, the LucasArts Adventures, System Shock and Ultima Underworld. All pirate copies, because it was the only way to get them.

By this time, the routine was I’d take the bus with a couple of friends on Saturday afternoons, travel around an hour to get to a pirate joint we found in a newspaper ad, armed with five or 10 disks each (we would pool disks to buy Wing Commander II, for example), pick a game and wait while the Pirate Lord copied the game. Then, we would go back to my house, install all the games we had bought (pizza break included here). Finally, I would give my disks to the other guys, and they would repeat the process on their PCs over the weekend. Many times there would be an error in one of the disks; insults would fly, next Saturday we would go to the Pirate Lord again. Ad infinitum.

Then, one day the Pirate Lord disappeared. When we got to his house, one neighbor said he had stuffed everything (family and furniture) into a truck the week before and never came back. The last game he copied us was the first CD game I had: Rebel Assault. Times were changing.

In 1991 a new president was elected, and one of his first actions was to establish that from then on, our national currency, the Peso, would be equal to the U.S. dollar in value. Imports were on the rise, electronics were booming, Argentineans were traveling all around the world and the first genuine PC games were appearing, supported by the first anti-piracy measures ever. The anti-piracy campaign was actually requested by the software companies coming to Argentina for the first time, like Microsoft. Only top-tier enterprises like Ford and the like were using legal software – and even then, not all of it was legal. (Eventually, even Microsoft relaxed on this, because so few people could afford the cost of the software.) Every other user, gamer or not, used pirated software.

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After our guy disappeared, it became really difficult to find another den of piracy, but things finally cooled down a little, and we found this downtown gallery filled with pirates. Among them was our guy, who still remembered us and gave us MechWarrior II for free. But now the CD was in vogue, and by the time Baldur’s Gate came out, it was cheaper to buy the original than to pay for five copies.

Around the same time, my family and I were visiting Miami, and on our last day I bought some games at a place called Electronics Boutique. With the peso equal to the dollar, games were cheaper in the U.S. than in Argentina (this ridiculous policy finally caught up with us). Those original multi-CD titles are my most appreciated game-related possessions, and the boxes decorate my home office. My wife calls them “dust collectors.”

We now trade 3-to-1 with the dollar after our currency was devalued in 2001. Argentina has been improving financially since then, but imports are again quite expensive: I would need to spend around 10 percent of my middle-class salary to buy a single PC game. Additionally, the darker side of capitalism rears its head when retailers – aware that people in the upper-upper-class will pay whatever they charge for games – price games well beyond the exchange rate. Since a broadband connection costs around one third of what one game would, I go that way.

All of this is because I’m completely addicted to PC gaming. I can’t let the hobby go. Ironically, since I’ve become more knowledgeable about the inner workings of the game industry, I’m more aware of how damaging piracy can be, especially for small studios, and I feel guilty for what I have to do to play games. Game studios don’t really take Argentina – and other third-world markets – into consideration when balancing their budgets, but it still feels like I’m trying to justify my actions. I just wish there were a way for me to enjoy my hobby without taking food out of people’s mouths, but a lot above me would have to change. I hope it does someday.

Leonardo Pose is a student who lives (and pirates games) in Argentina.

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