What it was like growing up as a gamer in South America.
I’m not a hardcore gamer. I don’t play more than six big titles a year (sometimes less), and the most I play is some games in my smartphone. But I still consider myself a gamer, mainly because I am very passionate about each experience and always pour myself into a story I like. It all gets much more complex when you add up the fact that I’m Latin-American and have lived all my life in a third world country.
Like almost any material possession in Latin America, video games were a symbol for class status.In this globalized world, video games are one of the most amazing cultural phenomenon, and here in Latin America, like many other things, gaming has had a scrawny and organic nature, just as has happened with other media. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the gaming scene is different from Mexico City to Buenos Aires, and from São Paulo to Guayaquil. But I am pretty sure that what I’ll bear witness to applies to the whole continent.
Back in the 80’s and 90’s, when gaming was beginning to emerge outside the U.S and Japan, consoles and games started to appear in the region. I remember clearly in my childhood that having a SNES or Sega Genesis automatically made you the most popular kid in your class. Heck, the most popular kid in the neighborhood. Like almost any material possession in Latin America, video games were a symbol for class status.
If you had video games, then clearly you were part of the privileged minorities that could actually afford to buy a console and games, even more so if you had bought them locally. Because let me make this clear, video games in Latin America are inexplicably expensive. I can’t really say how much it was back then, but let me give you an example for the current next-gen console available for purchase, a Nintendo Wii U. While you, my dear North American and European reader, can get your hands on the Deluxe version for around $300, local retailers here in my home city of Bogotá sell it for $570.
The reason why consoles are so expensive and their games can be sold for as much as 4 times the normal price is due to very complex economic and legal reasons. Basically, there is no legal commercial framework for the importation of software or electronics that discriminates well enough for things like video games and consoles, so trade tariffs are incredibly high and tax rates too steep. A Nintendo 3DS can have the same tax importation rate as a goddamn tractor or food processing machine or whatnot. Obviously each country has variations but the consensus is one: video games have always been too costly to afford.
I myself grew up without a console. For one, my parents thought of video games as things that make you dumb, and for another, never would it have occurred to them to invest money in games when there are always more pressing expenses.In countries as unequal as ours, roughly 10% of the population could actually consider to buy consoles and the games made for them. In countries as unequal as ours, roughly 10% of the population could actually consider to buy consoles and the games made for them. I only ever had one gaming system, a Game Boy Color and a Pokemon Blue I keep to this day. They are one of my most precious childhood items and I will not be getting rid of them any time soon.
But I actually bought my Game Boy in the U.S, where I got it at retail price. Wait, what? You see, for the Latin American privileged, it is just easier to travel to the U.S and buy stuff (not just games) at cheaper prices than our home countries and bring it over. I’ve done on quite some occasions, and try to always be discreet about it. But I have also seen people that with no shame pack two PS3s in a travel bag and bring them in the plane with them. It’s just more cost-effective.
How then, has gaming managed to actually create a scene in Latin America when it’s so hard to get your hands in a gaming system? Well that’s when our funny nature as Latin American’s surfaces: we resourcefully persevere, and by that I mean start a local piracy industry. It all started with the consolidation of PC games and the appearance of the PlayStation system. It didn’t take long for the crafty and almost jawa-like local tech industry to realize that with the right software and a shitload of blank CDs they could make a profit. Mind you, that’s why I say profit, these people are not rich, they make a living out of pirating, not a fortune.
Across many neighborhoods and towns, ‘GameCafés’ started to appear. A shop owner could buy, say, a couple of Xbox consoles, set them up on small second hand TVs, and charge anyone who wants to play by the hour. I remember clearly in a town my family used to have a country house at, a small shop where 10 kids were glued to a tiny TV screen while one of them desperately tried not to die in a pirated copy of Halo. Some kids spent whole days there, spending their allowances in the fight against the Covenant and the Flood.
And so across Central and South America very specialized marketplaces started to sprout. Marketplaces with stalls dedicated to selling pirated games. But don’t get the wrong idea, these are no slum alleys, these are small shopping malls vibrant with economic activity of people coming to enjoy and buy video games. You could see kids testing GameCubes or buying DDR pads (our taste wasn’t too picky, we settled with anything we could get). They are as Hispanic a marketplace can be, full of sound, voices and the occasional poultry prowling about (in cuccos, mostly).
Games became obtainable, with stock titles costing as low as 4 or 5 bucks and big anticipated releases as much as $25. People bought their consoles in the U.S, went to the market place to install a $50 chip that could bypass security measures and just indulge themselves with $5 games. …install a $50 chip that could bypass security measures and just indulge themselves with $5 games. That’s how gaming flourished here, that’s how we got to know classics, that how us Latin-American geeks and nerds managed to become who we are. It is inherent to our condition. These marketplaces are still around, much more serious in appearance, but still functioning as they always have, for the next console generation until legal prices start to drop.
I myself haven’t bought pirated games in over two years, mostly because of online purchases. Steam, Amazon Digital and such have been an absolute godsend. I owe it to developers to recognize their work, and I always try to buy full price. But I am who I am and there hasn’t been in the way much of international trade reform. That’s why when I’m buying my Wii U in the following months, I’ll go Stateside, get it at retail price, and shamelessly bring it on the plane with me.
Camilo Suárez is a media enthusiast from Bogotá, Colombia, who likes to contemplate video games as a full-fledged cultural phenomena. Follow him on Twitter at @TiburonVolador or email him at email@example.com.