3 Shocking Things You Realize as a Gamer in a Dictatorship
Once upon a time, video games were a niche hobby. Now, they're a huge industry. It's easy to think of gaming as a worldwide constant -- screw Wyld Stallyns; Halo is the cultural touchstone that unites us all -- but not all gamers have an easy time practicing their hobby. Juan Lopez is one of them. In 1998, Hugo Chavez won the Venezuelan presidential elections, and Juan got to learn what 14 years under a veritable dictatorship does to the gaming scene.
Most Games Are Straight-Up Illegal, So Piracy Is Rampant
In 2009, Wilmer Iglesias, a deputy for the National Assembly, supported a law prohibiting the development, circulation, and sale of toys and video games with violent content. Do you know how many games have some form of the seriously ambiguously worded "violent content"? Pretty much all of them except for Pong and Tetris -- and it could probably be argued that the way those blocks disappear when you finish a line counts as mass murder.
Shooters, fighting games, RPGs -- all illegal. A retailer faces fines of up to 260,000 bolivares ($20,000 U.S.) and 5 years in prison if the authorities catch them selling banned games.
Just before this law was approved, in April of 2004, the Social Responsibility in Radio and TV Act was enacted, cementing the government's control over TV and radio content. This was the socialists' response to the fact that over 95 percent of that content was "Anglo-Saxon in origin" (read: American; read: evil).
"If we could start calling it 'Diablo-Saxon' content, we would."
That's why piracy is a way of life in Venezuela -- and not the awesome, scurvy-riddled, wise-cracking swashbuckler variety. A study conducted by Business Alliance in 2011 revealed that the highest rates of piracy in Latin America were found in Venezuela, where 88 percent of the software sold is pirated (Zimbabwe is No. 1 in the world with a 92 percent piracy rate).
"Final Frottage Fantasy XX? Huh, they're really pumping those games out."
Sure, there are music shops that sell legit CDs, but the vast majority are "multimedia" businesses, chock full of pirated albums, video games, and movies. These aren't always direct rips from the original product. You'll often find arbitrarily titled mixes of cross-song, cross-artist, cross-genre medleys assembled by budding "entertainers" and sold via poorly Photoshopped softcore-porn album covers.
It's like those "Now That's What I Call Music" mixes, only without royalties or pants.
When you outlaw gaming, it doesn't go away. It just turns gamers into outlaws. Which, admittedly, is probably the coolest thing that ever happened to them.
Games That Actually Work Here Are Nigh-Impossible to Find
The gaming scene might be unreachable to those Venezuelans that don't ride in solid-gold palanquins while hurling dollars at the peasants just to watch them fight, but that doesn't mean that the execs at Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are going to just stop advertising their product here. Despite the fact that barely anyone owns a latest-gen console or a high-end gaming PC -- not because we don't want to, mind you, but because demand is so much greater than supply that even the folks who can afford them can't find them in stores.
"Bubsy 3D 2: The Revengening took 12 minutes to sell out -- it must be terrible."
As an added Shoryuken to the crotch, some games skip the whole dance and just region lock the entire continent. There are some pretty good free-to-play MMO games out there that would skirt the affordability issue nicely, but no -- practically our whole hemisphere is quarantined like an economic plague zone. Hey, at least there's always Blizzard: They're one of the few who set up Latin American servers so their fans can play in their own language and without so much lag that every game looks like stop-motion.
The Amount We Can Spend Online Is Limited by the Government, So Online Gaming Is Extremely Shady
If a Venezuelan plans to pay for a subscription game like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV, they're in for a rough time. See, our economy is so shitty that we have a controlled currency exchange. We can spend only $300 a year on electronic purchases, and obviously people that have their priorities straight tend to use that for more important stuff, like buying hard-to-find goods on Amazon, or Kickstarting some white dude's potato salad. That doesn't leave much for gaming.
Hope you like FarmVille!
Of course, there's a black market where you can buy dollars at a rate of about 162 to 1 (that's 162 bolivares for $1 U.S.), but keep in mind that I'm a licensed professional who works at a big international company, and I make only 9,000 bolivares a month -- that's less than $60 in black market currency. That's also around the average price for most big games these days -- if not slightly less.
Oh god, I don't even make one video game a month.
Of course, I would need a console to play that game on, and those run about 80,000 bolivares. That's very nearly the yearly income of a middle-class job like mine. For you Americans, imagine that an Xbox One cost you about $40,000. Also, since the International Monetary Fund says that Venezuela will see an unemployment rate of over 13 percent this year, imagine that the mere prospect of $40,000 is a ridiculous fantasy, like a blue-collar unicorn.
"I hope you're enjoying your college funds!"
Of course, much like life, gaming finds a way. Since we can't afford new games, we trade with our friends for old ones. There are even some underground stores where you can take your old games and, by paying an extra fee, trade them for other games (Like GameStop, but illegal -- for some fucking reason). So even the trade-in route isn't really an option for new games. Latest-gen consoles cost a lot of money, games cost a lot of money, and online games further charge subscription fees. Even in a best-case scenario, you could probably afford only two out of those three charges. There are a few cyber-cafes for online gaming, but they're mostly underground, seeing as violent video games are illegal and nobody is clamoring to quest for the Hug King in Care Bears Online. If the owners of these establishments got caught letting the public play violent games, they would be facing a minimum of two and a maximum of five years in prison. So these "cafes" are mostly limited to neighborhoods where there is scarce police presence. Those are not great neighborhoods.
That's the name of the cafe and the community.
But hey, good news if your day's to-do list included scoring some blow, stabbing a dude, and leveling up in Destiny -- you really only have to make one stop.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Bizarre Realities of Life at the Edge of Gaza and We Found Pirates at the Consumer Electronics Show.
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