View From the Road

View From the Road
View from the Road: When I Was a Pirate

John Funk | 14 Jun 2010 17:00
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In my junior year of college, I studied abroad in Nanjing, China - and at the end of my five-month term abroad, I decided to pick up some DS games for the long flight home. After all, I reasoned, games would probably be cheaper over in the country where I'd picked up a hand-tailored suit for just over $50, and, if I got Chinese translations, it'd help me work on my struggling ability to read Mandarin.

So, I asked a local friend of mine to take me to a place where I could buy games, and, when we had time, he led me to a little corner of the shopping district - all of these were electronics stores, he said, and I could buy games at any of them. We picked one, entered, and, in hesitant Mandarin, I asked the man leaning against the counter smoking a cigarette where the DS games were.

He looked at me for a moment. "We don't actually carry those," he said slowly - and then gestured to a stand full of R4 cartridges next to him, "but if you buy one of those you can download all the games you want."

The store had official hardware on the walls - the PS2s, Xboxes, Wiis and DSes were all the real deal - but the software was another story. Their PS2 "library" was a CD case filled to the brim with game discs, and whenever a customer wanted one, they went to the back to start burning a fresh copy.

On this site, we have a lot of conversations (and a lot of arguments) about piracy and all the related matters: IP, DRM, who's in the right, who's in the wrong, and who's just being a jerk. I'm pretty sure that I've made my opinion on the matter more than clear by this point: DRM isn't a good thing, but piracy is arguably worse. Creators deserve to get paid for their work, consumers absolutely have the right to not support something they don't like by not buying it, but nobody has the right to just take something without paying. For the most part, I think pirates are selfish jerks who just want stuff for free.

But then again, almost every conversation we have revolves around piracy in (fairly) affluent developed nations. There's an entirely separate situation here that we almost never discuss: What about countries and societies with less wealth per capita, where piracy is the rule rather than the exception?

This wasn't some hole in the wall. It wasn't some seedy, obviously black-market dealership. It wasn't a popsicle stand ready to pack up and leave at the first sign of trouble. This was a store in a popular shopping district that the proprietor had probably saved up to buy - this was where he and his employees made their honest living by selling pirated software.

On some level, even the most stick-it-to-the-man pirates in developed nations probably know that they're doing something unethical; they're just probably very good at rationalizing or ignoring it. At the very least, they know that they're doing something that's generally frowned upon. But that same thought probably never crosses the minds of the people who bought games in this little shop in China. To them, this is just how they get games. They go to the store and buy them the way most of us go to a GameStop (or your local equivalent) and pick up whatever suits our fancy.

How the hell are publishers supposed to deal with a world where piracy is simply the norm? Can they?

Simply put, in countries like China, pirates offer a version of the product that, if not outright better than a hypothetical official release, is certainly more accessible. For one, a gamemaker can't expect to sell any legitimate copies in a region in which they don't publish the game. My plan to improve my Mandarin by playing, say, a Chinese version of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was doomed from the start, because there is no Chinese version ... that is, unless you count the fan translation of the original GBA games, patched in to (you guessed it) pirated copies.

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