I was in China the first time I stole a videogame. I'd been teaching English at a small mining university in southern Sichuan and discovered a back alley nook where pirated software was sold in brightly colored plastic bins. Among the hacked copies of Windows ME and Photoshop, I found a hidden jewel: a disc with twenty Nintendo 64 ROMs for 10 yuan, a little over a dollar. Around the block, a department store sold PlayStation 2s for 3000 yuan, close to four hundred dollars or about three month's salary for an average teacher. That avenue would be impossible for me and most anyone else living in Panzhihua.
My first experiences with games like Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, and Perfect Dark came with awkward mouse and keyboard controls and visuals that failed to load properly in the shoddy emulator. It was frustrating at first. I struggled to translate my joystick instincts into the deconstructed array of buttons in front of me. Simple actions like jumping and climbing ladders became abstract puzzles in themselves. The difficulty progression and game design beneath this surface complexity seemed like a distant jewel whose exact shape and quality could only be guessed.
As the videogame market has exploded over the last few decades, with 2009's U.S. revenues close to $20 billion, it's easy to forget what's actually being sold. If videogames are a new medium, then they must be universal, and yet the games industry has skewed heavily towards the luxury markets of the West. Looking at how the rest of the world plays their videogames, and how they can afford to pay for them, offers a bracing new perspective on the future of the medium and what our place in it will be.
In the 1970s, arcades mushroomed across the United States and helped make the idea of owning a home computing device desirable to consumers. Think of arcades as art galleries, where those with money and inclination could go to appreciate a finely curated collection. True aficionados could, for a premium price, take home their own games with the help of a console in the same way an art collector could fill out her study with works to reflect her own tastes. In antiquity, art was commissioned by kings and churches, lending it a rarefied luster. As a reflection of the capitalist democracies in which videogames first flourished, they were contrastingly commissioned on the behalf of children, the most impressionable and avaricious demographic in any consumer culture.
For an average Chinese person, it was much more typical to experience games in an internet café, where time at a computer is rented out as a portal through which a large sampling of different experiences can be had. I was in China just after Grand Theft Auto III was released. In the West, games like GTA arrive as monolithic events, cribbing from the event-driven marketing campaigns used in the film industry. I first played GTA III in a smoky internet café in the remote tundra of the Xinjiang province. I'd traveled there for a vacation in January when mid-afternoon temperatures were minus twenty degrees Celsius.
I'd wake up every morning and spend a few hours walking around, taking in the empty parks and frozen sidewalks. When the cold became too much I'd sneak into a dirty internet café. For around thirty cents an hour, I'd get my own computer loaded with a random assortment of pirated games. I'd check my email, catch up on news, and then let my brain wander while my fingers played with the knobs and dials of a stolen game.