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Editor's Choice
Playground Piracy

Kieron Gillen | 24 Apr 2007 08:01
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When reading about Todd Hollenshead's GDC presentation arguing that some funds from pirate organizations financed terrorism, I couldn't help but think of the friend of mine who'd be dead if I hadn't taped him a copy of the Sinclair Spectrum version of Bard's Tale.

This was back in the '80s, when our games existed primarily on tape rather than diskette, let alone CD or direct download. The Spectrum version of Bard's Tale was relatively late, the definition of a niche game. Most people were completely unaware of it. The rich kids with their early PCs had already been playing it, but the geekiest brand of rubber-keyed urchins who hadn't been anywhere near anything even vaguely like computer roleplaying games were hungry for Bard's Tale. That was us.

My home town of Stafford, being the perennial cultural backwater it always is, we weren't in much luck. There were no copies to be found. The only copy in the entire school was mine. It was my birthday, and my mum had somehow had the incredible foresight to actually order the game. Somehow, word got around, bounced across a couple of social groups and reached my future-comrade in arms.

He sidled up to me in Biology.
"You got the Bard's Tale, yeah?"
"Tape me one?"

Been friends ever since.

A few years later, he was hit with crushing teenage depression. Unknowingly, in my default, charmless, buffoonish way, I helped him through it; that copy of Bard's Tale gave him something to focus on other than his adolescent problems. Now, he says - in a matter of fact way, which still chills me with its casual resignation whenever I recall it - that he'd be dead today if it wasn't for me.

No piracy, no friend. I can't bring myself to feel too bad about it.

So, yeah, I pirated games as a kid. Didn't everyone? Computer games - as opposed to console games - have always been rife with piracy. That's why we bought things with keyboards rather than joypads anyway. You tricked the initial purchase from parentals with promises that it'd help your schoolwork and then were able to keep on playing games all year via the cheaper games and pirate copies to fill in the gaps. Which is the core of it: In terms of playground piracy, the industry lost no money from us. They already had all the money we had to give.

In Hollenshead's case, linking piracy to terrorism is just counter-productive. In the same way kids are bombarded with dire warnings of what happens when you have the vaguest association with drugs, and when they or their friends experience no such immediate damnation, they disregard all the advice. What's more, companies like id wouldn't be around if it weren't for pirate networks. id came from the shareware scene, whose model was pretty much entirely based around someone passing someone else a disk with a cut-down version of a game to get people hooked. What particular network of people-passing-stuff-on-which-they-like did they think they were exploiting back then?

Because piracy back then was primarily a social thing. In the relative isolation of pre-internet game culture, you pretty much gave a pirated copy of a game to your mate, just so you'd have someone with whom to talk about it. Sometimes it was formalized, with computer clubs at schools avidly swapping their games. Other times, it was illicit - not because of fact it was illegal, but because of the nerd-stigma of being a gamer. There were secret meetings before school to swap their games, the product of the iconic Saisho double tape recorder.

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