Video Games in Cuba: Access

lh_videogames_in_cuba_handheldsIn December 2014, Barack Obama and Raul Castro gave simultaneous speeches to their countries announcing that the United States of America and Cuba would, after decades, finally be normalizing relations. We jumped at the chance to see how video games exist, if at all, in the island nation that’s been, at least legally, so cut off from American cultural influence. We bring you LoreSabueso.

My expectations of Video Games in Cuba were all over the place in terms of accuracy. The occasional idea was spot on quickly followed by gross inaccuracy. More often than not it was a wash, some aspects of a shred of a thought panned out and the other aspects went sideways. Perhaps the most accurate was the assumption that handhelds, such as 3DS and PS Vita, would be widely used. This was clearly evident in the community piece. Not only were a few of the Cubans I talked to actively playing that night, mostly Monster Hunter Ultimate 4, but it was effectively a unanimous platform. Both of them.

An expectation that went awry? The genres that the players would be interested in and play often. Sure, Call of Duty and FIFA were champions. Fighting games, certainly that night, were all the rage, but co-op couch and party games were, regretfully neglected when the genres seemed so obvious. What really blew my mind was the popularity of our bread and butter, the likes of World of Warcraft, DotA2 and League of Legends. Yes, MMORPGs and MOBAs were actively played in a country that lacks any actual internet. Certainly none at a reasonable cost.  

I assumed you’re at the same state of bewilderment that I was. Jaw on the floor, mind racing how this could be so, trying to determine how such a scheme would be remotely feasible. Sound accurate? Fear not, I queried the group. World of Warcraft has a long history of private servers, illegal incarnations of Blizzard’s hardware stack and server software. They ran rampant early on and have made somewhat of a comeback as people clamber for the vanilla through Wrath of the Lich King experience. Kinda of old hat then, right? That’d be the case if Cuba had any kind of internet service providers to speak of.

What do you when you have the hardware and software components to the game, but no way to have that massive multiplyaer experience? If you’re Cuban, you turn to decades of experience keeping cars running without access to parts. In the realm of electronic technology this means adhoc gaming. Thus World of Warcraft in Cuba looks and feels far more fractured than your general private server. To summarize, each city of a critical mass has stood up its own server. These pockets of gamers proceeded to build illegal LANs from the ground up to enable access. The server, as the central hub, sees a spiderweb of wires exit its router and head into the wild. Some connections drop house to house and through back alleys and courtyards, hidden in plain site in a land with seemingly no electrical code. Poorly disguised wires wrapped around those that provide electricty or cable to span the longer distances. Interest and connection details spread by word of mouth or though the the dissemination of pirated materials. At any moment these connections and hardware can be confiscated, as they are illegal. And you thought Comcast’s customer service was bad.

These dedicated gamers spent their own capital, an incredibly limited resource, time, something they seem to have plenty of, and brainpower, another abundant resource, to build a system to support their hobby. Parts of the hodgepodge system was developed and remains unique to Cuba. The main aspect, World of Warcraft, had already been reverse enginered. What about MOBAs? A genre that lacks content outside the core PvP aspect and, being completely free-to-play, has been basically pointless to create private servers? Oddly enough, the cities, seeing a new way to leverage all that hard work, have jumped all over them.

I guess the lesson is if you build it and Cubans find out about it they will come. The access is in the desire.