Video Games in Cuba: Community

True gamers read and play at the same time.

In 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.

Earlier this week, I speculated on what I would find in Cuba as it pertains to the favored entertainment of this website. Having recently been to a full-fledged third-world country I possessed a grounding in reality that I lacked when I ventured to Italy in 1999. There was a particular aspect around video games in 2015 in a country struggling to leave the 1950s that irked me. It continued to gnaw at my lizard brain while I wrote the Expectations, seeping into a handful of those paragraphs.

Friday night law breakers, embargo dodgers.

It’s not a simple thought, layered within the time capsule Cuba was placed, the way video games have exploded since the 80s and the supernova of information of the Internet. Having been at the age of understanding for the death of arcades through the rise of PC and console gaming into online gaming I wasn’t sure I could pinpoint where the Cuban video game community could possibly fall. It’s not like they’re going to start on Atari and NES and work their way up – that’s not what the West does for long-standing MMORPGs from the East like TERA. Equally unlikely is unbridled access to the Internet. The country is still heavily Communist after all. Following that, there’s a simple lack of access and money, which is the easiest of the outcomes to assume; rampant, unchecked piracy. That makes for an interesting amalgamation of possibilities in a grey-to-black underground community.  

Let’s come up with conspiracy theories as to why these games made it to Cuba illegally in a legal form.

Meeting my guide, gamer and translator outside my hotel we began discussing the basics of video games in Cuba. They exist, illegally, have for as long as she could remember and had little in the way of problems outside of access. Her first recollection of playing was Contra, an appropriate enough title given the county’s refounding as an independent nation in 1959. I suggested Guerrilla War, a game actually set in Cuba, but was met with a head shake. Up the concrete stairs we went. I began to hear the telltale sounds of competitive gaming, cheers, name calling and flashing lights on the wall. Rounding the corner of the shared staircase an open door awaited us with a handful of people surrounding the largest TV I’d seen outside a hotel, roughly 32”, and a computer rocking a 19” monitor. I hadn’t stepped back in time. Not technologically, that’s for sure. Multiple PS4s were represented. Xbox One was there. Even a black Wii U was front and center at the TV. The Wii, not Wii U, had the most legal games in the stack. I discovered it was some odd combination of access, cost, and the couch-based party-game line up. Despite that it was PlayStation and Tekken that ruled the night. The entire night.

Americans largely still think of the video game community as male-dominated and young. One of those two in this group proved out. The young, according to everyone there, are the only ones that play. Certainly with any regularity. In their opinion, if you’re over 30 it’s unlikely you’re going to be spending your free time attempting to figure out how you get the games you want to play. Or how you even figure out what you should be playing next. Younger women play, and I was told quite as often as men, often with them as couples entertainment, but the group was strictly men outside the guide and friend of the home’s inhabitant. During the night of Tekken on PlayStation and roving PC play, I learned that the domicile was the place to go in Old Havana. That the roving attendance and open door policy wasn’t unique to the Friday night I walked down the decaying street and over the Hurricane ravaged first floor. That’s the normal state. It’s how video games began in Cuba and how they persist. By word of mouth. Not only in Cuba, but from those with connections outside the island nation. More on the access later. For now we’ll stick with the Old Havaianas and their new revolution.

Admit it, you’ve broken more controllers than you care to acknowledge. Then you went to the store (online!) and dropped another $60 without blinking an eye.

This troupe covers everything; playing, discussing, fixing and disseminating video games. As I watched Cervantes kill my favored Voldo for the umpteenth time the main inhabitant pulled out a collection of PS4 controllers. I quickly inquired as to his plans. “Fixing” I was told. He spent the next half hour with screwdriver and solder gun in hand. In earnest he assaulted the assorted collection of broken controllers, some only the backs, random buttons and shoulder paddles sprinkled among the wreckage. Using the Cuban ingenuity best known for keeping 57’ Chevy’s running, he produced a pair of perfectly refurbished PlayStation 4 controllers. These would cost multiple times his monthly salary on average. Given the need for discovery, insatiable appetite and ability to repair effectively anything, the only thing that had shocked me to this point was the oldest console they could produce (they knew I was coming). That was a Dreamcast. Sure, it was in pristine condition with two controllers, a light gun for “shoot casa de zombies” and a sexy VMU, but that’s only from 1999! My affinity for collecting old school items may be getting the best of me. Let’s head back to today. How Cuban even know what’s coming out next aside from FIFA 2k+1.

Do you remember a time before the Internet? If you don’t this could be hard to fully grasp. If you do, you’ll recall the recess discussions around the Lost Woods, the Konami Code and how you unlock Sonic the Hedgehog in the original Super Smash Bros.. This group of players communicates in some crazy mix of these two states. They’ve pseudo Internet access, yes, but it’s ineffective to date. The initial knowledge of the future of video games and how to fully consume today’s titles comes by way of data dumps. Discretely smuggled SD cards and miniature portable hard drives. From there, the information is spread, still again, through a combination of these “man caves”. That enables the further dissemination of the pirated information, digitally and word-of-mouthly (new word!). If you want to learn the latest, it’s easiest to turn to these illicit LAN parties and grab the free information. If you need knowledge for a new Tekken combo chain, how to earn a particularly difficult Achievement or beat Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain you turn to the room’s denizens who may direct you to another room in Old Havana for what is most easily described as a live YouTube search and play. And yes, the very idea of Twitch and professional eSports entirely blew their minds.

What’s crazier is that a pair of the individuals I ran into play World of Warcraft, a game so massive it has it’s own wiki that trumps essentially everything else but Wikipedia itself. I couldn’t fathom, and we couldn’t articulate between the language barrier how he possibly pulls min-maxing off without the Internet. How they even manages to play, you ask? That’s an entirely different part of this inventive, dedicated video game community.