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Photos: Brian Crecente/Polygon, Collage: Emily Haasch

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Cuba: Where underground arcades, secret networks and piracy are a way of life

A look at how Cubans play, make, critique and find video games

Like its music, like its art, Cuba is a complex, colorful mash-up of dichotomous ideas, cultures and emotions.

Nothing better describes the island nation than the image of a doctor dressed as a revolutionary, a crumbling wall amidst towering, colorful homes and, most recently, hundreds huddled in darkened WiFi parks, their faces alight in the glow of cell phones.

Now, despite trade embargoes, despite nearly non-existent internet and government controlled media and censorship, Cuba surprises once more in its ability to overcome the seemingly insurmountable by embracing all aspects of video games.

Secret gaming networks entwine utility lines, broadcast from rooftops and piggy-back phone cables over highways. Speakeasy arcades can be found in many Havana neighborhoods, locked away behind closed doors. Blocked by two governments, U.S. video games — normally priced in the U.S. at more than a Cuban makes in a month — are as inexpensive as they are ubiquitous in Cuba’s thriving black market. And the people who play these games are just as passionate about making them, writing about them, competing in them. This is a new generation of Cubans; raised on illicit video gaming, born to love everything those games offer from the ability to create interactive, moving art, to gaming’s deep social roots and frenetic sense of play.

Over one week in March, I visited Havana, spending my days meeting with professors, game makers, journalists and players to try and capture a sense of what it is to be a Cuban in the age of gaming.

Cuba’s gaming underground

Gaming in the time of Castro

Young Cubans love games; love networked gaming in particular despite the low rate of internet penetration, love collecting games, love playing them alone and together, love making them and would even be willing to buy them legally, if only they could.

Javier "ToXavier" Hernandez has an unusual problem: As Cuba's twice-crowned StarCraft 2 champion, he has no one left to play against. Not if he wants to get better. "I'm number one," he says through a translator. "I've been number one the last two years, 2015 and 2016.”

Making games under communist rule

Why NGOs fund Cuban game journalism

Roving bands of robbers, government spies, risk of detention, suppression or worse: Game journalism in Cuba comes with the sorts of risks one might not typically associate with coverage of a multi-billion dollar entertainment business.

The collector and the repairman

Good Game column: Democracy in Cuba is smuggled on thumb drives, spreads on street networks

Cuba is like the memory of somewhere you’ve never been.

It’s the bilinearity of capitalism and commercialism, rum and coke, offline and on, that takes two opposing ideas and turns them into some different, often wondrous thing.

In spending a week wandering the streets of Havana and its suburbs on the hunt for Cuba’s video gaming generation, I kept stumbling across this sort of low-tech meets high-tech fabulism. It gave my short stay in Cuba, already stripped of free time, time to think, time to relax, a sense of almost magic realism. Read more

Writer/photographer: Brian Crecente
Editor: Matt Leone
Translator/guide: Jauretsi
Video producer: Tara Long
Video editor: Clayton Ashley
Video voiceover: Simone de Rochefort
Artist: Emily Haasch

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