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Democracy in Cuba is smuggled on thumb drives, spreads on street networks

Revolution in the time of the internet

Brian Crecente/Polygon

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.

Viewed through the pictures found in travel magazines, or the conversations I had with smiling, sun-burnt tourists over a dinner, Cuba was a place lost to time, a relic of communism and 1950s America.

But in talking to today’s generation of Cubans, the growing pool of 20-somethings that will one day inherit this island nation, Cuba is much more an idea than a collection of meticulously cared for aging Buicks, rum distilleries and sugar cane fields.

There is a great pride in the Cuban people for Cuba. That is Cuba the land, the island, the culture, not necessarily Cuba the government.

Cuba is the land of making do. Of making it work. Of doing the impossible, and nowhere is that more evident than in the country’s embrace of technology and gaming.

Despite long-held embargoes, an average monthly salary of $25 and a government restriction on all but official media, Cubans still find a way to watch the latest American TV and movies and play video games.

It was two gamers who, wanting to play a video game with each other, built the first local, unofficial network with a bit of cable. That “Street Network” takes in all of Havana and, I’ve been told, even connects outlying cities. In the city of Havana alone, 20,000 people play games, shop, chat and watch restricted movies and television on the network these days. All without government oversight or an internet connection to the outside world.

Arcades could never happen in Cuba, thanks to trade embargoes and other government restrictions, so instead people began hosting game sessions on smuggled consoles, charging a pocketful of change for an hour on a PlayStation in their home.

Game development, once an unimaginable career in Cuba, now has official backing from the government and at the universities. And, perhaps more importantly, a group of unorthodox developers, independent from government censorship, control or funding, is fighting to create their own sorts of video games that can tell Cuba’s stories in the same ways that music, sports and art have for so long.

Video games in the land of Castro are an impossibility and yet I found them everywhere: as nightly ritual for an entire generation of Cubans, a stretch of illicit network cable hidden in a bundle of utility lines, the hushed giggle of children playing in a speakeasy arcade, the champion professional gamer with no one to play.

Gaming in Cuba is perhaps the truest sign that the country, if not its government, is ready, eager and wanting to join the rest of the world, to embrace a connected society.

And soon, as with the “Street Network” which continues to grow like cobwebs in a massive machine struck silent, no person, no government will be able to stop that relentless push for international connectivity.

That the democratization of a socialist country would arrive in the thumb drives and gaming consoles of Cuban smugglers alongside Hollywood blockbusters, episodes of American Gods and copies of the latest computer games seems fitting.

Revolution in the time of the internet seems to come a bit at a time.

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor and executive editor of Polygon.


You just read one entry in Polygon’s 12-part series on video games in Cuba. Check out the rest on our hub.