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Collecting games in Cuba, when new releases cost a month's salary

Cuban millennial culture is seeped in gaming

Game collector Gabriel Huie with friend Rafael Rivas
| Photos by Brian Crecente/Polygon, collage by Emily Haasch

Cuba will likely always be a country seeped in the throwback car culture aesthetic of bullet-nosed, tail-finned 1950s classics, lovingly maintained objects of teen angst and tourist transportation. But more recently another sort of avidity is beginning to grip the island nation, bringing with it a whole new sort of tech-fueled mores to Cuba.

“In other countries, your dream as a teenager might be your own car or something like that,” says Havana game console repairman Antonio Pablo Martinez. “But for us, here in Cuba, it's simple: [A] video game console would be enough.”

Martinez is quick to add that he doesn’t see game culture replacing car culture anytime soon, but that it has become a significant, important part of being a Cuban of a certain age.

“For us, when we were kids, we wanted a console,” says Martinez, now 45. “And now all of the children can afford it.

“So when we grow up, we still have that wish. When we can, after we are earning enough money, we buy it or someone gives us one. So that’s why it can be the same as a car for a teenager.”

Martinez spends his days and nights repairing other people’s consoles, making sure that Cuban gamers can eke out just as much life from a gaming system as the country’s gearheads famously get from their cars. His view is particularly game-oriented.

A flyer for a console reseller
A flyer for a console reseller
Brian Crecente/Polygon

But it’s hard to spend time in Havana and not see the growing popularity that video games have in the country. And, as with cars, the combination of a communist government, decades of trade embargoes and the country’s thriving hacker culture have led to a sort of alternative history of gaming here.

The country’s government had, until relatively recently, banned the importation of personal electronic goods including video game consoles. But Cuba’s black market, fueled by sailors, pilots, ambassadors and frequent travelers smuggling in goods as a side job, has become so ubiquitous it not only serves as the way to buy just about anything banned from the country; it essentially sets the real currency value in Cuba.

The chief obstacle today to getting a game console isn’t a question of legality; it’s of money, a common issue in a country where the average on-the-books income is about $25 a month. But people, especially the younger generation now hitting their 20s, still seem to find the money and a way to land the games they want to play. Often that includes working a side job, trading and borrowing from friends and a level of piracy so prevalent in the nation that even the government officially participates in it.

Owning a game console or a gaming PC is much more common these days in Cuba than it used to be, and most systems are modded to run pirated games. Games can typically be purchased from any number of entrepreneurs who travel the city with a terabyte’s worth of the week’s pirated television shows, movie releases and video games loaded onto a flash drive called the paquete. Stores even carry the content, selling something like a copy of Resident Evil 7, weeks after its release, for about 25 cents.

But much less common are the people who seek out not just a copy of the game, but an authentic copy.

Gabriel Huie, 25, tells me he started collecting video games about six years ago, first focusing on Japanese role-playing games and game consoles. He funds his purchases by buying and reselling games and systems he’s not collecting.

Gabriel Huie discusses his game collection
Gabriel Huie discusses his game collection
Brian Crecente/Polygon

The first system he purchased for himself was a PlayStation Portable. Soon he was grabbing up any consoles he could find. Most of them, though, were broken or broke soon after he purchased them. He played his PSP, he tells me, for about four years, until the battery inside gave out.

As we talk, Huie begins to pull open desk and dresser drawers in his bedroom and bring out console after console. Not all of his games and consoles are here, he says.

I gingerly pick up a DS, looking it over. Huie tells me it works, but that the screen doesn’t. I hold up another and he says it works.

Sometimes he picks up used systems and manages to sell them for a bit more than he paid. Sometimes he pays someone to bring one back into the country for him. His friends also give old consoles to him as gifts, when they’re done with them, he says.

The Sega Dreamcast, Huie says, is his favorite system.

“The Dreamcast was not a successful console here,” he tells me. “No one brings games in, like for the other systems.”

He has one system he keeps in his collection and another that is modded to play both pirated and original games.

Of all the games he’s played, among the original titles he strives to still collect is Shenmue, his absolute favorite.

“I was a kid the first time I saw the game,” he says. “It really impressed me.”

Huie holding some of his collection
Huie holding some of his collection
Brian Crecente/Polygon

He told me that as a child, his father would buy a game system, like the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and then keep it until he could get a newer system. When the new thing was available, he’d sell the current system so he could afford the new one for the family.

So, for a brief moment as a child, Huie owned Shenmue, but then, as with all of the other systems and games, it passed on to another gamer.

Today he spends a lot of time hunting for the game.

“I really want Shenmue,” he says. “One time someone called me and told me they had it. I offered around $15, $16 for it, but they didn’t want to sell it.”

His collection is as eclectic as it is enviable. For instance, while he’s missing out on Shenmue, he does own 44 different Atari games including a copy of the infamous E.T.

“It’s not as bad as people say,” he says.

Game collector Huie doesn’t have a proper display for his vast game and game system collection because he’s currently living in his mother’s house, a fairly common situation for Cubans when they leave college and struggle to come up with the money needed to purchase a home.

He tells me his collection is actually spread out between his mother’s home, where he lives, and his father’s home. Finding the pieces in his collection has been time consuming because there are no stores he can go to to pick up a console. So he lists his number and willingness to buy and simply waits for people to come to him. He often buys what people have and then sells off the stuff he doesn’t want or need. He says between the two homes he has all of the Nintendo consoles, all of the PlayStation consoles and even a few Xbox and Sega systems.

A view of Havana from Huie’s room
A view of Havana from Huie’s room
Brian Crecente/Polygon

After watching him dig through his room, extracting systems and games from the closet, desk drawers, dressers and boxes to proudly show to me, I ask Huie why it was that he was paying a premium for the retail versions of games that he could get so cheaply if he was willing to make do with pirated copies.

“It's a way to give respect to the designer of the game and the developers,” he says.

Where pirated copies of these games can run from loose change to maybe a dollar, Huie has paid as much as $35 for a single used, retail game.

“But I think,” he says then, smiling, “I think I will pay $200 for an original Shenmue game.

“I haven’t played Shenmue again because I don’t want to play a hacked game. I want to play the original Shenmue game.”

The game industry of Cuba

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

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