clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A young man watches gameplay videos at a cell phone repair shop while waiting for a customer

Filed under:

How Cuban game devs balance tense relationship between propaganda and creativity

Gov't once feared, now starting to embrace games

A young man watches gameplay videos at a cell phone repair shop while waiting for a customer
| Photos by Brian Crecente/Polygon, collage by Emily Haasch

In 2010, gamers got a chance to kill Fidel Castro. Three years later, another game gave them a chance to join his revolution.

Both are shooters, placing digital weapons in the hands of faceless soldiers and giving them agency to kill. In Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops, the goal is to kill Castro as a member of the CIA. In Gesta Final, a Cuban government backed game, the goal is to relive the 1959 Castro revolution as one of the 82 rebels who fought alongside the likes of Fidel, Raul Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

The drastic difference in response to the two games by the Cuban government is a clear sign of the regime’s growing acceptance of the power of video games to influence, and the inevitable role gaming plays in the lives of young Cubans despite trade embargoes, nearly non-existent internet and a game development community decades behind its international counterparts.

Call of Duty: Black Ops opens in a small bar in Havana, music playing in the background as a woman slowly dances around the nearly empty room by herself. The bar's owner explains to the player how to get to Castro's compound, a place that once was his own home.

After fighting through the compound, the player bursts through a bedroom door and is given a slow-motion second to aim and fire their gun at Fidel Castro, who is hiding behind a woman. The camera follows the spiraling bullet as it slowly cuts through the air and enters the center of Castro’s forehead. It isn’t until the end of the level that players discover that the man they killed was in actuality a Castro body double.

After the game was released, and that level widely discussed, a state-run website in Cuba decried the in-game assassination attempt, calling the game “doubly perverse.”

"On the one hand, it glorifies the illegal assassination attempts the United States government planned against the Cuban leader ... and on the other, it stimulates sociopathic attitudes in North American children and adolescents,” the site wrote at the time, going on to stress the view that violent video games can produce antisocial behavior in young players.

Entrance to one of Havana’s many computer Joven Clubs
Entrance to one of Havana’s many computer Joven Clubs
Brian Crecente/Polygon

That’s not too uncommon a point of debate. In fact, it still regularly pops up throughout the world after acts of violence by young perpetrators or an especially violent game is released. But in Cuba, as with much of the rest of the world, that way of thinking seems to be changing.

“Just a few years ago, playing games on networks would have been forbidden,” says Alba Leon, an editor with underground website El Toque. “But now it’s tolerated. The government and the police tolerate gaming I think because maybe they stopped sensing it as a threat.

“They used to fear that Cuban youth would be contaminated with ideas from the outside that could endanger their political situation, but they’ve seen it’s mostly just for fun. That people play for fun.”

While some groups, like the university collective from the '90s known as Merchise, have long created games without direct government support, it hasn’t been until relatively recently that official game development has undergone a significant level of growth.

By 2013, government-supported developers were creating games for the country’s Joven Clubs. Among those early titles were games that explored Cuba’s national identity or history.

Gesta Final was developed by the government run Estudio de Videojuegos y Materiales Audiovisuales in part to help teach Cuban history to teens. In it, players take on the roles of revolutionary soldiers fighting against Fulgencio Batista’s army as part of the revolution. EVIMA is the development studio for the Joven Centers.

Cubans pay by the hour to play games on Joven Club computers
Cubans pay by the hour to play games on Joven Club computers
Brian Crecente/Polygon

Omar Correa Madrigal, a professor at Havana’s University of Information Science, and I meet outside the university at a nearby tourist restaurant before heading to a length of grass that divides a major road. It’s a sort of linear park and we walk its length as we discuss the state of gaming in Cuba.

“These video games [created by EVIMA] are the result of creative game developers from different parts of Cuba,” he says. “Their main objective was to create games to explore our national history, national sports or fantasy.”

The Joven Clubs, he says, have long been host to computers and video games. The first of the centers opened in 1987 as part of an initiative by then President Fidel Castro with the goal of expanding computer use and socialization of Cubans. There are now more than 600 of the centers located all over the country.

“I grew up with games like Tetris, Doom, Prince of Persia and others at the Joven Clubs,” Madrigal says.

Palacio Central de la Computacion is located in central Havana, opposite the city’s famed Fraternity Park. Built in the '50s, the massive building was re-inaugurated in 1992 by Fidel Castro as the new capital of the Joven Clubs.

The cavernous space is simply called The Palace by Cubans who visit it to access its computers, learning how to use them, or, more often, playing games on them.

In March, I find a line waiting outside the Palace when I visit to try and speak to some of those who run the Joven Clubs. After talking our way inside, a translator and I speak with a woman sitting at a desk under a massive sign with the center’s name on it. Behind us, across an empty sprawl of aging flecked concrete floors, a cluster of mostly teens sits at computers arranged in circles around large blue columns, quietly clicking away at a variety of games. Logos like “We believe in the future” and posters of Fidel Castro adorn the walls.

Later, a person who declines to give me her name explains some of the services provided at the center.

Havana’s computer “Palace”
Havana’s computer “Palace”
Brian Crecente/Polygon

People can access an intranet that connects all of the Joven Clubs around the country, access a form of Facebook, send messages and explore a version of Wikipedia. The center is host to regular meetings by a variety of groups including ones that discuss art, graphic design and video games. While all of the computers are preloaded with games people can play, many of the most avid gamers bring their own. Accessing the computers costs a couple of cents an hour and people can stay as long as they want as long as they keep paying.

Up two flights of stairs, I find hallways lined with closed doors. Behind one is another room packed with computer stations, as well as a sort of office for those working at the center. The place is always busy, they tell me.

The person running things when we visit can’t be interviewed without permission, so instead she loads copies of the Cuban-created games found on the computers there onto my flashdrive along with years worth of the club’s digital magazines and apologizes for not being able to speak to me.

As we walk downstairs I spot four laughing school kids hanging out on a couch. They all wear matching tan and white uniforms and their smiles broaden when I stop to take a couple of pictures.

Soon, they’ll be on computers too, once the people currently taking all of the spots at the Palace leave.

Earlier this year, Cuba hosted its largest ever global game jam, but it wasn’t the country’s first. Game jams in Cuba date back to 2015, the same year that the University of Information Sciences created the official Cuban Video Game Community.

Madrigal, who is also the founder of the Cuban Video Game Community, says it was formed alongside the university’s first game jam.

“The community is hosted by the University of Information Sciences in Havana and is part of the Cuban Information Association,” he says. “Today we interact with more than 800 game developers, graphic designers, gamers and others.

“The Cuban Video Game Community is a common space to collaborate and talk about video games. Jam events, games releases and game developers courses are announced there and now we want to increase the level of activities for help with our industry.”

That first game jam came about as Madrigal and others discussed how to both contribute to the game development scene in Cuba and also get a variety of professions, such as programming, graphic design, literature and music, to work together.

Global Game Jam Cuba 2017
Global Game Jam Cuba 2017
Brian Crecente/Polygon

“Continued game developer interest and the need for more Cuban games helped us decide to host this event,” he says. “The first game jam was with university students and professors, then we had the idea to extend the game jam as an important educational activity to a national level.”

That’s when they created the Pachamama Game Jam, a game jam associated with environmental care.

The 2015 game jam drew 40 people and resulted in 10 games. The next year, 110 people showed up and created 15 games. This year, the game jam drew 130 people and resulted in 21 games. Eighteen of those prototypes were published on the Global Game Jam’s international website. Others were released as full games.

Gorm Lai, chairman of the board of directors for the Global Game Jam, attended this year’s event during the second-to-last weekend of January.

“The Global Game Jam is about promoting diversity among game creators and game creations,” he says. “We don’t have any problems engaging people in the west, but other places are not so vocal. They just sign up and follow along. So I thought a trip to Cuba would be a good opportunity.”

Cuba’s event kicked off with a huge welcoming ceremony that included university professors, the game developers and even members from the United Nations’ UNESCO and FAO agencies.

During GDC, I got this Global Game Jam recap video. It is made by the organisers in Cuba. But I only now had the time to post it

Posted by Gorm Lai on Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Theodor Friedrich, the FAO’s Cuba representative, says he heard about the game jam through an ecological group and that their organization worked with the jam to develop themes to help improve the environmental awareness of both the programmers and the future game players.

Friedrich says the end result seemed to do a good job of connecting the themes, moving these games away from “violence towards environmental sensitivity.”

Lai came away from the event with a feeling that Cuba’s game development scene is still very fledgling, but that they are very excited about making games.

“I’m really impressed by the quality of the games they made,” he says. “It was quite impressive what they came up with.”

That game development in Cuba, at least this more modern form of it, is something altogether new for the country isn’t something many would argue about.

“Cuba [has] an incipient game industry” Madrigal says. “Some institutions are working on game development and the next steps will be to consolidate an industry and create better mechanisms for this. Cuba’s work in the software industry and inside the game industry is important.”

And he believes deeply in its continued growth in Cuba, not just because of the dedication of the government-run universities and developers, but because gaming has become such a popular pastime.

“For that we try to create our industry,” says Madrigal, who sees Cuba’s game development future including interesting, connected games that will “help players grow as human beings and homo ludens.”

The most pressing question, it seems, isn’t about whether game development and gaming in general will continue to grow in Cuba, but how.

A mural of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Havana
A mural of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Havana
Brian Crecente/Polygon

Public education in Cuba, including attendance at places like the University of Havana, has always been free. But after the Cuban Revolution, universities were reorganized to teach Marxist ideologies and private universities were nationalized. This essentially turned universities into a sort of arm of the government.

So game development sponsored by or done through universities is typically seen as not being independent. Instead, Cuban developers say, development there comes without complete artistic freedom.

Indie developers Josuhe Pagliery and Johann Hernandez both believe that the results are games that aren’t very good, or very fun.

Pagliery says he’s even heard talk of the universities working together to centralize game development, which he believes would create a complete monopoly in game development in Cuba. That runs contrary to what he sees big American studios, like Electronic Arts and Activision doing. They’re investing in creating small studios that can, to some degree, operate independently.

“So for me, it’s kind of like super discouraging,” he says. “To see that something that is very new in Cuba start with the same old mistakes that we have done in many other things in our country.”

School children gather for an outdoor lesson in Havana
School children gather for an outdoor lesson in Havana
Brian Crecente/Polygon

Hernandez and Pagliery both say that they also see government-sponsored games being made for much more money than they are spending to create their game, Savior, and those government games are not very good.

“With two people we are making a game that looks far better than what is being made with a whole bunch of programmers, good computers, money and people earning a salary for that,” he says. “And you say, ‘Come on, man; give some money to me.’”

They’re also worried about talk of the government-sponsored groups striving to release 13 games in one year.

“I say, ‘Come on, man. If Square Enix only makes one game a year, how are you going to make 13?,” Pagliery says.

Others tell me that games made through government funding simply aren’t allowed to be for pure entertainment. But Madrigal says that’s no longer the case.

The contrast of opinion in what typically would be a fact is the sort of issue that pervades the coverage of many topics in Cuba from something as innocuous as the legality of pirated games to as complex as the value of the Cuban peso. Often there is an official, government-backed response and an unofficial response from Cubans living in the country with no ties to the government.

Cubans stand in line at a market
Cubans stand in line at a market
Brian Crecente/Polygon

In the case of games made simply for fun, Madrigal tells me that things have changed.

While games like Gesta Final have a strong educational undertone, he points to more modern titles like Comando Pintura, which has players basically shooting it out with paintball guns, as titles designed simply for fun.

“I think that the government has a good position in respect to video games,” says Madrigal. “I grew up with video games in the Joven Clubs and high school and I learned a lot with games too. Nowadays, Cuban society has strong discussions about the contents of some video games and their level of violence, the realistic simulations contribute to the polemic. Different country have interacted with this situation before and I think it common when we talk about video games.

“Video games are an interdisciplinary art. I don’t know how we can get to the same level with games as we have with our music, which has a long history, but it could be possible with collective work and support in our art, cinema and music. Perhaps with a better industry and more and more game jams this could be possible.”

Cuba’s gaming revolution

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

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon