Video Games Gain Popularity in Cuba

Dalia Acosta

Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

HAVANA TIMES, July 4 (IPS) — Despite the many limitations on access to digital-age technology in Cuba, a taste for computer games is spreading in this country, giving rise to a youthful movement that is beginning to conquer new public spaces.

Starting in the 1990s, a small group of mainly young people in this socialist island nation began to enter the world of video games. Over time, the number of people involved grew, and they became keen on face-to-face competitions and meetings, instead of just virtual interaction.

This gave rise to the nongovernmental Cuban Electronic Sports Group (ADEC), created in November 2007, which works to “spread the culture and wholesome entertainment” of these types of games, Ian Pedro Carbonell, the group’s president, told IPS.

StarCraft, a strategy game created in 1998 by the U.S. company Blizzard, is the best promoted and most popular among the young people who belong to ADEC. Since its launch on the market, it has gained followers worldwide, and in some countries, such as South Korea, it is considered a “sport”.

It can be played on computers with minimal technical requirements, although they need to be able to connect to a network for playing in groups, a more engaging option than a single person playing against the computer.

“In Cuba, not everybody has access to this technology,” Jessica Sori, one of the few women who have participated in the StarCraft tournaments, told IPS. “As a serious sport, it can only be played by those who don’t have heavy work or study commitments, because it requires a lot of time,” explained the young University of Havana sociology major.

Very few young women compete in the tournaments, more popular among men, which are organized by ADEC at least five times a year for both individuals and teams. Sori said young women are not attracted to this type of game because of a sexist upbringing from an early age.

The Blizzard game, which has spread to all parts of the world in either paid or pirated form, recreates an imaginary universe inhabited by the Terran, Protoss and Zerg civilizations. Each has its own weaknesses and strengths, allowing players to chart their strategies.

To win, players must be familiar with the potential of each civilization, develop mental agility and know the keyboard commands to execute each action as fast as possible. In addition to StarCraft, the Cuban group of about 300 members sponsors games that it considers electronic sports, such as Warcraft.

No Profit Motive

With no profit motive, young people, especially university students, organize get-togethers to play in cities like Holguín, Sancti Spíritus, Camagüey and Matanzas. “In other provinces, the electronic sports movement is practically null,” Osmani Grau, a computer programmer in the central province of Sancti Spíritus, told IPS.

The scant access to communications via telephone or cell-phone hinders the enjoyment of this hobby in teams, Grau commented. According to a National Office of Statistics survey of about 38,000 homes conducted in early 2010, only 2.9 percent of Cubans had direct access to the Internet in 2009.

Nevertheless, the tournaments began a few years ago in private homes. In fact, the first Havana StarCraft League existed before ADEC was established. Later, the Havana Teams League formed, and the idea of going public gradually gained force.

In Havana, the first gathering in an institutional space took place in 2009, in the University Student Centre, run by the federation to which all university students belong. For the past year, the Maxim Rock auditorium in the capital, home to the Cuban Rock Agency, has accommodated ADEC events.

At the Maxim, as this Cuban temple to rock music is popularly known, the group adds other expressions of electronic culture to its program. Cuban DJs and VJs (music video jockeys) provide the music for the tournaments, which have become more and more frequent.

The main aim of this youthful initiative, however, is to be recognized as an organization by the National Institute of Sport and Recreation (INDER), the state entity that regulates this area in Cuba. But “INDER has a complicated financing situation; it is impossible for it to take us on right now,” Padrón said.

Talks with INDER led only to an agreement of possible support for locales and infrastructure, said Padrón, a cybernetics student at the University of Havana. “We asked them to at least recognize this new form of wholesome recreation, and in the future, to validate it as a sport.”

If these games are classified as a sport, ADEC could aspire to its own venue, better technology for other games, and even sending talented Cubans to international tournaments, Padrón commented. For now, they finance their activities with the support of companies and producers like singer-songwriter Pablo Milanes’s PM Records.

Informal networks using thick cables running from window to window, or wireless connections with telecommunications devices such as AP (wireless access points), liven up the underground, almost clandestine, world of electronic games in Cuba.

This form of entertainment, which tends to become an addiction, explodes when played over the web. Cubans have devised creative alternatives, according to a 29-year-old Havana man who asked for anonymity. He told IPS he knows of five wireless networks near his neighborhood, each of them comprising about 20 people, set up for that purpose.

The technology for these connections is not sold in authorized stores. On the underground market, however, accessible on websites like Revolico, buyers can find everything from video cards to APs for connecting some 30 computers within the radius covered by the antenna’s signal.