Culture, Travel & Sport

How piracy introduced an entire generation of emerging Europeans to the digital world

Mentioning piracy in a positive context in today’s emerging Europe business and entrepreneurial circles is bound to be met with disapproval. After all, the IT industry in the region is booming and all those developers need to be paid.

There are apps, services, and there is even a booming video game industry, with firms such as Poland’s CD Projekt now competing with the world’s biggest studios and publishers.

Yet as many IT specialists in the region will admit, it’s precisely because of piracy and knockoff gadgets that most young people in the region first came into contact with the digital world, back in the 1990s when the digital world was still fresh and new.

I remember that period quite vividly. The first time I had the chance to play a video game at home was at a friend’s house in the late 1990s. The console was a model that people from outside of emerging Europe would never recognise. A Terminator? For most it’s a film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. But in countries like Serbia, Poland, and Czechia, a Terminator was also a games console.

A knockoff, at that. Produced in China, the Terminator was actually a clone of Nintendo’s hugely successful 1985 Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The NES was big in Japan and the United States, while Europeans — especially in the UK — preferred the microcomputers of the 1980s — the Spectrum, Commodore, Amstrad, and BBC Micro.

And while some of these microcomputers could be found in emerging Europe at the time, they were well out of reach of most people due to both their high prices and the fact most of them were smuggled rather than imported officially. The computers that would have been contemporary in the 1990s were even more expensive.

The so-called fifth and sixth generation of video game consoles, that include Nintendo’s NES and SNES (the S stands for Super) and Sega’s Megadrive and Megadrive 2, were also not officially available in the region. And neither was the software that accompanied them.

As the countries in emerging Europe dealt with transitioning from a socialist into a capitalist society and the Balkans were falling apart in a violent civil war, home computers and video games were not on anyone’s list of priorities.

But enterprising people did see an opportunity to bring video gaming into the region. So they turned to Chinese and Taiwanese knockoff manufacturers who produced the NES clones on the cheap. As the NES was hardly a technological marvel, even when it was new.

Soon, these knockoffs flooded flea markets (and some proper shops, too) and a whole generation was exposed to video games. Before the advent of the Terminator, arcade cabinets could be found at fairs, and there were places (in Serbia affectionately known as “segatheques”) where you could play on genuine hardware — the charged by the hour and quickly burned through monthly allowances.

The Terminator brought gaming to the home and to the living room. Taking liberal inspiration from the objects it knocked off, the device came in many models. Some resembling the NES, some Sega’s Megadrive, but all had the same, cheap, copied, internal hardware.

It took standard NES cartridges that were apparently very easy to copy. It goes without saying that the games present on them were ripped off too.

Although the Terminator was obsolete on arrival and was not of a very high quality, the console still enjoys cult status in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Poland, Czechia, and several other countries. And it can still be found at flea markets, for anyone wanting to take a stroll down memory lane.

Piracy in the region did not stop at consoles and video game cartridges.

As both computers and consoles became more commonplace and somewhat cheaper, the software components were mostly still out of reach. And when they were in reach, they were too expensive.

Enter the modchip and the crack. A modchip was a small component on a printed circuit board that removed the copyright protection. A crack is the PC and digital version of the same idea.

Whether it was on a PC or on a console like the PlayStation, these methods enabled users to buy software on the cheap. For the price of a blank CD (with a small mark up for the street vendor or PC cafe owner) you could buy a video game or a whole suite of professional software.

This enabled enthusiasts in emerging Europe to acquire the kind of software libraries that would cost thousands of euros in the West.

It is especially true when it comes to gaming as, even today, consoles have a software attach rate (the average number of games each console owner buys) of less than 10. And, it should be noted, these rates are considered terrific in the industry.

And yet players in emerging Europe routinely had collections of over a hundred titles.

Piracy, knockoffs, modchips, and cracks, allowed a generation that grew up in relative poverty (especially in the Balkans) to access the technological and cultural benefits of the nascent digital transformation. Not to mention the scores of young people back then who learnt to speak English by playing games and watching pirated TV shows.

Had none of this occurred in the region, would it be as competitive as it is today? The days when emerging Europe lagged behind in ICT are long gone, with more and more companies taking leadership roles in the space.

So, maybe, we have the Terminator and the modchips and the cracked versions of Windows, MS Office, Adobe Photoshop and so on to thank for where we are today.

“Piracy helped the young generation discover computers. It set off the development of the IT industry in Romania,” the former Romanian President Traian Băsescu admitted in 2007 during a conference that was also attended by Bill Gates.

Of course, today in the region, piracy is slowly becoming less prevalent as services such as Netflix, Spotify, and Steam enter the region offering software and media at reasonable prices and with widespread availability. It also proves the point of Steam CEO Gabe Newell, who says that piracy is a service problem.

But even in this era of availability, stakeholders in the region would do well to remember how important access actually is, if the digital societies of the future are not to leave anyone behind. Spotify only became officially available in most of the Western Balkans last month.

If you don’t offer people the real thing at a decent price, they will look elsewhere.

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