Global gaming networks are heterogenous collectives of localized practices, not unified commercial products. Shifting the analysis of digital games to local specificities that build and perform the global and general, Gaming Rhythms employs ethnographic work conducted in Venezuela and Australia to account for the material experiences of actual game players.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Preliminary Report on Venezuelan 'Gaming Situation'

Summary of Findings
-X-Box less common in Venezuela, both as purchases and as rentals for home use.
-Extreme price difference in X-Box between Venezuela and Australia.
-Sony Playstation and Nintendo Game Cube most common home consoles in Venezuela.
-Reflection of gaming in terms of total computer/Internet users in Venezuela, lack of personal/home access compared to Venezuela.
-Abundance of public Internet connections in Venezuela.
-Factors affecting availability of X-Box
(1) Public Rental of X-Box in Cafes and Arcades.
(2) Widespread pirating of Software makes it more affordable.
-The X-Box is more suitable to the widespread pirating market because of the ease with which it can make and use pirated software.
-A disjunction between the way that Venezuela represents itself in games and how it is represented in games made by X-Box.
-The Venezuelan console and game market is open to change through shifts in the focus of the world games industry.

Summary of Conclusions
-The different patterns of consumptions of computer games and the Internet create an environment that allows easy access to these technologies.
-Beyond different patterns of consumption the Venezuela audience is characterized by forms of resistance to certain types of messages that are contained in computer games.
· The different modes of distribution in Venezuela have an important impact on ‘youth’ culture, as it allows Venezuelan youth to participate in the same kinds of activities as the youths of ‘First World’ countries.
X-Box in Venezuela

While X-box products are available in Venezuela, their use is not as prevalent as in Australia. This is, according to my observations and deductions, due to three interrelated factors stemming from the economic inequality between the two countries. First the lower average wages in Venezuela, combined with the higher relative cost of the X-Box console compared to Australia mean that less people can afford to purchase it. Second, the console and game rental market is dominated by PCs in Venezuela, with limited rentals of Game Cube and Playstation. Unlike Australia, there is no market for the rental of console machine for home use from Video/Dvd rental outlets (in any case these outlets are very rare in Venezuela). Third, the X-Box lacks the market penetration that in has in Australia, in Venezuela the market is dominated by the cheaper Ninetendo Game Cube and Playstation One, subsequently a much wider range of games is available for these consoles, both in official and in pirated versions.

Digital Divide
The barriers created by this economic disparity reflects the gap commonly know as ‘the digital divide’ between First and Third world countries. This divide refers not simply to the prevalence of the technology but to the availability of access to the technology itself. The World Bank records that in 2002 five percent of Venezuela’s population had access to the Internet, while in the same year in Australia the Internet was available to 48% of the population.[1]
However, this wide margin of difference between the two countries does not reflect the widespread existence of business hiring out computers and connections for short periods of time (‘Internet Cafés’), in Venezuela. Typically asking approximately 70-80 Australian cents for one hour of Internet time these cafes make the Internet widely available to those who for financial reasons are unable to afford a computer and/or connection. While Internet Cafes can also be found in Melbourne, they are much less common than in Caracas. For example, one Mall I visited in Bello Campo the business area of Caracas had seven Internet cafes, while on street in San Bernardino, a poor residential and light commercial area there were five Internet Cafes within the space of two blocks.[2] These represents extreme examples of the typical situation in Venezuela, in cities, at least, Internet Cafes are abundant. In Caracas the cafes are busy, particularly in the afternoon when children are not at school, often customers will be required to wait until a computer becomes available. Activities that occur in the cafes were, I observed usually the use of IRC or the playing of both networked and non-networked games, although they were also used by some people to do homework or to surf (notably for pornography).[3] The activities were generally divided along gender lines with women and girls using IRC and Men and Boys playing games, although these lines were somewhat flexible in both directions. (why is this relevant to internet).

‘¿Cuánto Cuesta?
The cost of the console in Venezuela places its ownership out of the reach of all but the extremely wealthy. The console costs roughly six times the average weekly wage in Venezuela. In contrast the cost in Australia is about half of an average weekly wage. However, many game retailers, and some arcades have consoles that can be rented in the store by the hour for a sum equivalent to approximately 90 cents Australian. This practice makes the technology more easily available. While they are not as common as Internet cafes, shops of this type will be found at every major commercial centre.

Beyond the console itself, the games come at a considerable cost. New release games in Australia cost the better part of one hundred dollars (93$). I did not find any new release games in Venezuela, however, older games (more than one year since release) were selling for about 60 Australian dollars, whereas in Australia such games would generally be sold for something between 45 and 60 dollars. In Australia the high cost of games is off-set by the readily availability of games for hire at major video rental outlets, a facility which is unavailable (to my knowledge) in Venezuela.
However, more readily available in Venezuela were pirated copies (copias piratas) of X-Box games. These copies included more recent releases than the few non-pirated games that were available, and were considerably cheaper, the as low as the equivalent of five or six Australian dollars. In order to play these games, it was necessary to have purchased a ‘mod chip’ for the X-Box that cost another 80$ or so in Venezuela.

‘Vendedor de Video Juegos’
In the shops selling Game products the general practice was to have a few legitimate games in a glass display case. These games were often old and obscure titles. When asked the staff would produce a box of copias piratas that were available for purchase and produce a home-made catalogue of games that were available on request. In the shops the normal price for a copia pirata was 15,000 Bolivars, that is approximately $10.50 Australian.

On the streets of Caracas street vendors would sell copias piratas for about half this price. The sale of pirated merchandise from street stalls is common in Venezuela in particular music cds and Dvds. Less common but also prevalent are stalls selling PC software, PC Games, Playstation One Games, Play Station Two Games and X-Box Games. These merchants often have little control over what is available to the customer. However, they do get new good very quickly, for example most stalls had copies of The Sims 2 within a week of its official release. But often they would have no idea when they could get more copies after they had sold out of something. The most common games stalls sold Playstation One or PC Games. The stalls in close proximity to the Universidad Central de Venezuela are as far as I know the only place where games from a wider variety of platforms, including X-Box were available.

‘Copias Piratas’
The official government legislative policy on pirating is superficially similar to most Northern or First World countries. This is legislation and policy is promoted in a way that is similar to in Australia, for example advertising condemning the practice is played before every feature film at the cinema. However, considering Venezuela has so many police and soldiers on the street, the practice of selling pirated goods is, in effect, tolerated. While most games shops have pirated games hidden behind the counter, in some areas of Caracas street vendors selling pirated materials are ubiquitous. They primarily sell DVDs, CD’s, and CD-ROMs. The CD-ROMs may be of games, software, mp3 files or even of pornography (in AVI files or pictures). Less common are stalls selling pirated console games.

One vendor, ‘Alfredo’, suggested that the reason that console games were less commonly sold by vendors of pirated goods was due to supply problems. He told me that copied console games were imported from ‘Asia’ (he could not specify further than this- however this was confirmed at least as a commonly held opinion by other workers in the ‘legitimate’ games industry). This meant that often many games would be unavailable (they had not been released in the Asian market- a common practice with all game platforms), or simply that demand would outstrip supply so that popular games would quickly disappear. ‘Alfredo’s’ explanations reflected the stock of x-box games sellers’, often the stock would be extremely old, unpopular or combinations of the two. I noted that especially prevalent among was what available were product-tie-in games (e.g. Enter The Matrix (Atari, 2003), and more ‘child-oriented’ games (Shrek (TDK Mediactive, 2001) and Sponge Bob Squarepants: The Battle of Bikini Bottom (THQ, 2003)).

PC games were more commonly found because they were easy to copy. ‘Alfredo’ claimed that the games he sold at his street stall were either downloaded from the Internet using a file-sharing-protocol called Bittorrents or sent to him via the Internet by a friend/colleague in the United States of America. The ease of access to pirate PC games explained the price discrepancy between them and pirated console games. Most PC games being in the range of 2-5000 Bolivars (approximately $1.50-3.50 AusD), while pirate console games would be between 10-15000 Bolivars (approximately $7-10.50 AusD). Also PC games were priced according to how many CD-ROMs they used, the CD-ROM being the basic cost for the vendor of producing the pirated good.

It is in the area of indigenous pirating that the X-Box has an interesting potential in the Venezuelan console games market. Of all the consoles the X-Box is the most easy to use to pirate games. This is because of its design that is more similar to the PC, in that it has more potential for customization. This means that its uses are relatively open-ended, and therefore unlike PS2 and Game Cube it can be used as more that just a game console. The primary design feature that creates this potential is the X-Box’s built-in hard-drive; this allows, with simple alterations, for the console to copy games that it has stored on it, turning the game console into a game copying machine. It is this potential that could be harnessed by the Venezuelan pirate industry to create a market for locally pirated X-Box games similar to the one that already exists in Australia. While I am yet to encounter such a practice, it is quite possible that it exists, or will exist as the X-Box gains in influence in Venezuela.

Mazinger Z Salva a Venezuela (Mediatech,2004)
The English Translation of the title of this locally designed PC game is ‘Mazinger Z Saves Venezuela’. The game is a rather simple sideways scrolling game featuring battles between giant robots and military forces. The background of the game features prominent landmarks of Caracas, such as Plaza Altamira, Parque Central and Plaza Venezuela. The player’s avatar in the game is the giant robot Mazinger Z, the main character from a cult anime of that name created by Go Nagai in 1972 that is still popular in Venezuela.[4] Mazinger Z must save Venezuela from other marauding evil giant robots, and the army which has been turned into cyborgs and are aiding the evil robots. Mazinger Z Salva a Venezuela has an explicitly political theme.

“Nos robaron el referéndum”
Sólo dos jóvenes podrán detener
el imperio de terror.
Prepárate a salvar a Venezuela
y al mundo del imperio Mikene.

“They stole the referendum”
Only two youths can stop
the reign of terror.
Prepare to save Venezuela
and the Mikene empire world.


Mazinger z Posted by Hello

The game was produced during the political crisis of 2002-4. It reflects the political concerns of the period, that President Hugo Chavez was using fraudulent election results and should be removed from office. The actions against the army (who are dehumanized machines) in the game are implicitly an anti-Chavez message as the President is closely associated with the army (he attempted a military coup in 1992 before entering politics as a ‘civilian’, he still makes many public appearances in military style uniforms, and his supporter wear red military-style berets). Furthermore, the plea “Nos robarón el referéndum” links the evil robots in the game to the alleged practices of Chavez. This direct political message is lacking in games produced commercially in Australia. Games with political messages have been produced, but with government funding.[5]

X-Box Imperialism
In contrast to the locally produced Mazinger Z Salva a Venezuela, which reflects the concerns of a substantial segment of Venezuela’s population is the game Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six 3 (Ubisoft, 2003). This game which was originally released on the X-Box platform, proved to be one of the most popular and critically acclaimed games of the first-person-shooter genre for that console.[6] The game is based on the novels of Tom Clancy, and features the same kind of adherence to realism that his novels are noted for. It is of the variety of first-person-shooter that, rather than portraying blood and guts mayhem like Unreal 2: the Awakening (Atari, 2004) and Halo: Combat Evolved (Microsoft, 2001), recreates an environment that requires alertness, stealth and accuracy in order to survive. This kind of game has proved successful in the past on the X-Box console with other Tom Clancy inspired games like Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell (Ubisoft, 2002) and with original concepts such as Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance (Konami, 2002). Rainbow Six 3 features a Latino avatar, Domingo Chavez, who is the leader of the Rainbow Six counter-terrorist team, which works for the United Nations at the request of national governments. The action in the games takes place around the world, but the aim of the Rainbow Six team is to protect United States oil interests in Venezuela, which are under threat from South American terrorist groups. The game is based on the writing of a North American author and developed by a North America company, for use on a North America platform; unsurprisingly it reflects a particular world-view. Venezuela in this case is important only so far as it supplies the United States with oil.[7]


Rainbow Six 3 Posted by Hello

During a discussion with ‘Havier’ an employee at a video games store in Chacao I was alerted to this game.[8] Subsequently I mentioned this game to other people in conversation I discovered that while the game was universally admired for its game-play and technical excellence, there was a general feeling of ambivalence towards the subject matter of the game. In short, while people were pleased that Venezuela was the setting for such a prominent game, they felt that the scenario was implausible. I interpreted this as a cognitive dissonance with the world-view of the game, which was designed with a North Americans audience in mind. To its intended audience the game was located within pre-existing tropes of anxiety involving terrorism, oil supplies and the Latino ‘Other’. These anxieties were projected into the plot and setting of Rainbow Six 3 to create a portrayal of Venezuela which meant little to Venezuelan players. The intensely political concerns of the Venezuela people that are reflected in the game, Mazinger Z Salva a Venezuela, can not relate to the Venezuela of Rainbow Six 3. This Venezuela is emptied of local political concerns, instead reflecting the geo-political economic concerns of North American neo-imperialism.

‘Generación Nintendo™’
For a period in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s the brand Nintendo was synonymous in many minds with video games. While the brand does still exist, it has lost ground to competitors in the three major markets of Europe, Japan and North America. In these markets the Sony Playstation Two is predominant, with the X-Box a distant second. Venezuela (and apparently much of Latin America), however, is still dominated by Nintendo Game Cube, these consoles being more affordable and consequently more readily available. Stores have a larger variety of official games for sale and these consoles were most commonly in use by customers, especially to play FIFA Soccer 2004 (EA Sports, 2003). This game was by far the most popular of any console game, judging by how often I saw people playing it, and indeed it was the only console game I saw being played by adults.

The reason for the market dominance of Nintendo Game Cube, and Sony Playstation is primarily due to the relative cost compared to X-Box and Playstation Two. The reason for this difference in cost is due to two factors. First the Game Cube is cheap because it has a smaller market share than anticipated in the major console regions (Europe, Asia and North America) and the company is looking for alternate markets for its products. The Playstation is cheaper because it is outdated technology, that has been replaced by the Playstation Two by most consumers in their primary market areas. The Latin American market is used to ‘dump’ the remaining game software and hardware that is outdated and the local market is happy to pick it up because of the price.

However, in the next year the market in both Latin America and the primary console market is likely to be changed greatly by the impact of what is called the ‘Third Generation’ of game consoles. The industry has been anticipating that both Sony and Microsoft will launch new versions of their consoles. It was announced in October that the X-Box 2 would be revealed to the public in January 2005, with a release date later that year.[9] The release date of the Playstation3 is yet to be confirmed. Once these ‘Third Generation’ consoles are released, I presume that the X-Box will become cheaper in the Venezuela market as the remaining X-Box consoles and games get dumped in periphery markets. Consequently, I predict that the X-Box will become a more common household item in Venezuela over the next twelve months.


Conclusion
I believe that further research in Venezuela will garner interesting results especially more thorough empirical investigations into game audiences. The Venezuelan audience differs substantially from the Australian in the mode in which the activity of gaming is organised into the lives of the players both temporally and spatially. Furthermore, while Rainbow Six 3 is a particularly provoking example (at least to Venezuelans), my investigations suggest that the world-view of the player does to some extent affect their reception of the game. While several people I spoke with were displeased about the portrayal of Venezuela in that game, no one mentioned that this had effected their enjoyment of the game-play, the actual ergodic process. In terms of political economy, of interest was the integral role that the black market of copias piratas played in the Venezuelan games industry. This has led me to think more carefully about the practice of pirating as it pertains to the gaming industry in general and to Australia in particular. In Australia the pirating industry is officially condemned and associated with terrorism, but continues unabated in the gaming industry, and is especially prominent among the users of X-Box on consoles. While Venezuela also officially condemns these practices they are unofficially tolerated. One effect of this toleration is that it allows Venezuelans access to technologies that they could otherwise not afford. This suggests to me that copias piratas have an import role in bridging the ‘digital divide’. While lack of access to videogames is not often considered to be a major consequence of the digital divide. I suggest that recent research that emphasises the pedagogical role of these games in acclimatizing children to both computer technology and to computer-based learning bring new relevance to this issue. Like most ‘Third World’ countries Venezuela has a youthful population, thus, the issue of the digital divide, and how it can be effectively challenged is pertinent in this issue. Potentially what is at stake is higher than merely access to entertainment, but access to a key pedagogical tool for the contemporary global media milieu.
While the X-Box is relatively rare in Venezuela compared to Australia, it is still a readily available, high profile and desired commodity. Changing economic factors within the gaming industry also make it reasonable to predict that the X-Box console will become cheaper in Venezuela in the near future and thus more widely available. Despite its relative scarcity, different social usage of the X-Box, makes it easily available to all interested parties. Thus the study is feasible, because a large number of people have exposure to the X-Box (are members of the X-Box audience). Furthermore, the different practices of the audience in Venezuela will make a comparative study with Australia informative in terms of the raw data obtained and in the way that this data might challenge current understandings of audiences and the social practice of gaming.


[1] Statistics from http://www.worldbank.org/data/
[2] In San Bernardino the streets don’t have names, the blocks (manzanas) have names, thus the two blocks I’m speaking of would be referred to as Manzana Mirador, Manzana Avilanes, Manzana Tendero and Manzana Desamparados.
[3] IRC’s used were MSN Messenger and Yahoo. The most common networked games were Battlefield 1942 (EA Games, Digital Illusions, 2002) and MU (http://www.muonline.com/). The most common non-networked game was Grand Theft Auto III: Vice City (Rockstar Games, Rockstar North, 2002).
[4] The information on Mazinger Z comes from The Anime News Network http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/encyclopedia/anime.php?id=1100 . Mazinger Z is considered to be the first animation that portrayed a battle between good and evil robots over humanity. This theme has become a standard theme in animation, and has also produced numerous product spin-offs, e.g. Transformers and …….
[5] For example Escape from Woomera, http://www.escapefromwoomera.org/ .
[6] The game was release on the Playstation 2 and Game Cube platforms in 2004, but was received much less enthusiastically, see http://www.gamespot.com/finder/findgames.html .
[7] This sentiment is felt bitterly in Venezuela, many believing that Chavez’s landslide victory in the recent referendum was bought from the United States in through agreement to continue to supply the USA for the next 20 years.
[8] Chacao is a wealthy suburb of Caracas, with first-world style commercial and residential enclave.
[9] http://www.gizmodo.com/archives/xbox-2-to-be-unveiled-at-ces-023602.php .
[10] See page 12 of The PhD Handbook.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey, Tom. Keep on the good work! I assume that the articles posted here are part of your PhD. Are they work in progress? Can we quote them? Let me know.
Best,

Gonzalo Frasca
ludology.org

Tom said...

They very very raw works in progress. Once theyre cooked I'll put them somewhere as Pdf's.
Quote them as much as you like :)

Tom

marissa said...

Excellent discussion on internet connections. I bookmarked your blog. I have my own internet connections blog if you want to take a look.

About Me

This blog started as a PhD blog, for my project 'Global Rhythms: Video games and the Transformation of Play'. It finally become a book. This is a "historic" record of the trials a tribulations.