Confessions of an 8-bit pirate

Shortly after I began this blog in 2014, fellow blogger Bryon posted an interesting and thought-provoking piece on software piracy on his (now sadly defunct) Stir Fried Pixels blog. He mentioned me directly, commenting that from posts I’d made on my own blog, it appeared that I bought my games back in the day, whereas he confessed that most of his were copied.

Whilst it was nice to be held up as a paragon of virtue, I have to confess I was not quite being as squeaky clean as he assumed. Indeed, large parts of his piracy post closely reflected my own experience, so I thought it was time to ‘fess up and write about my piracy past.

I should stress this is all long in the past and mostly covered my C64 and Amiga owning days. These days, I wouldn’t even know how to start copying a game. Even if I did, I wouldn’t do it because my perspective and moral compass has changed. Aside from anything else, family commitments mean I have less disposable income and time in which to play games. I don’t have time to play stuff I’ve bought (many titles in my collection remain shrink-wrapped because of this), let alone have time to download or copy more.

Even when I did copy, it was on a small, rather than industrial scale. Sure, I swapped games with friends and acquaintances in the school playground, but never uploaded (or downloaded) anything from bulletin boards. That said, I was probably one of the more prolific copies amongst my school friends, ending up with hundreds of C64 and Amiga games.

There were lots of reasons why I went down this route. None of them justify what I did, and, looking back, I’m not proud of myself, but they help to provide a bit of context.

Like many I was a school kid during those halcyon days of 8 bit computers and was on a very limited income (my pocket money was 50p a week, supplemented by any cash I got for birthdays and Christmas). Games were expensive (typically £10 a pop), whilst blank cassette tapes were cheap. You do the maths.

In fairness, I did buy an awful lot of games as well. I’d save up every penny of my pocket/birthday/Christmas money until I afford a new title, but there was a limit to how far that would go. I could probably afford around 10-15 new games per year – there were probably more than that released every week, so even with the best of intentions, I could only ever hope to buy a fraction of the available games. Again, this doesn’t justify what I did (I can’t afford a Porsche now, but I wouldn’t dream of going out and taking one), but hopefully gives a bit of insight into where I was coming from

Copying games gave me a way to experience titles that I would otherwise never have played. Indeed, if I found I really liked a game that I’d copied, I would usually go out and buy the physical release, because I wanted the box with the artwork and instruction. To my pre-teen/teenage mind, I wasn’t doing the industry any harm or depriving developers of income, since I’d never have bought those games anyway

I also found that my massive collection of games bought me a degree of influence at school. I was a shy kid who didn’t make friends easily. I was a classic outsider – a bit too geeky (and gobby!) for my own good. I was rubbish at sport, not great looking, wore glasses and (worst of all) and my mum was a teacher at my school. None of this made for a great school experience.

Through games I was able to find something of a niche role that gained me at least a semblance of peer respect that afforded me some protection from the school bullies. As my collection of games increased, I became the go-to guy for swaps. If you wanted to get hold of a specific game, I probably had it in my collection; if I didn’t, the chances were I knew someone who did and could broker a swap. I became a middle man, negotiating deals on behalf of others, with my cut being a copy of both games involved in the swap.. I only ever did this for the systems I owned, but having this reputation helped to make my school years a little more bearable than they might otherwise have been.

As Bryon pointed out in his original post, having exposure to such a wide range of titles at such an early age fuelled my long-term passion for games. My copying might have deprived the industry of immediate income but it also ensured I remained an avid gamer who over the years has spent thousands of pounds on new hardware and software so that I could keep on playing. Sure, the two don’t cancel each other out and it’s not consolation to those companies who lost revenue back then, but without that steady stream of new games to keep me interested, maybe I (along with many others) would have drifted away from gaming, denying it the chance to be the multi-million pound industry it is today.

With hindsight (and a more rounded, mature outlook), I accept that whilst my actions didn’t directly deprive developers of income, they were harmful to the industry. Piracy was a massive problem on the 8 and 16 bit machines and whilst one person copying a game was not a major issue, thousands of people doing it certainly was. In effect, my actions indirectly helped to kill off the Amiga – a computer I loved so much – as a viable gaming platform. Software houses stopped developing for a platform where they knew only 1 copy in every 100 would be bought and started to focus on the consoles (with their harder to copy cartridges) instead.

Does anything I’ve said (or even the fact that “everyone was doing it”) justify what I did? Of course not. As my mum always said, “if everyone was to put their hand in the fire, would you?” As I grew older, I accepted it was wrong and it’s probably getting on for 25 years since the last time I copied a game. I still have to save up for the games I want and only buy a small number of titles each year, but at least I know that I’m supporting the industry I enjoy and which, over the years, has given me thousands of hours of fun.

 

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