Mutembo Babo Kaizen is a young aspiring writer out of Zambia. He recently completed a programming course over at DevCareers (a Nigerian startup whose mission is to empower young Africans who wish to break into the tech industry) and has ambitions to break into the games industry. In his contribution for GIA, he looks at the consumer experience for gamers in Zambia.
Whether you’re a casual who only plays a few games from time to time, or a head banging, full-blooded, hardcore gamer, I think we can all agree that gaming is pretty tight! Over the years, gaming has grown into a worldwide billion dollar industry.
However as massive as the gaming realm is, the only portion of it that gets talked about most is the scene in developed, first world countries. Haven’t you ever wondered what it’s like for an average player over in Africa, or Zambia if ya wanna get specific? Well then today’s your lucky day, because I’ll be explaining what gaming is like for your average Joe-Blow.. Specifically in Zambia.
So, what’s the difference between gamers in developed vs. developing countries?
The answer to the question you see above is very simple. MONEY! It’s no secret that gaming is a hobby that’ll cost you a pretty penny. If you wanna have a good time, you’re going to need hardware that’s capable of handling the type of game you’re itching to play. For starters, a console, controller, capable TV set and games can all cost upwards of $1,000 if we’re talking current gen. And if you just happen to be blessed enough to live in a country like Zambia, where the average workin’ man’s salary is somewhere around $75 a month, I hate to say it, but it’s not happening.
However, humans being humans, we tend to improvise, adapt and overcome, and if there’s a will, then there’s a way!
So, where do people in developing African countries play their video games?
By far the most common medium for gaming for people in Africa and Zambia is on Laptops, and good ol’ home computers. Computer systems have become an absolute necessity in day to day life for nearly everyone on the face of the earth! that being the case, it only makes sense that students would convert their school intended laptops and computers into makeshift gaming machines! The only downside to this scenario is that most work & school intended computers simply lack the necessary amount of CPU power to run most new AAA releases, so players on this type of platform are mostly relegated to playing older PC games, small independently developed titles, and games that run on emulators. But maybe laptops not having unlimited, godlike power is for the best. The first time I ever experienced the ecstasy of video games was in 2005 at the age of 4 playing MegaMan X3 on my dad’s laptop, and honestly, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Super Old Consoles
When the Sony PlayStation 2 descended from the heavens in the year 2000 the entire world went crazy for it, even though it cost a whopping $299, which if adjusted for inflation is a cool $455 today, almost as much as its beefed-up brother the PlayStation 5. Regardless of its massive price tag, everyone and the grandmother owned a PS2, and quite frankly, a lot of people still do, me Included! Older consoles like the PS2, PS3, and the XBox 360 still get a lot of love from gamers in Zambia mainly because of their affordability, durability, excellent line-up of games and ability to function perfectly without an internet connection.
Despite the immense popularity of the PS2 and its descendants, one retro console still reigns supreme within the Zambian gaming scene, the SEGA MegaDrive! The MegaDrive is was and still is to a certain extent crazy popular among Zambian gamers due to its next to nothing Price tag of K150 or roughly $7! If you threw a stone at a bunch of Zambians, there’s a 75% chance you hit someone who owned a SEGA, or at least played with one in their lifetime. If you ask me I’d say these universally loved machines will be around long after I’m gone, and you can bet on it!
If I said I’d never skipped a math lesson so I could go to my schools computer lab and play a few rounds of Guilty Gear, I’d be lying! A lot of people get their introduction to gaming via a bunch of old games and emulators that some thankless hero hid somewhere in a school computer. This method of gaming isn’t
really feasible, and honestly, a little unethical. But I’ll tell you first hand that there’s no better feeling than hitting your friends with a Volcanic Viper while your oblivious, yet charming and charismatic teacher thinks you’re typing out word documents, or whatever students practice these days.
Like the home computer, the smartphone has indeed also become a fundamental tool in our daily grind. And once again like a home computer a good chunk of mobile phones can be used to play some pretty alright games. Be they simple java games like Forgotten Warrior on the old-school Samsung D500, or more complex games like Call of Duty and Fortnite on the i-Phone, I think it’s safe to say you’d be pretty hard pressed not to find at least one game on someone’s phone regardless of geographical positioning.
Now that consoles costing hundreds of dollars in the late 80’s and early 90’s are hilariously cheap to manufacture these days, it’s almost a guarantee that bootleggers from around the world, *cough, cough* China… *cough*, smelled gold. Counterfeit consoles are nothing new to Zambia, in fact the first TV plug in home console I ever owned was a counterfeit Nintendo Entertainment System dubbed, “The GameStation: Falcon”. It was a purple, PS1 shaped NES with a cartridge slot on the top instead of a disk drive. Though the popularity of the bootleg console has waned over the years, you can still spot a few of them lying around in the toy section of a shop just waiting for some poor fellow who doesn’t know his stuff to buy them.
In the late 90’s arcades in the west began to see a sharp decline due to the rapidly surging popularity of home consoles. By the year 2000 arcades in the US and other regions were nearly extinct. Though game centers in Zambia aren’t nearly as popular as they are in regions such as Japan or Korea, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say they’re still alive and kicking. Unlike their eastern brothers, Zambian game centres don’t really stock dedicated machines for each individual game, but rather three or four consoles loaded with a variety of games ready to play. (Games are usually obtained through “unconstitutional” means, if you catch my drift…But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it…). By far, the most popular and common games one would find in these fine establishments are FIFA, Call of Duty, Mortal Kombat, and Need for Speed. These titles wouldn’t necessarily be my first picks in an arcade setting, but hey, “to each his own” I guess.
Current Gen Hardware
Despite what most of this article indicates, gaming in Zambia isn’t completely relegated to older systems, and underpowered computers. Over the years, a fair bit of people manage to get their hands on newer systems like the PlayStation4, XBox One and even the Playstation5 and XBox series S/X, rare as they may be.
Though newer consoles are usually only procured by the country’s top 10-15%, In recent years the PS4 has been the most sought after medium of gaming in Zambia. Though not nearly as pervasive as its ancestors the PS2, and PS3, the PS4 has still done a pretty neat job of getting itself over in the hearts, minds and hands of Zambian gamers.
However despite Sony having a 100% approval rating in Zambia, it’s not all sunshine & rainbows for Sony newest system the PlayStation 5. Many factors have influenced this outcome, the main ones being Covid-19, the current generation of consoles over-reliance on a stable internet connection, the PS5’s low stock and the PS5’s Ridiculous Zambian retail price going for nearly triple what it’d normally cost.
How do Zambian gamers acquire their games?
We’ve covered how Zambian gamers triumph over destiny in order to enjoy the wonders of video gaming, so now it’s time to discuss the various methods used to obtain the software in question.
The first and most obvious place to get your hands on a game would be at a retailer. Though Zambia has no video game centered stores that I know of such as GameStop and the like, many superstores and electronics shops have video games, and video game consoles as some of their best selling and products. It’s pretty easy to find most of the popular new releases like your Call of Duty’s and FIFA’s, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for niche, unheard-of titles.
Buying games from a retail store is great because all the merchandise is brand new and perfectly working. However when you want something nice, you’ve gotta pay the price and that goes double, or even triple for Zambia. As of March 2021, a current generation AAA game cost anywhere from $40 – $90 respectively, when converted to Zambian Kwacha this can range anywhere from K900 – K2000, and that’s well over a month’s salary for most people.
Living in the age of the internet has made our lives much more convenient, especially when it comes to how we consume entertainment. Back in my day, when you wanted to get your hands on a game, unless you were some kind of royalty, you had to go out and find it. Nowadays all it takes is a few button presses and you’re good to go.
Downloading digital games is great and all, but like most of what’s been discussed here, things go down very differently in Africa, specifically Zambia. For starters most modern games are huge, weighing about 20 to 100 GB of data on average. Zambia’s population consists of 18 million people, and out of those 18 million, only 14% have access to the internet. And to add insult to injury, the miniscule number of people that do have internet access are working with extremely sluggish network speeds, with most users download speeds clocking in at around 1MB/s on a good day.
And if you thought things couldn’t get any worse than this, you’ll be sorry to learn that most digital game distribution services like the Microsoft store and Steam often decline purchases made with Zambian debit cards and bank accounts, due to certain financial policies in the country. Meaning that Zambian gamers have to open up US bank accounts, or jump through hoops upon hoops just so they can enjoy video games just like the rest of the world. Even PayPal is banned here for Christ sake!
And if you thought I was done whining about how inconvenient digitally downloading games can be, think again, Brosuke! When a player downloads a game digitally, they don’t necessarily own that game, as this kind of purchase is more akin to the publisher of the game in question lending the player a license to operate that particular software? So if for whatever reason a developer or publisher decided to remove their game from digital storefronts, you wouldn’t be able to play it again if it wasn’t on your system at the time. Some recent examples of this are in the games, “Cooking Mama Cookstar”, and “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World: The Game”.
Oftentimes when a game’s price has been inflated to an extreme degree, or if it just hasn’t hit Zambian shelves fast enough, Zambian gamer’s will look to importing. However, Importing isn’t always the best option as the total cost of everything can escalate when you factor in shipping fees on top of the price of the game itself. From what I’ve seen, importing physical games from overseas is more trouble than it’s worth and is usually carried out as a final desperation move by gamers who have a little more spare cash lying around than the rest of us.
In Zambia, buying pre-owned copies is by far the most common legitimate method of acquiring games. You can acquire pre-owned games from thrift stores in town, or even from friends and family who no longer need them, but by far the most conducive way is by joining a sales/swaps group on Facebook.
Facebook groups like “alma sampo” and “Zed Gamers” are a paradise for people looking to buy games for cheap, or swap out old games they no longer play for newer ones. Sales groups are great and have really improved how people access games in Zambia, however nothing is perfect. Games and accessories purchased through sales groups can sometimes be in really bad shape and are most likely on their last legs by the time you get them. And because sales made on these types of groups aren’t regulated by anyone, a person could knowingly sell a scratched, damaged or defective game, console or accessory and avoid all accountability. Do keep in mind though that most of these cases are the exception, and not the norm.
Last but not least, my friends, by far the most common way of acquiring games in Zambia, Piracy! If you’ve read this far into the article, I’m pretty sure you’ve already picked up on the fact that acquiring games in Zambia is incredibly difficult, and in some cases borderline impossible. For the longest time in my childhood, piracy was the norm, and the only time one would legally buy games when they wanted to play them on a brand new, unmodified console.
Pirating games on PC costs nothing but time. However, in order to run pirated games on a console, one would usually require a “modchip” that allowed for the installation and use of ”Custom Firmware” or “CFW” on said console. The prices of a modchips vary from console to console with a PS2 modchip costing about K200 as of March 2021, and a PS4 modchip costing upwards of K550.
The main reason why piracy is so extensive in Zambia mainly has to do with the fact that for the most part, there are zero penalties for people who obtain games illegally, so much so that in most cases, piracy is encouraged, and that’s totally understandable when you bring into light how expensive, and not to mention downright inconvenient purchasing games is in Zambia. Most people buy consoles just to chip them and play as many free games as they want. After all, why buy something, when you can get it for the cost of nothing to yourself and the devs who made it.