When I was a kid, my Dad didn't just condone piracy, he actively encouraged it.
"Why would ye pay 20 quid for a game when ye can get it for two pounds at the Barras?" He would ask. I was only nine years old. It was hard to argue with that logic.
'The Barras': in Glasgow, Scotland, it's a legitimate institution. Historically, it was a marketplace where vendors sold fruit and veg — the Australian equivalent would be a Queen Victoria or a Paddy's Market. Nowadays, it's a hotbed for minor criminal activity: clothes 'aff the back ae a lorry', a multitude of bongs for stoners — my brother still buys Calvin Klein boxer shorts from 'The Barras' to this day. He sent me some for my birthday. I'm wearing them right now.
But when I was nine years old, the Barras represented one thing and one thing only. Video games.
The Barras smelt like cheap hamburgers and hangovers. I'd clutch my pocket money firmly and try in vain to keep up with my Dad as he power-walked through the crowds. Half walk, half run, a thin spray of mud sticking to the back of my jeans, a grotty layer of grime clinging to my skin — The Barras smelled like poverty. It always seemed to be raining at the Barras. It felt vaguely like being on the set of a Ken Loach movie.
Climbing upstairs, bustling past the hordes, tucked in the corner, a man with an open briefcase. He hands out a book; covered in plastic and fingerprints. Inside a list of almost every Amiga game imaginable. Point to the ones you want, hand over your pocket money. Wait.
The atmosphere was bizarre. The scene was primed for fast escapes — games in briefcases that could be closed within seconds, kids on the street watching for Coppers — there was a tangible sense of danger, alongside the excitement.
I could come home with seven brand new games for 20 pounds. And I did this. Frequently.
I had hundreds of discs lying around, scattered in my bedroom, the names scribbled in biros. Kick Off 2, Zool, Robocop — and I can't tell you single thing about any of them. Not really. Frequently the discs wouldn't work, or they'd work for a while then, bizarrely, stop. I didn't care. I really didn't care.
As a nine year old utterly in love with games, it wasn't long before I lost respect for the value of them.
I didn't understand why at the time, but I always spent more time with the games I bought legitimately, games I paid a significant amount of money for. Both Monkey Island games, Rainbow Island, these games I knew I wanted, games I was excited about, games I got as Christmas presents — they felt like objects to be treasured, to be played and replayed. I would never scatter the four discs that made up Monkey Island across my floor like garbage; I'd lay them out in perfect order. I treated them with respect. But why?
Does paying a significant amount of money for something automatically provide it with a certain amount of value? I’m honestly not sure. I can’t say I enjoy spending $140 on Street Fighter II for my SNES, but part of me enjoyed having spent it. Part of me enjoyed the ‘ownership’ that comes with that investment, and the value that investment gave me on a personal level.
Nowadays the discs scattered across my bedroom have been replaced with promotional copies — games I’ll most likely never play, never value. My steam account is cluttered with games bought in sales, my iPhone stuffed with Apps I paid less than a dollar for — content I take for granted, content I don’t really value, scattered haplessly across every games machine I own, like discs on my bedroom floor — unplayed, unloved.
“Why would ye pay 20 quid for a game when ye can get it for two pounds at the Barras?”
I still don’t really have an answer for that, and maybe I never will — nothing more that a strange need to own something, and do justice to that ownership. Maybe media really is only worth what you’re willing to pay. Maybe we need to suffer the consequences of that.