• Piracy gave me a future

    As a kid, I stole from everyone.

    An unattended purse in a restaurant? Easy $5. Pokémon cards at Target? Pocketed. I even marked my best friends, waking up early on days I'd sleep over to rifle through their house to see what I could nab.

    "I need this," I'd tell myself.

    For a time, that thin justification worked. My family didn't have any money, and when the Pokémon craze hit, I wanted in. Everyone else had massive collections, but all I had was a single starter deck I'd coaxed my babysitter into buying me (it was the one with Ninetails). Ashamed to pull out my paltry collection in front of the other kids, jealousy fueled me.

    After each snag, I'd put on airs and feign ignorance long enough for suspicion to drop. I was, after all, just a kid. Few suspected how much I'd taken. Eventually, I stopped stealing, at least in such direct, aggressive ways. I didn't outgrow that class consciousness, though. I knew when others had something I didn't, and I was still jealous.

    It was more than just jealousy, of course. Being poor and acutely aware of that fact as a child is a strange experience. You know enough to understand that there's injustice, but you don't yet know why or how it happened. Much less what you can do about it. I had a hard time understanding that it wasn't my fault, and to a large degree not my mom's either. Instead, it left me feeling less valuable than my other classmates. Their access to art, books, movies and games that I couldn't afford left me feeling alone and confused: Was I somehow less deserving? So I exercised the one bit of agency I had in my life. I stole.

    serious-crime

    Things started to change for me in middle school. I was accepted into a charter school, founded with the purpose of lifting kids up out of poverty with education. We were required to learn Latin and wear school uniforms, but most of us were still from the inner city. Classmates often came from broken homes, and many, like me, didn't know their fathers. I felt comfortable, oddly secure for the first time in my life.

    That year was also the same that my mom got her first computer. On the few occasions she'd give up control of the PC, I'd scour the internet looking new things to learn. I had an insatiable appetite for ideas, though I'd spent most of my life with limited ways to feed it. Even before I started stealing Pokémon cards, I would often just sit down and read encyclopedias when I got the chance. I was desperate, starved for knowledge and culture.

    The Internet said I didn't have to be hungry; it was a tool that opened up the world. I didn't need money to read books through Project Gutenberg, or search the web for answers to questions I'd always been afraid to ask. And, I soon discovered, I didn't necessarily need money to play computer games either, so long as I was willing to pirate them.

    In a way, downloading games didn't feel that different from searching the web for information. The internet held out the promise of free and equal access to information, and piracy seemed like a natural extension of my quest for knowledge. I wanted to experience art and culture that spoke to me just as much as I wanted answers to my questions. And suddenly I could have them all: I was a nameless, faceless entity, free of the chains of my economic class. Piracy was freeing.

    A couple years later, my mom had an accident and ended up taking more than a year off from work. Money got tighter than ever, and there was no way she could afford to replace her computer as it aged into obsolescence. Soon it was too out of date to play newer games, and I felt alone again, unable to participate in the culture building and growing around me. I wasn't yet old enough to hold a job myself, and when I asked my mom for an allowance, she responded with a somber look that said, "With what money?" It wasn't that she didn't want to give me more—every parent does—she simply couldn't. So I went back to stealing.

    Before too long I had $300 as well as a spare monitor and case, enough to build a basic system. My first pirated PC game was Deus Ex. I'd heard about it a few times, and it sounded interesting. "A game about politics," was how a friend pitched it to me, though it's also been described as a "cyberpunk-themed action role-playing video game." Within a few hours I had it running on my cobbled together PC, and it was a revelation.

    Deus Ex

    Deus Ex

    Deus Ex was the first game I'd seen that listed its primary influences, which included philosophers like Hobbes, Voltaire, Locke. They were wealthy men, to be sure, but learning about their work set me on the path to learning about sociology, about history, about how much all media is one long chain of slightly modified ideas, with each new link adding a new twist or perspective. The game's themes also spoke to some of the most personal concerns of my life, including economic class, injustice, about the disempowered fighting against a wealthy ruling class.

    It was also a game where actions had serious consequences, and taking the quick, easy path could cause enormous harm to innocent bystanders. It was a message I took to heart. Playing through Deus Ex helped me realize that there are always consequences you can't quite see, and that my thefts over the years had surely left a wake of victims who had suffered—particularly the ones where I had taken physical goods and money. If they worked for minimum wage, even my quick, pilfered fiver could have been an hour or more of their life.

    But what I learned from the game also helped solidify my belief that online piracy, at least in the context of my own circumstances, was still justified. Yes, downloading an illicit digital work can cause a sort of a harm to the creators or corporations that aren't receiving revenue, particularly independent developers, but when I weighed it against the desperation of my poverty and the worthlessness it made me internalize, there was no comparison.

    Even in independent games, piracy isn't always as cut and dry as it seems. While it can have big impacts on some games, other small developers have discovered counterintuitive benefits to piracy, embraced it, or at least become more empathetic to it.

    Some, perhaps most, people in industrialized countries have the luxury of seeking out media they care about and stories that speak to them, and they can afford to support that work with their money. But for others like me, it can feel like a seemingly insurmountable struggle. To live even in relative poverty deprives of you new ideas; it deprives you of the tools and education you need to escape. In the most severe cases, it locks you out of society—out of voting, out of socializing, and out of connecting with others.

    Poverty is often cyclical because it traps its victims in intellectual dead zones. We know that without stimulation and without challenge, the mind, like the belly, starves.

    I don't pirate games anymore, and I don't support pirating games if you can afford to buy them. But when I needed it, piracy gave me hope. When I considered dropping out of high school, giving up on my future, and damning myself to repeat the cycle of poverty, I was able to look back on the sea of literature and countless games I'd downloaded for answers and inspiration. They not only helped me realize that I wasn't as alone as I thought, but allowed me to develop the fluency necessary to start making informed, critical works of my own.

    I wasn't just taking the easy way out by pirating, because the way I had to travel wasn't easy any way you look at it. I was trying to equalize a playing field that I knew was stacked against me. Piracy helped do that, by giving me access to art and books and games that allowed me to better myself, and inspired me to become who I am today.

    Piracy gave me a future.

    kickstart

  • This American Indian Dungeons and Dragons lets you weave powerful stories

    I grew up in an American Indian household. Almost every weekend, my mom would take me out to see an elder. A fidgety, impatient child, I would ask when we were leaving. "Mom, I want to play Smash Bros. with my friends," I'd say, but the response was always the same.

    "We're on Indian time out here. Everything happens when it needs to. We'll leave when it's time."

    As an adult, I've had a lot of trouble explaining the concept of Indian time to others. It's not hard to understand why. Modern society would crumble if it treated airline schedules or surgeries with the same nonchalant attitude as a traditional Native ceremony. But those values are also an important part of the Native perspective. They're also why I've seen so many attempts to incorporate Native influences into games fail.

    Ehdrigohr is nothing like those haphazard fumblings. Designed over the course of several years by black, American Indian game designer Allen Turner, Ehdrigohr filters Dungeons and Dragons-style roleplaying experiences through a distinctly Native cultural lens rather than a European one.

    "Ultimately it came down to wanting [a game] that spoke to me, where I could see myself and my friends as characters or heroes, and feel like they belong," says Turner. Although he's a big fan of table-top roleplaying games, he made Ehdrigohr precisely because he couldn't find anything that integrated Native culture into its play and treated Natives as equals.Dungeons and Dragons may have some Indian-inspired tribes in its expansions, but they are always treated as different or inferior. Indigenous weapons do less inherently damage than an equivalent weapon wielded by a dwarf or elf, not to mention the gross depiction of Natives using primitive clubs. In all cases, we're treated as intrinsically lesser.

    If a game made by non-Natives—however well-meaning—attempted to broach the topic of Indian time, it's very likely that they'd end up with something that leaned on demeaning or offensive stereotypes. There's a deftness and depth of context needed to discuss the idea without also inadvertently suggesting that Natives are lazy or irresponsible.

    To an outsider, Indian time might sound like an excuse for laziness, but it's the furthest thing from it. A more accurate description would be that it represents a different set of priorities. When you're preparing for a ceremony, for example, you'll often need to gather certain herbs or cut down a specific tree. If you can't find them, you can't find them. Try again tomorrow. Clearly the creator and the spirits weren't with you. It's not a bad thing, it's just a collective understanding that things happen when they need to. People still work just as hard, just on unusual and unpredictable schedules.

    Ehdrigohr is the first game I've ever played that felt like it understood that, just like it understands so many things about Native culture.

    Ehdrigohr starts from the base assumption that there are no colonizers. There are also no dwarves, orcs, elves, or gnomes. It's a world populated by nine nations of humans, inspired primarily by Native cultures and mythologies. They've learned to coexist with spirits and natural forces around them, but must also contend with monstrous creatures called "Shivers" that emerge at night from dark places inside the Earth. It's a black-and-white mythos that reflects many of the values inherent in Native culture—at least as I've experienced it.

    It's an incredibly broad and flexible game, one where you can create almost any character imaginable, or even choose to play without any combat at all. You won't need a vast array of multifaceted dice in order to play, and where Dungeons and Dragons has very exact and specific rules about how far you can move each turn or how many items your character can carry, Ehdrigohr lets you do whatever seems reasonable. Like Indian time, it sounds like a shortcut or a recipe for disaster, but in practice it allows people get deeper into playing their roles—to focus on the experiences in front of them, rather than externally imposed systems.

    A few nights ago, I played Ehdrigohr with some non-Native friends. I created a simple challenge, where their characters needed to leave the safety of their village and gather materials to perform a ritual that herald the birth of a special child, one with a strong connection to the creator. The village had been struggling to survive for some time, and it was believed that this child could help ward off bad fortune for years to come. The story I gave them was partly inspired by real events; the herbs I told them to gather were the same plants that my elders gave me as medicine when I was a child.

    My friends created their own characters, and infused them with rich, interesting back stories. They included a cook whose stories entertained the tribe during long, cold winter nights, a two-spirit sex worker, and a bird-keeper who tended to the massive crows that carried messages and supplies to neighboring villages. They used no weapons—no bows or swords, no axes or staves. Instead, they were valued for their ability to connect with others and build emotional and spiritual bridges. They could use empathy and prayer to connect to ease the suffering of others, spreading peace and serenity. These weren't heroes, they were just ordinary people who played important roles in their community.

    Rather than defining power exclusively in physical terms, Ehdrigohr treats emotional and spiritual strength as an equally important skillset. On top of the standard measurements of physical health, players have mental and social "health bars." So if you're trying to help someone through their emotional pain and you're not in a good place yourself, you risk taking on too much and sending your own character spiraling into depression. Community bonds are important as well; if you alienated part of the tribe during the previous session, you'll take social damage—which hinders your ability to maintain relationships—and you'll probably have to sacrifice any traits that relied on those connections.

    Robert Altbauer

    Robert Altbauer

    Where Dungeons and Dragons lends itself to big, bombastic moments of intense combat, Ehdrigohr is far more subtle. At one point in the game, my players encountered a river they wanted to cross, which was chest-deep with a rapid current. Instead of looking for a bridge—the kneejerk but frankly boring solution in a typical roleplaying campaign—one of the players sat down to pray. He learned that the land had been cursed by a man that died at the hand of his friend. The player was able to reach out to the spirit, connect with it, and ease its suffering, all without ever rolling a die.

    There is violence and conflict in Ehdrigohr, but only in the sense that human beings are victims of a violent world. The game as a whole is far more focused on finding exciting challenges and hashing out interesting solutions, and there's an inherent beauty in how people persevere peacefully in spite of the struggles they face.

    Later, the players in faced off against a "Shiver," a shadowy monster that can't be killed by a sword. Instead of attacking their bodies, it attacked their minds, trying to capitalize on their insecurities and manipulate them into giving up. The mental strain took its toll, but they were able to repel and destroy it through sheer strength of will. In over a decade of playing roleplaying games, I've never had an experience quite like that.

    Most fantasy worlds like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings have obvious villains, but the tension and conflict in Ehdrigohr stems from interactions with the natural world, and why it's important to be mindful of its many dangers. The gods are benevolent but their power is limited, and monsters and evil spirits abound. It's rare to see the world itself as the sole threat, and it's one of many features that gives Ehdrigohr its unique feel.

    The game uses a roleplaying system—known as "Fate Core"—that inextricably links roleplaying and combat; you're awarded "fate points" based on how you interact with your character's personality and backstory, and solve problems in ways that make sense for them individually. For example, I awarded one point to the bird keeper in my campaign when she let the other characters ride the giant crows that were already trained, while risked her life to tame a wild one.

    You can spend those points to change small things about your environment, like lighting a desperately needed fire if you don't have a match. It's not all-powerful or a panacea to every problem, but it's enough to give you a nudge right when you need it. Like Indian time, it allows players succeed when they need to, and not a moment before.

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    One of the more disconcerting and pernicious aspects of being Native in the 21st century is the tacit understanding that your culture is dying, and dying quickly. It's no secret that Native culture has been fading, or that Indigenous people throughout the world have had their culture beaten out of them and endured centuries of genocide.

    Because of that history, the parallels between the latter day Native experience and the refreshing brand of personal storytelling in Ehdrigohr feels particularly vital and valuable. Ehdrigohr empowers Natives, or at least it empowered me. I can't help but see Indigenous influences seeping out of every page of the game's rule book, from the way you interact with the world to the values and experiences it reflects.

    Unlike most Dungeons and Dragons games, your experience isn't controlled as tightly or exclusively by the dungeon master who crafts the world around you. Instead, players and the dungeon master work cooperatively, all of them taking turns as storyteller and audience. Playing it with friends reminded me of the many nights I spent as a child listening to my elders tell stories by firelight. Often they'd ask for my input about what would happen next in the story. If they liked my suggestion, they'd even include it in to future retellings.

    Western storytelling is dominated by the tyranny of the narrator, but the oral traditions of Native culture work very differently. They're designed to tell you something about the world that you may need to survive, and so the central message is the most important piece of the tale. Ancillary details can be added or dropped based on how entertaining and memorable it makes the tale as a whole. Ehdrigohr poignantly facilitates that by blending gaming and Native storytelling traditions in powerful ways.

    As an adult, I've come to understand the importance of sharing those traditions and values, not only with other Natives but with my non-Native friends. Ehdrigohr gave me a way to teach those friends more about my culture in a way that mirrored its traditions, and allowed us to engage with a story that we'd all woven together.

    Ehdrigohr is already more to me than just a fun game; it's a chance to use a game in the same way that storytellers used the fables that inspired it—to teach, to connect, and to love.