Nestled between two hills in Karachi, Pakistan, lies a very different kind of Silicon Valley. Known as Khadda Market, it is one of the many vibrant places that symbolize the city’s charm. From noon to midnight, it is alive with the buzz of crowded restaurants, supplicating panhandlers, weaving motorcycles, and pushy vendors. Many come to Khadda to eat heavenly paratha rolls and biryani on the hoods of their cars.
But for most of the 2000s, the market allured me and my brother with something else: a street lined with video game and computer stores.
My earliest recollection of playing a video game takes place in the early 2000s. I was about five years old, just returned from the hospital with a stitched injury on my forehead. My brother and I were huge WWE fans, and during our play, I was “steel-chaired” with a teddy bear and sent barreling into a doorknob. Back home, my brother was apologetic, and I made sure to take full advantage of his doting. We played my favorite game on our old Sega console, whizzing around brick cities with tanks.
My brother was older and more conscious of the wider gaming world. As we outgrew our Sega, at some point, he convinced our parents to purchase a PlayStation 2. I was all too happy to play with my Army Men, not knowing from where this mysterious black console had come. But occasionally, wide-eyed, I would hear the whispers of a faraway gaming cornucopia. It wasn’t long before I, too, was able to make the pilgrimage.
I remember walking into Game Ocean for the first time. The shop was dimly lit. The air was heavy with the heady, floral scent of paan and floor cleaner. My eyes widened at the racks of discs that covered the wall. I scanned row after row of games packaged in cheap plastic film, their jackets printed on everyday copy paper. WWE, Tony Hawk’s, Marvel vs. Capcom… I longed to experience these new worlds.
I turned around at the noise of a gleeful shopkeeper high on his own supply. Tiptoeing to the counter to get a closer look, I saw him playing Metal Slug, fastidiously mashing buttons as his CRT exploded with color. “Tiiiight game hai naa?” he asked me, handing me the controller. I took it eagerly and felt the familiar flutter of my love for games. Scarcely a few minutes had passed before my brother returned with paratha rolls. He beckoned from the door, “Sari, let’s go!” I’d be back before long.
Perhaps it was the fact that most of the games from Khadda only cost a few hundred rupees (about $1). Or maybe it was how Shadow of Rome would glitch right at the moment we subdued a certain Senate guard or perhaps the times we would be left scratching our heads as we were booted into a murky cuboidal landscape — the infamous Red Screen of Death you’d see when the PS2 would refuse to read a disc. Whatever the reason, it dawned on us that there was something amiss with our games. By the age of 10, I had realized the truth: they were pirated.
But these were small inconveniences to pay for the great reward of having an affordable, unlimited library at our fingertips. Did we really need to resolve Agrippa’s tale if we could just live out another? Every month or so, while our parents ran errands, my brother and I browsed the racks at Game Ocean, stroking our chins, figuring out what to play next. “Yeh acha game hai,” the young shopkeeper would say, encouraging me to buy whichever title I was appraising. Noticing my fingertips barely brushing the top shelf, my brother would kindly give me a lift. As I grabbed my game, I would sometimes peer at a dusty, locked display case. There, in gleaming hard-plastic cases, lived the handful of actually legitimate games the shop offered but none cared to buy.
Though piracy may be endemic in Pakistan, most prefer to use politer terms: a “first copy” is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, while a “second copy” is better described as a roll of the dice. From clothes to watches and games to computer software, crowds of Karachiites gather at merchants that can provide them with the trappings of Western life at reasonable prices. Occasionally, the items don’t quite align with expectations. Games were one thing, but as a touchy preteen eager to fit in among my friends, I once huffed out of a bustling clothing store when presented with an ill-fitting pair of “Levees.” Master Sahab, the purveyor of the establishment, was keen to show me more and spread one pair of jeans after another atop his glass counter.
Thoroughly demoralized, I dragged my mom out of the store.
In my mind, the notion that a world existed outside of Karachi where people would regularly drop $30–50 for a movie or game was an alien one. On the contrary, I thought of my city as the center of a bustling trade. I thought nothing of the fact that our cousins would visit us from the UAE, taking home a carton of cream rolls and a suitcase full of cheap DVDs. Later, they would tell us which of the assorted works of Tom Hanks were meant to be “first copies” but were in fact riddled with shadowy figures finding their seats in front of an ill-placed camcorder.
The Xbox 360 had arrived, and it was all I could think about.
I was starting middle school, sitting perhaps at the same desk my brother had some years prior, daydreaming about the new console. On our next excursion to Khadda, I tugged at my mom’s sleeve and pulled her to Game Ocean, then looked longingly through the window. “Absolutely not,” she said.
My brother was too busy with high school to offer up much of a plea; it was up to me to start the negotiations. I cited all of the usual reasons why we deserved to experience the next generation of consoles: improved hand-eye coordination, resource management, and general knowledge. Where else would we learn how to smelt an ore or hobnob with a goblin? There was, of course, a direct link between gaming and straight A’s. Mom was not totally convinced. “Your PlayStation works fine, why not play the games you have?” But I didn’t have Master Chief!
One school day, we returned home to find the Xbox sitting in our living room. Mom beamed while my brother and I unwrapped it breathlessly, delaying to even power it on just so we could marvel at the sight. Our PS2 was unceremoniously ejected from our TV stand to make room. The Xbox was bundled with two originals: Forza Motorsport 2 and Viva Piñata. Their smooth green plastic cases felt luxurious under our fingers. But original or not, they worked the same, and for all their graphical awe, we soon tired of racing the same tracks and shepherding the same fluffy animals. A month later, we were off to Game Ocean to find our next campaign.
“Try it again,” my brother said as he wiped the disc clean with his shirt and handed it back to me. It was Assassin’s Creed, freshly purchased from the store. We were thoroughly confused: for all our tinkering, gentle tapping, power cycling, and even shaking of the console, we simply could not get it to run. Anxious and disappointed, we told Mom. She was quiet for a moment and asked us to pack up the console for a trip back to Khadda. Hiding behind her at Game Ocean, my brother and I exchanged a silent “GG” for the shopkeeper’s fate. He shrunk away from her wrath, assuring us he hadn’t sold us a dud.
We would need to have our console “chipped,” he explained, to play his $1 games. Then he sent us on an adventure to Old Town Saddar, where rumor had it, an electronics wizard chipped consoles for a living.
We found him after much searching. In a narrow alley packed with stalls selling everything from dried fruits to bathroomware, shadowy steps led up to the second floor of a decrepit building. We went up gingerly to avoid stepping on splatters of paan. He was a wiry man, just returned from afternoon prayer. As he stroked his gray beard and blew away smoke from his soldering iron, I really was reminded of a wizard: Gandalf the Grey, puffing on his pipe in the Shire. I grimaced as he disassembled our pristine white Xbox with greasy fingers, but it was a necessary surgery. While our mom negotiated with the cashier, my brother and I walked in circles, fantasizing about the moment we could finally slink across rooftops and take our leap of faith as Altaïr.
In the years that followed, a chipped console wouldn’t always be enough. The DRM arms race became more heated, threatening to upend the pirated video game industry. Undeterred, the shopkeepers handed us the legendary “magic CDs,” discs that would unlock our consoles with software trickery before we plopped in our game. Our game collection grew ever larger. There came a point when I looked at the entirety of our game collection, accumulated across three binders, that I finally agreed with Mom: we had too many games, more than our school friends, and from what we gathered from our cousins, certainly more than our Western counterparts.
By age 15, I was conscious of just how rare it was to be able to pick out a new game every month. But even given the choice to sell my copied games, I could not bear to part with a single one.
Dad would also venture up to Khadda Market but not always for fun. One day, I came home from middle school, determined to fix up his PDF reader before he was forced to make the trip once more.
In those days, running pirated software was so common you’d be practically certain to spot a Windows activation pop-up during a televised government press conference — or see Microsoft Office complain during a live concert. Without adequate institutional funding, my dad and others like him were on their own to get the apps they needed. So, a few times a month, he would lug his heavy, unreliable desktop tower over to Compu Station, where they relieved him of his troubles.
We came to learn that you can’t quite trust a pirate. Despite assurances that he was purchasing an original license to the software he depended on, pesky activation dialogs would reappear within days. Entire components would mysteriously disappear, replaced with inferior parts. Impressively, his computer would break down with startling regularity, cementing his return to the store.
Ever since our encounter with Gandalf in Saddar, I had been spellbound. I’d glimpsed the mysterious underbelly of computing, and I thought I wanted to join the ranks of the pirates and tinkerers who could bend the laws of software to their will. From Usenet and torrent trackers to the vibrant demo scene, I began to study. That day, I decided I was ready.
“Hacker!” my brother muttered behind me. He was just goofing, but my mom cautioned me, too. “They’ll know what you’re doing,” she said, without explaining who “they” might be. “You better not infect Pa’s computer with viruses,” my brother chimed in again. But Dad was almost home, and I had a limited window of opportunity.
I clicked into a few folders. The crack was buried layers deep. Perusing the instructions, I started the intricate dance. Internet off. Drag the file over. Launch the app once. Close it quickly. Internet on again. Launch but don’t register. Open the keygen. Enter the dummy license. And you’re in.
When Dad came home, he was impressed.
I’d only done what the pirates did. Hacks, not hacking. Clicking, not coding. But in my desire to be worthy of the “hacker” title, I continued tinkering with software, delighting in taking apart computers and circumventing restrictions. I once repackaged some cracked software with my own installation screen to build credibility — plus an added prompt for users to get Dropbox with my referral link so I’d get more free storage space. Later, I taught myself how to code mods for Age of Empires and shared them on public forums, and I helped build a basic learning management system for my high school.
I soon realized there was much more to computing than ripping off someone else’s work and uploading it to a tracker. Sometimes I wished we could just bite the bullet and pay for that Office subscription or that niche, extortionately priced graphing tool that my brother wanted but we could reasonably never afford.
By the time I entered high school, shifts in the gaming world had started to precipitate piracy’s decline. The industry’s intense new focus on online gaming required having original games, else your console would be caught when communicating with a multiplayer server. I remember booting up World at War on our Xbox 360, momentarily thrilled while playing with strangers, before promptly being hit with Microsoft’s banhammer. Not only was I booted from the game but also our console was unable to connect to the internet.
A cold purple message splayed across the screen. I was banned till the year 9999.
My brother left for college, and I lost my player one in our Army of Two. After the years of hilarity, intensity, and joy that we experienced with couch co-op and now without an online account, I could not bring myself to play alone. I packed our chipped console away and waited for his biyearly return.
My classmates, sucked into the popularity of the new PS4 and Xbox One, coughed up the money to buy a handful of originals that they would play together online. They daydreamed about fragging each other in Call of Duty when they got home from school. Without a new console, I was unable to join them. Thankfully, in my brother’s first year of college, we found our own connection: the world of mobile games. Every evening, two chat bubbles would pop up on my phone: “how you doing?” And then: “wanna play?” Shortly after, we would fire up PUBG Mobile, airdrop into Erangel, and eat our chicken dinners.
A few years later, I would also enter college in the US and find a student job. For the first time in my life, I had the disposable income to buy original games and software. Whether it was something from the App Store or a subscription for my dad or storage for my mom, I was at last ready to pay the sums that had come due. It was not that I had suddenly developed a conscience — to some extent I had always wrestled with the ethics of piracy. Instead, it was and has always been about access.
My brother and I could wait no longer: we pulled the trigger on the next generation of consoles. Today, we might be thousands of miles apart, but online gaming brings us together in the same way that Khadda did a decade ago. I giggle as he gets pummeled repeatedly by a windmill in Fall Guys or sigh as I follow him brazenly into an encampment in Battlefield with nothing but a pistol or panic as we struggle to escape griefers in GTA.
For many, Khadda is still the only way to play, even as the tide shifts against piracy and cracked games become harder to find. But for me, that cheat code is better left behind.
Sarim Abbas is a software engineer at a startup in the Bay Area and a recent graduate of Yale University. He just finished his first run-through of The Office and has been obsessively comparing vacuums on Vacuum Wars.