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The video games of Ecuadorean fishing village Santa Marianita

We take another look at how people find ways to play games everywhere

Fishing boats off the Santa Marianita coast
| Jason Rost

If you made a different turn heading toward the coastline, you’d miss Santa Marianita entirely. Wedged between Manta and the Pacific Ocean, the small, 5,000-person Ecuadorean fishing village isn’t on the map. Visitors often show up by accident after taking a wrong turn on their way from San Lorenzo to Manta, or perhaps driven by curiosity toward the sea after visiting the nearby Pacoche wildlife reserve.

Santa Marianita’s roads are paved; the sidewalks aren’t. Its few, humble thatched-roof hostels have an enviable ocean view, from whose windows you can whale-watch at the right time of the year. And its windswept beaches stretch on for wide, empty kilometers. The occasional kite surfer or digital nomad drifts in, drawn by the legendary waves or the promise of fiber-optic internet, which reached the village in 2016. But most days, it’s just fishermen hauling their catches and pelicans skimming the sea.

Ecuador is not a place known for its gaming culture. Only larger cities like Guayaquil, Manta and the capital, Quito, have any substantial cyber cafe presence. And although these small, family-run establishments offer rental time on PCs and consoles, they pale in comparison to the massive, hundred-person LAN cafes and esports arenas that exist in many parts of Europe and Asia, where gamers pack in elbow to elbow for marathon sessions on high-end machines in smoky rooms.

From an economic perspective, gaming is also an expensive hobby for the typical Ecuadorean. As of 2015, the national minimum wage was one of the highest in Latin America, but still just $354 per month. (Ecuador’s official currency has been U.S. dollars ever since the country’s 1998-99 financial crisis.) Because of this, game shops are far more likely to offer bootlegs and hacked consoles than the real thing. And in Santa Marianita, life is slow, traditional and family-focused. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows each other. Births, deaths and birthdays are a whole-village affair. Many young women start families as young as 16, while their husbands work their entire lives to provide for their families. Santa Marianita is the kind of place where you are born, where you stay and where you die, buried in the cemetery with mountain views.

Yet wherever you go, people seem to find ways to play video games here, despite odds like agonizingly slow internet, limited technology access, low wages and even lower computer literacy. If someone in Santa Marianita was able to research the games they wanted, it’s unlikely they’d have the PC or console to play them, much less the internet speeds to keep them updated or play online with friends. But thanks to those small electronics stores in nearby Manta and the occasional console shipment on trucks inbound from distant Guayaquil, local kids and 20-somethings are circumventing some of these challenges and kindling a ferocious love for games.

Looking down at Santa Marianita
Kimberly Koenig

One-man LAN

Trucks and mopeds rattle down Santa Marianita’s one main road, blasting music and hawking fruits and vegetables, toilet paper, and yucca bread. Meander down this road, take a left past the village’s main shop — a bright red grocery store called Tienda Margarita — a right past the local family ceviche joint, and you’ll see it: the microscopic village papeleria, or paper goods store. It doubles as the local LAN and gaming cafe. This is where kids come after school to do their homework for a dollar an hour, beneath a paper cutout of Mickey Mouse in Christmas attire and the meticulously hand-painted word “CYBER.” It’s also where their love for video games is catching on.

“They pay for an hour to do their homework,” says papeleria owner Katherine Alvia through a Spanish interpreter. “Then when they finish early, they use the last 20 minutes to play. And we usually give them 30 minutes more after that.” She smiles and laughs.

Thirteen-year-old Roy Alvio de Vera is more than familiar with this process. When Alvia shouts out the back door to the houses beyond, he comes sprinting in, his 6-year-old little brother Esteban following in his wake, immediately plunking into the well-worn plastic chair in front of one of three computers whose screensavers cycle through various popular movie and game references: Street Fighter, Iron Man, The Fast and the Furious. Screens notwithstanding, these brothers are here to play just one thing: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Papeleria Joel isn’t just a paper goods store; it’s also the village’s LAN and gaming cafe.
Kimberly Koenig

Alvio de Vera is playing San Andreas not simply because it’s his favorite game, although he’ll certainly tell you it is. He’s playing it because it’s the only game at Papeleria Joel. The game came with one of the three computers when Alvia bought them a year ago. Since then, village kids have flocked here, and it’s not just to finish their homework. Village gaming options were slim when Ivan Alvia, Tienda Margarita’s shopkeeper, closed his previous PlayStation rental business. It may seem surprising that the papeleria only has one game, and the kids here clamor for more. And Papeleria Joel has certainly tried. “But the computers slow down too much,” says Katherine Alvia. For this reason, they’ve even considered removing San Andreas. But Alvia can’t bring herself to do it, at least not yet. Not when the village kids come back every week for the game.

Since Alvio de Vera began playing six months ago, he’s here twice weekly for at least two hours each day. In fact, the local kids spend so much time playing that the papeleria regularly receives complaints from parents. But the young teen is by far one of the biggest customers (and abusers of the papeleria’s generous time extensions and family discount).

Alvia (left) sees kids like Roy and Esteban Alvio de Vera come into the papeleria for gaming.
Kimberly Koenig

His eyes practically boggle out of his head as he recalls the first time he played San Andreas: “I thought, ‘It’s genius! It’s awesome!’” He doesn’t care about the campaign or storyline. After all, he’s sharing this one computer and game with a village. To him, GTA is a sandbox where he can look for guns, be an FBI agent or take down thieves. “But sometimes I like being a bad guy,” he admits sheepishly. He moves aside, and little Esteban perches in the chair for his turn with a broad grin. Like these two young brothers, almost every village kid — from single digits to 20-somethings — regularly comes here just for GTA.

The Alvio de Vera brothers don’t care about online gaming. Santa Marianita’s internet is far too slow to support it, anyway. Like many remote areas throughout Latin America, the internet here is subpar, although it was wired for a fiber optic connection back in 2016. Even the local co-working hostel is prone to sudden outages, and it’s on a premium plan. If Comcast seems expensive, try paying $20 per month for 2 Mbps down, the cheapest available plan, or $95 per month for 11 Mbps, which is what the hostel pays. Prices soar to hundreds and even thousands of dollars for greater speeds.

For most villagers, a decent broadband plan is prohibitively expensive. Plus, most families and neighbors share connections between houses, which slows things down even more. For Santa Marianita, online gaming is as out of the question as more game options than GTA: San Andreas. Even so, the town’s passion for gaming continues.

A ubiquitous fishing boat outside a house in Santa Marianita
Kimberly Koenig

A hard life

Fishing is Santa Marianita’s main industry. Almost every house here has at least one small fishing boat outside, if not two, and almost every man here becomes a fisherman and spends his life alternating between long weeks at sea and short stints in the village with his family. Tuna, swordfish, gacho and shark are the main catches here. In Manta, a giant statue even depicts a tuna can with a huge fish above it, reading Capital del Atún — “Capital of Tuna.” Some of the catch remains in Ecuador, but most is exported elsewhere: to the U.S., Europe, Japan and beyond.

These days, most young men begin fishing immediately after finishing the equivalent of high school, around the age of 18. Sometimes they fish for a bit of spare cash during school breaks. And some start working as young as 13, leaving school and never returning, even though this is now technically illegal.

Fishing might be the main industry, but that doesn’t make it easy. Juan Andrés co-owns Hostal Punta la Barca, one of the village’s traditional bamboo-and-thatch hostels. Several years ago, he attempted a life of fishing like his father and brothers. But he quickly discovered it wasn’t for him. The hard work and long hours at sea meant three hours of sleep for weeks on end. He quickly left the fishing industry and returned to finish his high school education.

Andrés’ family moved to Santa Marianita to become fishermen. However, he found the lifestyle was too difficult and dangerous.
Kimberly Koenig

Catches also aren’t what they used to be. Years ago, Andrés’ father and uncles moved from farm country to become Santa Marianita fishermen. Back then, many people did. But in the years since, big boats have taken their toll. By overfishing with giant nets, they’ve been catching and killing more than they need. This has wiped out many close-to-shore fish populations. Now, smaller fishing boats from places like Santa Marianita must travel farther and farther, to deeper and more dangerous waters, searching for the same fish. A job that once meant 10-14 days away from home now requires anywhere from three to four weeks, in far riskier conditions.

The danger of fishing in deep waters isn’t an idle one. Although practically every man in Santa Marianita fishes, few know how to swim. Those who do teach themselves or learn from their fathers. Even so, they only know how to swim using a dog paddle stroke — hardly the kind of deep-sea survival swimming skills some fishermen need. And a few years ago, a fishing accident devastated many of the village’s families. Late at night, a larger fishing vessel plowed into one of Santa Marianita’s smaller crafts, and 12 fishermen drowned. In a village and culture where many women still remain in the home, the accident was even more horrific. Andrés’ godmother lost her husband and two sons — all of the family’s salary earners. She now survives on the accident insurance payment.

Hostal Punta la Barca has started a volunteer program teaching real swimming skills to village children, but the tragedy still hangs heavily over Santa Marianita. And with the village’s proximity to the sea and so few other educational and professional opportunities, the cycle continues. Boys become men, and men become fishermen. Fish become scarcer; days at sea become weeks.

But something else is changing. Where the fishermen once had little to occupy their free time at sea, they now have a new passion. It isn’t just Santa Marianita’s kids who love video games. These days, the village fishermen are playing them. And they’re playing them on their boats.

Santa Marianita at sunset
Kimberly Koenig

At sea

In the high heat of sweltering afternoon, shutters are drawn across Santa Marianita’s storefronts. The ceviche restaurant owner droops in a hammock, chin tucked to his chest, napping in his patio’s shade. Midafternoon is the hottest time of the day, and the village’s informal siesta. Although it’s difficult to sense it in this aimless hour, the village is far more populous than usual. For just one week this month, all the fishermen are back.

Eduardo Chiquito Delgado holds his favorite game, Call of Duty: Black Ops.
Kimberly Koenig

Just around the corner from the papelaria and main tienda, Kelvin Eduardo Chiquito Delgado, a young local fisherman and Andrés’ nephew, lounges below his family’s house, seeking respite in the cool shade beneath the foundation. His hammock, repurposed from old fishing nets, sags and sways from the wooden pylons. It’s cleverly jerry-rigged with an electrical outlet, where he charges his phone while idly thumbing at a free-to-play mobile survival game. He’s playing with his neighbors, who are also fishermen.

The 24-year-old began fishing five years ago, just after graduating high school, although he often fished during school breaks. And just two years ago, he finally saved up enough money to buy a PlayStation 3 from the electronics truck that occasionally passes through from Guayaquil. It wasn’t cheap. What today costs $200 or less in the U.S. set him back over $400. The PS3 was more than an entire month’s fishing wages, not including the games.

But he says it was totally worth it. Because when he’s at home for just a week every month, it means that he and his neighbors can play their favorite games, like Call of Duty: Black Ops, FIFA, and Lucha Libre. “Guerra y fútbol,” he says with a grin. War and soccer — those are his favorites.

Of course, the internet isn’t fast enough to play online, much less apply updates — if he wants to do that, he has to drive 20 minutes to Manta and pay an electronics store for the trouble. But that doesn’t matter. Neighbors, fellow fishermen and relatives alike come over to his house, turning it into a village gaming hub rivaling the papeleria.

Eduardo Chiquito Delgado’s neighbor, another fisherman and gamer, inside his house
Kimberly Koenig

Far more important, though, is the respite Eduardo Chiquito Delgado’s PS3 offers at sea. During the long weeks adrift, it’s an escape filling the endless emptiness with something more. “We have lots of time when we aren’t fishing,” he says through an interpreter. “We play for three, four, more hours per day.” Chiquito Delgado is the only one on the boat with a gaming system. Video games have become so important for passing the time that Chiquito Delgado, his neighbors and his family are all pooling their savings so they can eventually afford a PlayStation 4.

In just a few short days, Chiquito Delgado would kiss his pregnant girlfriend goodbye and return to sea for another three weeks. Three more weeks of hard labor, sleep deprivation and close quarters with 30 other fishermen.

But there was a problem this time. His PS3 was broken.

All aboard the Domnah Mar

Manta is everything Santa Marianita isn’t: raucous, urban, occasionally dangerous. Andrés’ truck comes to a roaring halt and his nephew leaps out, speed-walking toward the tiny electronics shop where his PS3 is waiting. He’s already late to board the Domnah Mar, the fishing boat waiting in Manta Harbor. Most fishermen in Santa Marianita come here, to Manta, to embark on their larger fishing vessels.

Bad news came in earlier from the shop: The laser in the PS3’s disc drive was broken, a problem far too expensive to fix. Thankfully, the store offered a workaround of dubious legality. By jailbreaking the PS3 and loading a selection of games onto an external hard drive, Chiquito Delgado could return and pay for new games to be added any time he wanted, no disc required. Jailbreaking consoles by installing a chip is an incredibly common practice in Ecuador, especially because buying games at full price is often economically infeasible. Console and game updates (or bootleg game downloads) are also typically applied by these tiny, hole-in-the-wall electronics stores. Since Santa Marianita’s internet is so slow, any sizable download has to be handled at a local electronics shop, rather than at home in the village.

Eduardo Chiquito Delgado briskly walks through Manta to get his repaired PS3 from a small video game shop.
Kimberly Koenig

It wasn’t an ideal solution, but it was the quick, inexpensive fix Chiquito Delgado needed. Just in time, too. He’d already been out to sea once since the PS3 broke. He and his fellow fishermen were now especially anxious to get it back. Three weeks at sea without any entertainment had stretched out for what felt like an eternity.

The electronics shop owner does one more quick check. All the games are there. Everything is working. He tucks the PS3 back into a nondescript produce bag, they shake hands, Chiquito Delgado strides back out to the car and his uncle speeds to the harbor. He has to get onboard to prepare for the boat’s inspection. Jumping out of the car, he hoists towering boxes full of sports drinks for his fellow fishermen and races down the gangplank, hopping into a tiny motorboat and puttering across the harbor to the Domnah Mar.

A typical Ecuadorean electronics shop — the shop owner reviews the installed games with Eduardo Chiquito Delgado.
Kimberly Koenig

The 23-foot fishing vessel is relatively empty now as crew trickles in late, but at sea it’s packed to the gills with over 30 fishermen, whose jobs range from actually hauling the fish to gutting, cleaning and preparing it for freezer storage. None of them make more than $450 per month, and many make less, just barely scraping in the $354 minimum wage. The living quarters are small, cramped alleyways stacked two by three with bunks. And up on the second level is the gaming room, just behind a vestigial, glossy wooden wheel.

The ship fails its first inspection: engine issues. After making the necessary repairs and adjustments, the crew tensely putters and fidgets, waiting for the inspection boat’s long loop around the harbor to other boats. If they don’t sail, they don’t fish, and if they don’t fish, they don’t get paid.

With nothing but time, Chiquito Delgado and the boat captain take a moment for a match of FIFA inside the gaming room. The cramped room doubles as crew quarters. On the left and right are two narrow bunks strewn with personal belongings. Below the small, wall-mounted TV is a padded bench. To the right, a picture of the Virgin Mary, haphazardly adhered with bits of yellow masking tape, but nonetheless watching over the ship’s voyage. And below her, a giant freezer packed to the brim with ice cream. Chiquito Delgado slides it open, digging around for ice cream sandwiches, chilly fog rolling out.

Approaching the Domnah Mar from Manta Harbor in a tiny motorboat
Kimberly Koenig

There’s hardly space for three people here, yet the crew somehow crams six or more at once into these claustrophobic quarters: four gamers, two observers. The players stand, leaning against the wall as the boat pitches and yaws on the waves, just as Chiquito Delgado and the captain are doing now: playing FIFA, casually leaning into the wall. It’s hard to imagine gaming like this on a swaying boat, much less in rough waters. Yet it’s how they pass the endless hours and days at sea. And, as in Santa Marianita, it doesn’t matter that there’s no Wi-Fi or online multiplayer.

Here on the Domnah Mar, video games are the great leveler. When FIFA or Call of Duty time arrives, there’s no line between captain and crew, superior and subordinate, young and old. They all play, passing the time as best they can, and bonding over a newfound, shared love for video games. Thanks to Chiquito Delgado, they now all have something they can do aboard the vessel and something they love to do off the ship in the village, too. None of the other crew members own video game consoles, and few can justify the expense, but his purchase has unlocked an entirely new world for them.

Eduardo Chiquito Delgado invites us into the gaming room with his PS3, where a Virgin Mary keeps watch over the ship’s voyage.
Kimberly Koenig

The inspection boat finally arrives; the captain and Chiquito Delgado toss down the PlayStation controllers. There will be plenty more hours for gaming when they head out to the deep waters of the Pacific, searching farther and farther for the fish that have been driven away from the shore.

The Domnah Mar passes her second inspection and is cleared for another voyage. Another three weeks of long days and longer nights. Another three weeks of hard labor, hauling nets and gutting fish. An entire lifetime of fishing and the drifting time in between. But thanks to the gaming that’s slowly found its way into Santa Marianita, that time is now spent very differently.

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