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Homeland Security Raids on Console Modding

Monday, October 15, 2007 by TheDoc

Written by: Angelo D'Argenio

Date posted: October 7th 2007

Ok guys when you think of things you’d want to put on your top ten list for problems America has to deal with, what would they be. No not terrorism. No… not education. Not poverty. Not homelessness. Not zombies. In fact, if the actions of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) have anything to say about it, the biggest threat to our American way of life is console modding. Yes console modding. The ever dreaded voiding of your warranty is apparently going to destroy everything America holds dear. Run. Be scared children. Gamers might be playing games in another language!

For those of you who don’t know what console modding is you probably have either been underneath a proverbial rock since the advent of CD based gaming, or you have a moral code that outshines Jesus Christ, but for the sake of argument, here’s an explanation anyway. Console modding (short for modifying) is when you pimp out your console to do things other than were originally intended by the manufacturer. This can be anything from simply putting in a boot disc that allows you to bypass the whole “location lockout” thing and play foreign games, to opening up your console, tinkering with the internal hardware, and creating a super console/computer/George Foreman grill.

The issue with all of this lies in what modding is generally used to do. By bypassing the copyright protection via disk or special Mod Chips which you install into your console, you can just buy some blank DVDs and start burning off the games you want without ever having to purchase them. This really started hitting full force with the Xbox when you could “soft mod” by changing the Xbox OS on its hard drive. You can of course also softer mod by simply using a boot disc, when you put in a system to bypass security blocks, then eject when prompted to put in a burned or foreign game.

Now the issue of internet pirating has been all around the media for some time now. On one end of the spectrum we have people sticking up for music, movie, and game companies and damming downloader’s for apparently costing the industry billions of dollars a year. On the other side there are people who violently protest for the freedom of information distribution. In the middle there are rational people like you and me, who either can’t afford new releases right off the bat, or have the want and desire to support their favorite companies. But the problem is this conflict won’t end any time soon. To the media developers, downloaders are the very incarnation of Satan, cheating the high priced CEOs out there from their fifth summer house, and to downloaders, media developers are “the man” squeezing them tight for every last dime they have, rendering them unable to spend $50 dollars that could be in truth gained rather easily by saaaaay, writing an article about mod chips and homeland security raids.

The point here isn’t who is right and who is wrong. Both sides have very valid points which need to be considered and reconsidered over and over again to form an active and capable moral code and system of laws that follow them. No, the point here is what measures should be taken even IF we take the worst case scenario and say that anyone who has listened to a radio recorded mix tape is in fact guilty of more thievery and pirating than Captain Jack Sparrow.

Let’s get down to the nitty gritty of this. I’m sure you have heard this before but the Department of Homeland Security ICE conducted raids on mod chip users and distributors. RAIDS. Think about this for a second. We have used our government resources, not to expose terrorist cells as awesome videogames like siphon filter would have you believe, but to handcuff computer geeks who have the know how to tinker within consoles.

I’ll come right out and say I believe this was ENTIRELY overkill. Devices aren’t evil, specific acts are. There are NUMEROUS games that only come out overseas, that really dedicated gamers would LOVE to play. Modding is their only recourse. A 20 dollar boot disc opens up a world of gaming far outside what they can access. Do they deserve to have their house raided by the government… NO! One of the victims of these raids, who wished not to be named, stated that the government essentially took everything he had. He made a majority of his money on modding in his spare time and was between jobs. He testifies that the government essentially destroyed his life via their actions. He wasn’t even a mass distributor. He was modding things out of his grandmother’s house for a few extra bucks on the side.

Now I’m not going to sympathize with this guy too much. Making an illegal activity your main source of income is kind of dumb in the first place, but it does bring things into perspective. When is modding illegal? If my Wii sensor bar breaks, and I decide to replace it with two candles (seriously try it out, it’s cool) will I have my door busted down by a SWAT team? Or do I have to start illegally downloading and burning games? Several gamers own these just so they can get their copy of Bleach: Shattered Blade early, or to be able to play “Jump Ultimate Stars” since it won’t ever see a release stateside. This policy is essentially making real criminals from unthreatening people.

I think companies have to step back and reconsider their policies. I don’t want to beat the dead importing horse into the ground, but if companies simply didn’t include region lockouts, their case against mod chip users would be a lot more solid. I think the government has to rethink its behavior as well. Guns and Drugs are being sold on the streets daily, but only mod chips manage to get the government involved.

But on that vein of reasoning, lets look at some things that modding does bring us. The original ideas for console hard drives were originally done by modders before they were ever attempted by game developers. Amateur game creators just getting into the business can use modded consoles to play their creations and refine their art. In fact, a Rutgers Graduate Student, Michael Kiederling, stated that he has seen modded consoles in massive Beowulf clusters used to perform high speed calculations in experimental physics. Kiederling says that Xboxes and other consoles are cheap effective processing power, much cheaper and more effective that buying multiple PCs. I wonder if experimental physics is enough to get the government involved.

When it comes down to it, in the public face we are all paranoid, but behind anonymity we will do just about anything. Yes there are a lot of gamers that steal software out there, and yes it is to be looked down upon. Game companies do need financial support (especially smaller independent ones like Nippon ichi) to continue making games, resources are not infinite, but raids are a bit much. Ever since gamers figured out gamesharks could let them play copied games, modding has been a big fad with a bigger community and no amount of force will ever completely destroy it. The question is whether or not the government deems it worthwhile to make an example out of a gamer or two to scare the rest of the populace into submission.

All in all I’ll say this on a personal note. If you are importing games, I support you, but if you are stealing games, please stop. I like this industry, I work for this industry, and I have been playing videogames since I was five. It’s fun. But if you really can’t afford a game, borrow it from a friend who could. With any luck, the US government will turn their sights to something more worthwhile than mod chip raids.

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