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ISSUE 121 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/22/2008

Gamers customize consoles

By Peter Meng
Contributing Writer

Friday, February 22, 2008

The blue glow emitting from a video game junkie's room can sometimes mask a secret -- the use of console modifications. In the gaming community, modding refers to hardware and software that has been altered by the user to perform different functions than those originally intended by the manufacturer or designer. In past years, the ability to mod was reserved for those who were part of an elite group. Special hardware and equipment were necessary to interface with games and consoles.

But times have changed. Illustrated tutorials are readily available on the Internet and in magazines. Anyone with basic computer knowledge and access to a toolbox can mod a game or console over a free afternoon.

There are a myriad number of reasons why people opt to mod their game consoles. Some simply do it to change aesthetic properties. Others will mod their systems to get more features. Typically, consoles are modded for three reasons.

First, mods often allow DVD drives to bypass region protection. This gives a single console the ability to play movies and games from all over the world. Purchased a movie while studying abroad? It probably doesn't work in any DVD player here in the U.S. By modding a console, this problem could easily be resolved.

Second, mods allow for alternative operating systems to be installed on a console. Features are often restricted by the proprietary operating system that came installed on a console. Want to play a classic Nintendo game on your Playstation Portable? You're out of luck. Modding and replacing the default PSP operating system can give you the ability to run emulators. For some unusual reason, there also appears to be a fascination with getting Linux to run on every console ever made.

Finally, mods allow for backups of games to be played. After several years of use, game disks wear down and begin developing scratches. Having a backup copy of a game allows you to use the copy in the event that the original disk becomes unusable. This is one of the most controversial uses of mods. While perfectly legitimate uses exist, this ability is often abused to play illegal copies of games.

Two types of modding exist: soft mods and hard mods. Soft mods are usually inferior to hard mods but are also non-intrusive. Not everyone is comfortable tinkering around inside an expensive box.

Soft mods often exploit some sort of loophole found in a game or console to execute unauthorized code. These mods can be found online, ready to download free of charge. Many such projects are also open source and welcome contributions from other gamers within the community. With the ever-increasing use of USB ports on consoles, files can easily be transferred between a computer and gaming console. Soft mods do not require invasive procedures to be performed when trying to modify the operations of a console. Knowledge of soldering is not required. Soft mods usually only allow for an operating system to be replaced and for region protection to be bypassed.

Hard mods require that hardware within a console be physically modified. Modders must purchase a special chip or card that is either soldered or mounted to the electronics board inside of a console. Although hard mods are much riskier to install than soft mods, there are more rewards. The console can be modified which will allow for gamers to play unlicensed or unapproved games. Consoles can be transformed into entertainment systems with video, picture and digital music capabilities. In addition, backup games can be played.

The legality of modding a game console has been largely questioned. In the U.S., the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes it illegal to circumvent copy protection schemes. Although rare, people have been fined and jailed for modding and then selling game consoles.

No matter the reason or type of mod performed, modding voids any warranties on a game console. Despite warnings from manufacturers, many gamers have chosen to mod their systems to get more from their devices.

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