Joining the mod squad

A gray-market "mod chip" supercharges a Sony PlayStation -- but how does it make you feel?

By Todd Levin
January 12, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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You know you have a problem with something when you are willing to lie to enjoy it. For instance: On a recent Saturday afternoon, when my girlfriend asked what my plans were for the day, I grimaced and complained that my faultless self-discipline demanded that I spend a rare free weekend afternoon at home, working on some writing. A perfect lie -- untraceable and, indirectly, even ennobling.

In reality, I was headed downtown with my Sony PlayStation tucked furtively into my backpack between a change of clothes, destined for Manhattan's Chinatown. I was going to do something I had been told I should have done a long time ago. As I entered the nameless shop and slid the console across the counter, the clerk and I exchanged only four words in total. Me: "Mod chip." Him: "Cash only."


While there is an enormous market of gadgets for serious gamers -- from game-specific driving control pads to tricked-out gaming chairs with sperm-count-jeopardizing bass speakers positioned not coincidentally between the player's legs -- the most desirable piece of hardware for the PlayStation doesn't come blister-packed on friendly retail shelves. The mod chip, which has been around almost as long as the PlayStation itself, is a small piece of hardware. When soldered on the motherboard of your PlayStation, it overrides the "territory blocks" Sony Computer Entertainment imposes on all PlayStation units, effectively rendering your local unit "universal."

Technically, this enables a child (or adult) to use his American console to play an imported Japanese PlayStation title that, depending on domestic distribution deals and legal red tape, may not be available for retail in the United States for another three to 12 months. Additionally, since the data on the CD-ROMs on which PlayStation games are encoded can be read by other devices, someone would be able to play backed-up copies of his game collection -- which the PlayStation otherwise blocks. And theoretically that very same someone would be able to purchase and play backed-up copies of other people's PlayStation games. Which, technically, is piracy.

The mod chip draws a line in the sand between hobbyists and hardcore gamers and begs the question: Which side are you on?


It doesn't take much consideration to figure out which side Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. is on. With a fleet of software developers, marketers and resellers to appease, Sony can't waste much time thinking about the consumer -- particularly a consumer who would willfully put his own PlayStation under the knife simply because he couldn't wait until spring to play Ridge Racer Type 4, which thousands of Japanese game fans have in their hot hands in time for Christmas.

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Sony's attitude toward the mod chip seems to be one of frustration. While the company promises consumers that physically modifying one's PlayStation voids any warranty on the product (voiding warranties is a manufacturer's equivalent of tough love), there doesn't seem to be any legal action Sony can take against mod-ing. According to Doug Perry, editor in chief of IGNPSX (Imagine Media's online source for all things PlayStation), "Game companies will use the strongest language possible telling you not to [modify your PlayStation], but I don't think there's a court case recorded that says it's illegal to make and play a back-up of your games."


Sony has backed its displeasure with a bit of R&D muscle as well. Each time Sony has shipped minor upgrades of the PlayStation, it has specially reprogrammed the territory block, making current mod chips obsolete for new units. However, the dollars Sony repeatedly invests in deterring meddling seem no match for the information-lust of PlayStation fanatics and the natural curiosity of rogue programmers. Says Perry: "Prior to March of 1998 there was a single mod technique used. After March, when Sony released the 750x series, it took folks a little less than two months to develop and distribute a new mod technique."

This insistence among consumers on controlling the pace of technological invention isn't entirely new, but recently it's practically become a national pastime. In the past -- even the very recent past -- consumers had a relationship with technology companies similar to that of fearful worshippers in a polytheistic society. Each technological advance, no matter how large or small, was greeted with a sort of reverence and slack-jawed stupefaction. No one could predict when the rain would come or what it would look like, so whenever the Sonys and IBMs of the world decided to grant a rain-sprinkle, the end-users drank it up like holy water.


Today we're a little less in the gods' thrall. In a sense, then, the mod chip is a kind of exercise in consumer demand: It functions as a voice. Anyone serious about gaming wants access to the full library of game titles -- domestic and international. If people have learned anything from living in a culture of mass consumption, it's that something like the PlayStation itself is not a magic carpet; it's just wires and plastic. The thrill is actually in the data, stored on plastic and read by lasers.

If any 12-year-old in America can walk into a hobby shop to have his PlayStation "mod-ed" for anywhere from $30 to $60 -- or even purchase do-it-yourself mod-chip kits online at sites like in order to play games that are available today abroad -- how is Sony Computer Entertainment going to tell that kid he should wait a couple of months for the domestic distribution deals to get inked for the new Street Fighter title? The information is legally accessible and, for some, the defiance associated with accessing it is in itself liberating. And the freedom you feel you're seizing by circumventing corporate mandates also automatically places you in a smaller shared culture of information "haves." Whether you're conscious of it or not, owning a mod-ed PlayStation brings with it a select, however perverse, privilege -- a kind of secret handshake. (A fanatic circle of converts at work urged me to mod my PlayStation, and mod-ing it granted instant membership in this group.)

When I returned to the Chinatown shop the following day to pick up my "mod-ed" console, externally unchanged but now somehow mysteriously supercharged, I felt a distinct sense of giddiness at being part of the information underground. Here I was, at a modest storefront in one of the most technologically regressive slivers of Manhattan (the image of people killing eels in the streets with their bare hands was still fresh in my mind), joining a growing mass of high-tech consumers who are impatient with, rather than scared by, progress.


Ducking out of the shop and resurfacing at street level, back into the deep-fried sunlight, the alien nature of this act conjured up the days of Prohibition -- another time in American history when consumers knew what they wanted and were willing to go through the most ridiculous back-alley dodges to obtain it. For a moment, I actually felt like a sort of forward-thinking folk hero.

Then I considered the elaborate web of lies I would be required to construct in order to keep the shame of all future (and unquestionably increased) video-game activity concealed from the likes of my girlfriend, and I felt like a bit of a martyr as well. After hooking up my reborn PlayStation, I examined my new pile of import games and thought about the lengths I had just gone to for some increased gaming power: lying to intimates, wading past a sea of 10-year-old boys in a crowded game shop to pay a total stranger to tamper
with my PlayStation, obsessing over the new game titles from the East that I would have no power to resist. Suddenly I was overcome with a new sensation, more powerful than the others: I felt like a complete dork.

Todd Levin

Todd Levin is yet another freelance writer living in Brooklyn, and now an online diarist.

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