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The Political Game: The Mod Squad


Each week Dennis McCauley contributes The Political Game, a column on the collision of politics and video games:

Somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan, Osama bin Laden is lounging in a cave, chuckling into his goat stew.

It's surely a well-equipped cave, complete with all of the electronic accoutrements one might expect a modern terrorist CEO to have: satellite phone, laptop, plasma TV, GPS. Hell, OBL maybe even has a Wii or a PS3 running on a generator for little Osama.

Here at home, it has been nearly six years since that terrible, gut-wrenching day when World Trade Center towers came crashing down. Six freaking years, and the mightiest military and law enforcement apparatus in the world can't find one sickly, middle-aged guy hiding in a cave.

But they can find American citizens, hiding in plain sight in places like Ohio, Iowa and Hawaii.

What plots against America have been hatched since September, 2001? There's no doubt that Al Qaeda will attempt another major attack, maybe nuclear or biological this time. It's a matter of when, not if, it will happen. So it's fortunate that we have a Department of Homeland Security to protect us.

Unfortunately, instead of securing our borders and monitoring our ports, DHS is wasting valuable time and investigative resources cozying up to the video game industry. A couple of weeks back, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a Homeland Security agency, conducted 32 early morning raids in 16 U.S. cities. They roused U.S. citizens out of their beds. In at least one case, the occupants were reportedly made to get dressed under the watchful eye of ICE agents.

Was ICE tracking down a terrorist plot? The makings of a dirty bomb? An Al Qaeda sleeper cell?

Nah. Mod chips.

That's right. Several dozen law enforcement agents who could have been doing something useful to protect the United States from attack were instead diverted to protect the Xbox 360 and Wii from being chipped.

Now I don't hold with game piracy. Never have, never will. But these mod chip raids clearly smack of big business pushing the buttons of big government. Whatever the draconian provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) may have to say on the issue, there's something distinctly un-American about busting John Q. Public for tinkering with a piece of machinery that he bought with his hard-earned money. What's next? You can't change your own oil?

And while most consoles probably are chipped to play copied games, there are legit uses as well. If you want to play a Japan-only game release, for example, a chip will defeat the region lockout. So-called "homebrew" games –user-created software built to run on proprietary consoles – often requires a mod chip as well. No matter. The DMCA criminalizes mod chips as "circumvention devices." Hell, under that logic crowbars ought to be illegal too, since you could use one to break into a house.

There's no doubt that video game companies should be able to protect their IP. If Nintendo thinks someone is ripping them off, by all means, get a lawyer and sue the bastard. If it can be shown that the creep was stealing, sure, arrest his ass. But don't criminalize the homebrew types and import game players. These are some of the most fanatical of all game fans, a fact which invariably escapes the suits who run the video game industry.

And – pardon my taxpayer outrage – but how in the hell does DHS justify pulling Homeland Security agents away from their critical duties? That's your hometown and mine that the agents are supposed to be protecting. The threats are many and they are serious: only a small portion of cargo containers coming into US ports are inspected, for example; the number of illegal aliens in the country numbers in excess of ten million. But we're going to drop everything in 16 cities to raid 32 chumps for soldering mod chips onto an Xbox in their garage?

I don't know about you, but I don't feel any safer.

Dennis McCauley is the Political Editor for the Entertainment Consumers Association (, tracks the political side of video games at and writes about games for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Opinions expressed in The Political Game are his own. Reach him at

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