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Not long ago, gamers could go to a Web site called isonews.com to discuss and order mod chips: hardware that, when soldered to a console’s motherboard, let them play cool Japanese imports, bootlegs, and assorted software on the Xbox or PS2. Today the site bears a very different message: it’s the property of the U.S. government.

In February, the Feds seized the domain from David “krazy8” Rocci, a 22-year-old in Blacksburg, VA, who used the site to sell 450 Enigmah mod chips. After facing $500,000 in fines and five years in prison for allegedly violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Rocci was sentenced in April to spend five months in the slammer and pay $28,500 in fines. That’s an unprecedented ruling in the brief history of the DMCA. And it shows how this quirky gray market hardware is leaving so many companies and federal agents running scared.

Throughout digital culture, homebrew modifications have deep and important roots. Some of the best-selling brands-Doom, the Sims, and Half-Life to name a few-owe their success to their extensibility. Coded in a way to encourage hacker-minded players to rework the sounds and graphics, these franchises spawn thriving and vested communities. Gamers design mods that resemble their schools, their homes, or their favorite movies. Many of these mod makers acquire such advanced skills that game companies fight over hiring them. Mods are the boot camp for the technology industry. And other businesses have taken notice. Software ranging from Windows Media Player to America Online’s instant messenger program allows users to modify and design their own graphical user interfaces.

Mod chips extend that hacker ethic into the hardware, cracking open the fixed technology to allow for a more expansive gaming experience. Mod chip fans are like vinyl record fetishists: obsessive souls who feel compelled to play all the freaky, foreign games. And there are plenty of these games to play. All kinds of bizarre foreign games, including dating simulations, adult titles, never make it to U.S. shores; Sony releases only about a quarter of its PS2 games in the United States. The games that do make it over often go through a cryptic localization process that. But some gamers want to play the originals-just as, say, a film buff might want to go to the video store to get the Japanese version of The Ring.

But mod chips aren’t just for gamers. A coalition of hackers across the world is using mod chips to run something perfectly legal: Linux on the Xbox. Andy Green, cofounder of the Xbox Linux Project, says the project is, in part, an act of protest against Microsoft’s continued attempts to lock out alternative operating systems. “The Xbox is not a gaming console,” Green contends. “It’s a Windows-only PC.” Michael Robertson, head of Lindows.com-developer of a Linux version called Lindows-even put up $200,000 for the first person who could accomplish the task.

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