This past winter, Bruce and I took the trip out to Pacific Mall to get his PlayStation 2 modded. He was excited that he’d soon be able to play the pirated games he’d downloaded off the net, and I was excited about the amazing dim sum we’d be eating after. It was a pain getting to Kennedy and Steeles on transit in the snow, but had we waited till the spring Bruce would have been shit out of luck. The pirates have all now set sail.
Pacific Mall was as shiny and fabulous as I remembered, a piece of Hong Kong transplanted successfully into suburban Markham. We traipsed around to the various game stores, and Bruce would ask them questions about options and prices. They’d sometimes have price lists posted with different mod chips, preloaded packages and a catalogue of the bootleg games they had to offer.
After the third or fourth place offered the exact same price — $130 for the mod chip installation with three games, $110 with no games — Bruce started to grumble about honour among thieves. So he picked one that said they could do it in an hour, entrusting the two teenagers with the binder-sized console. The incongruity of the sleek tech coming out of his paint-flecked satchel gave it a spy-thriller feel.
I mentioned this as we sat down to lunch at Graceful Vegetarian Restaurant. “I think that’s one of the reasons I like pirated games,” Bruce said. “It’s just more fun. Finding ways to get them rather than just going into a Wal-Mart — it becomes a game in itself. Unlike movies or music, videogames have always been digital — pirating games has been part of gaming culture from the beginning.” He flipped over the menu. “Kind of expensive.”
I assured him that once he tried the food his starving artist would be grateful. I called him on the fact that he was spending over a hundred bucks on a consumer purchase to avoid making consumer purchases.
“That’s true,” he said, “but once I saw the games available via bit torrent I decided it’d be worth it. I wouldn’t have actually bought a PS2 at all if I couldn’t get it modded — retail games are out of my budget. I’m not going to quit painting and get a crap job so I can buy a new game every month.”
We ordered, checking off a bunch of tasties, and I asked him what the mod chip actually does. “Most games are just DVDs, right? So you should be able to just copy them like you do CDs. But they’ve got these unreproducable bad blocks on the original that DVD copying software corrects, then when you put the copy in the PS2 console, it looks for these bad blocks, and when it can’t find them it refuses to play. The mod chip bypasses this bad-block-checking step.”
Our food arrived and we ignored bad blocks in favour of good bok choy and a number of other amazing dishes that had Bruce converted and sated by the end of the meal. “Good value,” he decided.
We returned to the store, where one of the young guys was hunched over another console, the guts open and tools applied. The other one showed us Bruce’s console, plugged it into a couple of ready plugs and fired it up. The TV in the corner showed the familiar PlayStation logo boot-up screen with a small addendum in a corner reading “Infinity.” A game booted up and Bruce nodded his approval, pulling out some cash. As he unplugged it, the guy explained that you wanted to keep the cover open while you played, to avoid overheating: the unit wasn’t made to support another chip.
“Cool,” Bruce said to me as we left. “It reminds me of a customized hot rod, with the engine exposed.” He patted his bag happily. “That was easy. I sort of expected more cloak-and-dagger stuff.”
As it turned out, the stores at Pacific Mall could have used a little more discretion. A few months after our trip, I got a press release: “The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC) joined today in applauding the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP) recent actions against numerous retail outlets offering pirate and counterfeit entertainment software for sale at Pacific Mall in Markham, Ontario.”
The release originated from Highroad, a PR company that represents Microsoft and often sends me information about Xbox titles, so I took them up on their offer to chat with Danielle LaBossiere, executive director of ESAC.
ESAC is a trade organization made up of most of the game companies that, according to Danielle, serves civil warnings — “kind of like cease-and-desist letters” — to people violating copyright law and then “work[s] very closely to keep [the RCMP] abreast [of these violations].” Then, in the case of the “fairly successful raid on Pacific Mall,” they (and other trade organization representatives from the movie and music industries) go with the RCMP to identify the bootlegged games. In the case of the Pacific Mall’s Fun Desk, a retailer that had already had a warning, they were shut down in early May. No arrests were made.
Danielle was a political staffer before she was hired in October, a one-person operation supported by various “researchers” and a US parent organization in Washington. “Piracy’s a huge problem in Canada … it discourages innovation.” Danielle was particularly outraged that the manufacture of mod chips is not actually illegal in Canada, just the use of them to circumvent copy protection.
Out of curiosity, I called Fun Desk a little more than a week later to see if they were open. They were, so I asked them if they sold PlayStation 2 games.
“Yes,” he said, adding hastily: “But only originals.”
I expect it’ll be a while before I get any vegetarian dim sum again.