Homebrew Hoedown: The Dark Side of Gaming

question is one of daunting proportions: “Describe video game homebrew culture
and its connections to software piracy in approximately 800 words.” I’ve just wasted 24 of those words. Let’s not waste any more.

game piracy is a hot-button issue no matter how you slice it. Gamers get passionate about it, the industry
gets passionate about it, the media gets passionate about it and most
frighteningly of all, the House and Senate have recently gotten passionate
about it too (SOPA and PIPA anyone?). For my part, I see the very existence of video game piracy as a
revolutionary democratizing force and a movement which should be encouraged
within reasonable limits. Let me explain
that statement with a little history before you all reach for the FBI hotline.

game piracy, in its current form, did not exist for more than 15 years
after the release of the first (commercially successful) home game console, the
Atari 2600. As anyone who grew up in
that era can tell you, it physically couldn’t
exist the way it does today, thanks to a little contraption known as the
cartridge. As the preferred method of
game storage up until the CD-based PlayStation of 1994, cartridges had
excellent anti-piracy protection built in. In order to read a cartridge, one would have to possess a special EEPROM
reader and a fairly powerful personal computer, neither of which were available
during the life span of the 2600, the NES, the Genesis, and the Super
Nintendo. Even the PlayStation remained
relatively safe from the threat of piracy, as CD burning drives did not become
cheap until long after the console had aged gracefully out of the market.

in 1999, however, the piracy game began to change. With all consoles rapidly adopting disk-based
storage formats, games were suddenly readable and writable on normal, household
PCs. The Sega Dreamcast was the first
to be sacrificed on the altar of ripped-and-burnt games, and it wasn’t long
until the skills learned on the dear old Dreamcast were applied to the Xbox and

game piracy is relatively easy. The PS3,
Wii, and Xbox 360 have all been hacked to run custom operating systems, which
are more lenient about copy protection
than the factory versions.  Games are
ripped and distributed through private and public peer-to-peer exchanges every
hour and every minute. How, then, can I
sit here and reasonably make the argument that game piracy is good? I can answer that question with one simple
buzzword: homebrew.

to clarify, I’m not talking about an alcoholic beverage distilled in the
privacy and comfort of one’s own home. I
rather refer to a phenomenon in console hacking known as homebrew. Put
simply, a homebrew program is a legal
custom program that runs unauthorized on a hacked console. What’s the difference between that and a
pirate game?  Asking that question is
sure to start a flame war, and for good reason, too, as the distinction is fine but significant. Following
homebrew logic, a game console is a magnificent piece of hardware with
tremendous potential of which official developers may or may not be taking full
advantage. Therefore, homebrew
applications seek to grant all users full access to their console’s hardware
and feature sets, in order that they might use it to further their education
and exercise their right to creative expression. The problem is that homebrew applications hack a
console using many of the same strategies as pirate applications.

reality, the situation is a bit more of a chicken-egg conundrum, as the
homebrew community is usually the first to hack a console and discover its weak
points, which software pirates then further exploit to get illegal games playing
on legal consoles. Still, as one can
imagine, fingers are pointed, voices are raised, and pirates and homebrewers
can always be seen having it out on hacking forums. Legality aside, however, (granted, that is a big aside), average players do benefit from both pirate and homebrew
exploits. When intelligent, motivated
teenagers are given full access to a toy as complex as a game console, the
result of the creative play that ensues can often be astounding. Old, dead consoles like the Sega Dreamcast
have begun new lives as havens for independent software developers, who can
hone their game design skills on a real
system in preparation for jobs in the industry. Additionally, given the recent boom in independently developed games for
the PC and Xbox Live Arcade, it would seem that the transition to major
platforms is not too far behind for these self-taught designers.   

course, the rather glaring yang to this yin is this: the more consoles are
opened up for play, the more they are opened up for pirate exploitation—a
situation which has led to an obnoxious game of cat-and-mouse between hackers
and developers. The feud is pointless to
boot, as the nearly infinite supply of hackers will have far more resources to
invest in breaking security than Sony or Microsoft will ever have to invest in
hardening it.

solution to this problem is not simple by any means, and I don’t presume to
know of one off the top of my head. I’ll
say this, however: if developers and hackers could reach an agreement that
allowed users more access to their consoles, aspiring game designers would have
much easier access to real-world, hands-on experience directly relevant to
their intended line of work. As things
stand currently, though, the existence of that same opportunity through hacks
is not a bad sign for the future of the gaming industry.

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