GorillaStump at work
In a gritty vintage video games store in Manhattan's East Village, a man who would only be identified by GorillaStomp, his PlayStation username, firmly explained why he should fix your video game console. Long before it was his livelihood, it was his fascination, and one he'd never asked for permission to do. Now, as the independent console industry is entangled in legal battles across the country, the very principles behind his livelihood are being challenged by titans like Microsoft and Sony.
"I've been fixing stuff since I was a little kid, scavenging garbage," GorillaStomp said, not looking up from the Xbox he was dismantling with a screwdriver. He was watching a For Honour Twitch stream while removing pet dander and cigarette detritus from the Xbox's jammed disc tray. "Basically, I went from Legos to real-life troubleshooting." We were in 8-Bit And Up, an independent games store that also deals in console repair. For eight years, he's been fixing out-of-warranty consoles that gamers don't want to send to manufacturers, and estimates he's about 75 per cent effective at fixing whatever he agrees to open up. "I'm not afraid of anything that's man-made," he said.
Recently, eight states' senators have introduced bills that protect GorillaStomp's right to repair consoles. If passed, they'd require console manufacturers like Microsoft and Sony to put spare parts and manuals on the market for independent console repairmen. It's a small thing with big, abstract implications, namely preventing an industry repair monopoly.
Currently, independent repair companies don't depend on console manufacturers for spare parts or information. Chinese eBay vendors and YouTube videos get the job done. These "right to repair" bills will expand and legitimise the independent repair industry, in the process testing manufacturers' grip on their consoles post-warranty life.
If consumers had no access to independent shops and if they had no option but to ship their Xboxes to Microsoft for a disc drive replacement, they'd have to wait a month, pay up to a third of the console's price tag and, potentially, receive in return a new console without any of their saved data. The bills would ensure that wouldn't happen.
The games industry doesn't think these bills are necessary. In fact, a representative for the Entertainment Software Association, the lobbying group that hosts E3 and counts among its members most major video game publishers, told me that the information and tools that would be disseminated thanks to these "right to repair" bills would cause problems. Specifically, they said the information would help "sidestep consoles' digital protection assets" and "invite unethical individuals to break the law and encourage widespread theft of video games and proprietary information." Lobbying against the "right to repair" bill, the games industry is working to make their own repair services indispensable and uncontested, the sort of capitalist future that Apple is already affecting.
In the early 2000s, legislators originally pushed "right to repair" bills to fight car dealers' monopoly on automotive repair. After a 10-year fight, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Automotive Right to Repair Act in 2013, so any technician could get the tools and information they needed to fix cars. When the "right to repair" movement became a hot issue in tech, repair industry lobbyists looked at the Automotive Right to Repair Act.
"We did some copy-and-paste on the bill and substituted digital electronic products for automobile," Gay Byrne, the executive director of the Repair Association, told me. The two initiatives were similar, in theory, except for one crucial thing: 1998's Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which protects game manufacturers' copyright claims, but also contains a stipulation protecting independent hardware repair — at least, in theory.
That stipulation, the Computer Maintenance Competition Assurance Act, is what lawmakers are heatedly debating across the country and which presents an exception about when it would be illegal for an independent shop to repair something. "The requirement in the copyright law says you can't fix the hardware if it might infringe on the copyright of the software," Byrne said.
It's a claim technology manufacturers parrot when asked what's so controversial about releasing diagnostic manuals or repair parts — a claim that I've been hard-pressed to substantiate with real incidents, and one Byrne dismisses as "bullshit." She doesn't think independent repairmen are there to pirate console software. And the already-illegal threat of piracy shouldn't haunt consumers' right to repair what they already paid for. The ESA's reasoning is, to her, a sleight-of-hand.
"They get to protect their content and they get to protect their marketplace for repair. And they get to basically force you to get a new console if they don't feel like repairing an old console," she said.
Sending consoles across the country can be a major drag for gamers who want to keep playing. "What if I lived in a remote part of Minnesota?" GorillaStomp asked angrily. "Screw yourself. You know, my cousin's been taking apart stuff for his whole life. Let him fix it."
A console gets worked on at 8-Bit And Up
Back in 2008, GorillaStomp interviewed for a job at 8-Bit And Up with its owner, Joe. "It was the weirdest interview I'd ever had," he told me. Joe asked if he'd ever worked as a repair guy. GorillaStomp said, "No, but last summer, I fixed seven PS2s for my buddies." Joe hired him.
When the "Red Ring of Death" plague hit Xbox 360 consoles, signalling a critical hardware malfunction, GorillaStomp says he fixed 20 consoles a week in 8-Bit and Up's dim, used game-lined den. Microsoft mercifully extended their Xbox warranty, placing a $US1 ($1) billion stack of chips on retaining their consumer base, but the repair took weeks.
He's seen everything from gum-clotted disc drives to PSPs wrecked by misguided hacks, estimating he's about 75% effective at fixing whatever lands in his hands.
"It's all about keeping the gamers playing as cheaply and stress-free as possible," GorillaStomp told me. "I can get stuff back to them in a week."
At the Lower East Side's XCubicle, a console repair hackerspace that sees a little more sunlight, co-founder Patrick Che recalled fixing between 30-50 consoles a week in 2008. That's when he decided to expand his web development business into a full console repair suite. "We had a storefront. Our friend was doing a lot of those repairs. We asked our friend to put up a sign. Customers would drop them off and we'd fix them," he told me.
XCubicle now is a small, cluttered room stacked high with console boxes. One cabinet contained the "roach bag," where unlucky PS4 owners whose warm power strips attracted roaches had their consoles literally de-bugged. (XCubicle charges a $US30 ($40) roach fee.) Customers interface with repairmen through a window spotted with Mario and Pokemon stickers. The table he sat at was cluttered with modded Nintendo 3DSes, with screens and buttons carefully sorted in plastic containers. Nothing was from Nintendo.
Che gets his parts from China via eBay, as does 8-Bit And Up. Hackers post their own "how-to" console repair videos on YouTube, which can be hit or miss, unless you know your stuff. If New York's "fair repair" bill passed, he said, he'd use the extra diagnostic information, and might nab some official components here or there. It would solve a reliability issue. Sometimes, knock-off parts, especially screens, are scratched or defective. He just eats the losses because sending parts back to China can be a pain.
Yesterday, Nebraska's "right to repair" bill was heard. In Nebraska, it is the farming industry that has pushed the bill further than any other state's. Tractor manufacturer John Deere programs digital locks into their tractors' software, preventing farmers from diagnosing their own hardware malfunctions. John Deere cited the DMCA, and charges thousands for repairs, adding urgency to Nebraska's "right to repair" fight.
For years, John Deere representatives have argued that independent tractor repair would inevitably lead to software piracy of the software that makes them tick, going so far as to say that, when farmers purchase tractors, they have "an implied licence for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle."
Michael Warnecke, an Entertainment Software Association representative, testified at the Nebraska hearing. "If this bill were to go forward, it would create, at the very least confusion, and possibly severely undercut U.S. copyright law," Warnecke said. When he cited the possibility of bypassing consoles' security features as a reason to kill the bill, someone sitting near the livestream microphone whispered "bullshit."
Following him, a wireless communications representative argued that authorised providers can guarantee better-trained technicians. Honed by the manufacturers themselves, these repairmen have at their fingertips privileged, proprietary information for repairing consoles. There isn't the added risk of sketchy repair practices. XCubicle's Che doesn't disagree. "It's kind of true," he told me, a week prior. "There are a lot of shady repair shops that take consoles in and don't fix them, or they take parts out and sell them."
But Joe, who owns 8-Bit and Up, laughed when I posed the question of training. He'd hired GorillaStomp, after all. "They [Microsoft and Sony] don't repair consoles. You're not getting your machine back, and you're not getting your data back. They throw your machine in a bin and send you a new one," he told me. "I'll put my guys up against their guys any day."
The question remains: If corporate tech successfully stomps out "right to repair" bills moving through seven states, what changes? Will XCubicle and 8-Bit And Up get shut down? According to repair industry professionals, things will stay as they are. They will just operate on the fringes, in less-than-ideal conditions and without official components or diagnostic tools. They will continue to get their parts from China and their info from YouTube. It's inefficient, and for consumers, a little risky.
Also, a shut-down could add momentum to manufacturers' push for the more restricted world Apple users live in, perhaps manifested as a crackdown on YouTube repair videos that, somehow, violate the DMCA or, at worst, cease-and-desist letters sent to Joe from 8-Bit and Up. Chinese parts are essentially untouchable, though.
"America was founded on pioneer spirit," GorillaStomp concluded, oiling the Xbox's disc drive. Piece by piece, he reassembled its shell and plugged it into an old, dusty TV. Prince of Persia flicked on. "The government needs to leave people alone," he said. In this case, it could be the government that makes his job easier, and corporate interests spinning a web around his hands.