Videogame Cheating Through the Ages

I’m a little behind the times here, mostly due to the holidays (and my now-unhealthy obsession with Rock Band), but Raph Koster began an interesting thread on cheating over at his blog. This prompted a surprisingly intense response from Common Sense Gamer, and then another Koster followup. In Raph’s original post, he got me fired up about the topic by invoking some gaming history…

The thing that’s funny is that yes, of course players regard RMT as cheating. But make no mistake, looking up the steps to a quest was once upon a time a bannable offense on many muds, and widely considered cheating. (Calling the sites out there today “strategy guides” is a bit of stretch — they’re more like complete walkthroughs).

I seem to recall being accused of cheating on a MUD quest that I genuinely (through a combination of lots of luck, and a little bit of text-adventuring skill acquired when I was a wee lad) stormed through, first attempt, with almost no errors. I was somewhat taken aback, but then I realized that my gaming childhood had, in fact, been influenced heavily by cheating. So, what’s with all this cheating, and IS it cheating?

Game Genie NES Screenshot
Game Genie NES version image from Wikipedia Game Genie article

I can not tell a lie. My programming career began with cheating in videogames. I don’t recall the game or the specifics, but I can almost certainly guarantee that my cheating began with something on a Commodore VIC-20 much like…

100 DIM LR=100 : REM DIM LR=3

I could tell cheating stories from here, but I have way too many. The day my Commodore 64′s video chip went crazy, and I could only have every other background color — quite convenient in Hacker 2 when the map is supposed to go to a black background with black foreground, only my background went to white instead. All kinds of game economy goofs that led to infinite money. That spot you can stand in one of the first action levels of Wanderers from Ys, tape down the Attack button on your controller, and make infinite money (ok, 65535 money). And of course, there were cracked/trainer games, tools like the Game Genie from above, etc. And those are just my stories! From the apocryphal Wild West poker shootout to the recent New England Patriots / Jets cheating scandal, cheating is simply a factor of any environment in which humans play games with rules. Where it gets REALLY interesting here isn’t just the question of when is it cheating, but the add-on of when is cheating wrong?

First off, players don’t get to decide what constitutes cheating. I’m serious. Developers write the rules, and even if the rules don’t make sense to everyone, they’re still the rules. And I can’t speak for any of these developers — but I will try to infer what they might say based on behavior.

MUDs often felt much like the old “text adventure” style of videogame. On many MUDs, after achieving the maximum possible level of player achievement, a player could go on to become a “wizard,” with administrative and even software development powers. Win the game, become a dev! Wizards often had the power to create objects, nuke mobs dead, become invisible and spy on people, and similar administrative skills. And they didn’t like when players would “cheat” at their hand-crafted adventure stories. On one MUD I played, players would simply not discuss quests. At all. Ever. At least, not on the MUD. If you made REALLY tight friends, you might end up chatting on IRC or some other old-school chatline for aid. There were certainly quest scripts, but they were tightly guarded secrets. The MUD admins typically made their feelings clear: Solve the adventure yourself, or you’re a cheater.

Moving on to single-player RPGs; there were so many ways to cheat! Hacking, mods, bugs… The list abounds. When I completed Final Fantasy IV (a game I was astonishingly addicted to) in a speed run, one trick I had was simply to know when characters were going to leave your party. That sure was a good time to unequip them! Grab their gear, parcel it out to others or sell it for precious cash (an important commodity when doing a speed run). Oh, and my result (which beat my friends, yippee) was around 6 hours. Still, one isn’t supposed to KNOW upcoming plot points. Cheater! But then again, it was my private game. Certainly, all rules were off (except no Game Genies allowed) when we were speed-running an RPG.

So let’s look at the game design in a WoW-like Diku MMO. You’re given a character to build (stats and skills), quests to do, and phat lewtz to earn. Clearly (at least at the outset), the developers seem to intend that you:

  • Learn what your stats do
  • Learn how your abilities work, and how they interact with your stats
  • Explore the world to find quests, points of interest, mobs, NPCs, loot, and stuff
  • Solve the puzzles posed by quests

It’s even arguable that, philosophically, some of these goals suck. For instance, I despise the notion of making players assign stats to their characters irrevocably beginning early in the game. When you’ve just started, you have NO IDEA what build is actually going to be effective, or how the game itself may change over time. “Gimping” one’s own character is probably one of the least pleasant game experiences I’ve had. “Respec” type options seem to abound these days, as the developers seem to agree that it would be nice to keep your characters even when you make “mistakes” in their design. But an alternative approach many players like to use is looking up idealized builds, rather than approaching them through trial and error. If character design was intended to be a game goal, then this is clearly cheating. While I have gamer friends that I’m certain I could convince of this, I can’t think of more than one or two who would ever be likely to actually call build research “cheating.” Character Build Research: Seems like it should be cheating, but nobody would ever be likely to call you on it. Caveat: see my thinking on quest guides and maps below. It may not be cheating after all… If the game itself is not going to lengths to hide your build and statistics, it might be just fine.

Exploration and quests, then. “Old-school” games certainly didn’t have integrated maps! And let’s not mince words here — if there’s a single thing that we see expressed in player behavior, it’s that many folks just don’t like searching for stuff. Many games (such as the “Civilization” style world-builders) integrated exploration into the game mechanic itself, by hiding the world. Word of Warcraft, as an example, hides map areas that you haven’t yet visited (although some “not unapproved by Blizzard” add-ons replace this with a pre-exposed map, and of course the Blizzard-sanctioned guidebooks all include maps). So on the one hand, this kind of information discovery is clearly intended to be a game component. On the other hand, many of the companies themselves sponsor out-of-channel lookups of map information. Online map lookups, therefore, really can’t be considered “cheating” for any RPG/MMO that sanctions a strategy guide containing maps. This same logic can be extended to guides that explain even raid or instance content, such as the WoW Dungeon Companion (well, Companions now). Specifically, any information published in a guide is fair game, not cheating. Now, no official dead-tree guides cover EVERY quest, so the next question becomes whether massive quest databases (such as Allakhazam or Thottbot) are cheating or not. This seems like a reasonable extension of paper, matching the medium to the speed at which things are rewritten in electronic games. Walkthroughs and Maps: Not cheating if the game officially sanctions any, which most commercial games sure do. But YMMV, so be sensitive to your game’s specific policy.

How about a more black-and-white area: software tools! This one seems pretty easy to define. Hacking drivers (a la FPS wireframe-only hacks) is clearly cheating. But many games expose some sort of API for extension. It may be simple (such as LotRO themes, which allow only graphic design, or MUD aliases) or complex (such as WoW with its LUA API allowing quite complex behaviors, analysis, and information display). Obviously, if the designers explicitly allow programmability, it can’t be cheating to use it. Auctioneer, for example, provides automated scanning and statistical analysis of the WoW Auction House. It’s an enormous advantage to have this data for reference. But it uses sanctioned API calls to do this, so it’s not cheating.

Unless it breaks the rules, such as cases where there is an explicit ban on unattended play. (A great case in point there is the case of a user with a Logitech G15 keyboard, tapping it occasionally for macros while watching TV, who was banned from WoW for unattended play. Hey, if you’re not responding to GM messages because you’re watching TV, then it’s unattended! It became an interesting debate when the user threw in a red herring that he was targetted for using WINE to play under Linux, though…)

Let’s not bother discussing third-party applications that run outside of the game process space. Unless these are somehow kit-and-kaboodle of the game, they’re cheating tools. No, analyzing network traffic in a MMO, RPG, or RTS is NOT gameplay, it’s cheating. Pulling your network cable (to, say, avoid death or induce targeted network errors) is a similarly hardware-based cheat. Running WoWGlider to automatically grind while you hang out and watch (and intentionally defeat Blizzard’s anti-cheating mechanisms like The Warden) is quite obviously cheating. Software and Hardware: If you’re making unsanctioned modifications, you’re probably cheating.

Another area that seems obvious (especially in MMOs) is that of exploits and bugs. If something is clearly a bug (for instance, a completely destroyed vehicle is repaired to full when storing it, despite the existence of repair kits — yes, I mean you, old SWG), then it’s cheating to do it. Even if everyone does it. (Fine, I did it too. I’m a cheater!) I’ve seen an argument of “Well, if it’s cheating, then the devs would fix it, and they haven’t so it’s not.” Please apply common sense. Walking through walls, becoming invincible, infinite fast money, you name it — if it smells like a bug or exploit, report it and walk away. Bugs and Exploits: If you have to ask if a behavior is exploiting a bug, it probably is cheating.

Powerlevelling and twinking gets to be a sensitive topic, too. I’ll admit openly — once I hit level cap, I have no problem sending money or items from my “big” toons to my “little” ones. For me, the

Now, let’s be realistic. Everyone gets frustrated at times. Most folks eventually look up a quest or two. Or a list of what equipment you can buy at the end of a long faction grind (to avoid the grind if that list isn’t useful). Or a map, be it very general of the gameworld, or very specifically of a certain dungeon. Developers and administrators are to be called to define cheating. We can kibbitz all we want, but at the end of the day, it’s those devs and admins who restrict (through coding, moderation, even banning and character deletion) unwanted behaviors. We can cry “cheat” at each other all we want, but that is largely irrelevant, ESPECIALLY in the cases of “information lookup cheating.” It’s something that can’t really be caught with any degree of consistency. It shouldn’t have a huge negative impact on a well-designed game. (In fact, I’d rather people go check web guides than shout out for assistance finding MOB X in ZONE Y!) And if you want to call it cheating, then the party really getting cheated is the player, who misses out on parts of the game experience.

About Tachevert

A cofounder of www.WorldIV.com and full-time geek, Tachevert writes about whatever strikes his fancy. Despite the inherent contradiction, he can often be found videogaming or attempting to run.
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