Cheaters: they break our hearts and expect us to forgive and forget. It is taken as a given that cheating is regarded as a bad thing, so imagine my surprise when I saw articles trying to justify and even defend being a cheater. I thought we all agreed that going outside the proper bounds of communal decency was not a virtue. Who is trying to put infidelity on a pedestal?
Huh? What’s that? Oh, we’re talking about cheating in video games? Well, the same matter is before us. People are defending cheating. What gives?
Not too long ago, it was widely reported in Internet gaming circles that Blizzard began laying the smackdown on cheaters in Overwatch. This move seemed to be lauded widely as a welcome enforcement of the rules. Speaking anecdotally, I saw that a large part of the responses on Facebook when the story was trending reflected approval that Blizzard was taking a hard line on this issue, harder than most other publishers. I was personally a little surprised at the news that Blizzard is making it so a computer is completely blocked from running the game ever again if cheats are detected. I am less surprised by the fact that Blizzard chose that method of enforcement and more surprised by the fact that Blizzard is even capable of doing that, as that says something disturbing about the way Blizzard interprets the licensor/licensee relationship. That, however, is a concern for another day.
If it strikes you as weird that people are defiantly defending cheating even while Blizzard has received a standing ovation for showing cheaters no mercy, rest assured that you are not the only one. I was genuinely curious about the psychology behind what drives people to cheat after reading about Blizzard’s reaction to cheaters. In 2006, Professor Mia Consalvo of MIT articulated four principal motivators in this area: being stuck, wanting to play God, boredom with the game, and wanting “to be a jerk.” In an article she published for Forbes, Professor Consalvo put forth these four self-explanatory motivators, although her analogizing getting stuck in a video game to getting stuck at a difficult passage in a book seemed a little odd. I did find myself amused at her reference to jerks being someone who scammed other players out of millions of credits in EVE Online. Truly, this was an article written ten years ago, for who even still plays EVE Online? Nevertheless, this was not just identifying what makes people cheat. Professor Consalvo went so far as to argue that cheating is good for you. She posited that it rewards curiosity, signals to developers when a game is too hard or broken, and can even encourage community development. Okay, so all of these things sound sort of positive in the abstract, but is the trade-off worth it to the majority of players? In reality, don’t most people just want to play the game?
I firmly believe players want to play their games. That is so simple that it seems as obvious as saying the sky is blue. A lot of what Professor Consalvo, to me, sounds ancillary. Yes, I was fascinated with debugging Sonic the Hedgehog once upon a time too, but that came well after playing the game through and through and still not knowing everything about it. Hacking can be fun for a lark, but I have a hard time believing that there is adequate nuance in the professor’s argument that cheating can be considered ameliorative. Even she noted that “[p]sychologists have found that when playing games, if players aren’t allowed to punish others they suspect of cheating, the game community falls apart. People will even pay money out of their own pocket to punish cheaters.” Well, of course. If Valve charged all of us $50 for Counter-Strike or Team Fortress 2 and then said we are on our own when it comes to everyone who ran around with LMAOBox, that would be a pretty bad business practice, wouldn’t it? Certainly this underscores that simple fact that there is a huge difference between someone learning to reverse-engineer the Genesis by fiddling around with debug codes on Sonic the Hedgehog and someone aimbotting in Call of Duty. The positive effects are arguably outweighed in a scenario involving multiple players because it gives someone an unfair advantage. The disadvantaged players did not pay for someone to have a permanent edge on them, outside the scope of individual skill level. Players want to play their games in a way that is conducive to meeting their goals, certainly, but fundamental fairness and equality are not concepts beyond anyone’s reckoning.
Building upon Prof. Consalvo’s thesis, Feross Aboukhadijeh acknowledged this fundamental difference that I have described. Aboukhadijeh drew upon the professor’s work, Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, and recapitulated three perspectives she identified with respect to cheating: purism, Code is Law, and relativism. The purist perspective takes the approach that any outside help is cheating, including strategy guides. I cannot say I have met many people that zealous, but these are big-scale concepts so we will roll with it. The Code is Law perspective dictates that modifying, hacking, or otherwise tinkering with the game is cheating, but having the help of a strategy guide is not. Finally, the relativist approach holds that cheating can only exist with respect to another player. Cheating “the game” in and of itself is not cheating at all. For Aboukhadijeh and Consalvo, the ability of some to cheat at the expense of others fundamentally breaks the game and “the whole play world collapses.” This strikes a chord with the political scientist in me, as I liken it to the state of nature described by Enlightenment philosophers. It comes off as a bit Hobbesian, as if to say that we are all cheaters until we realize we are only cheating ourselves. Still, Aboukhadijeh explained that cheating can be a tool of self-expression and cited Will Wright’s surprise at how players made use of exploits in Spore to do creative things that were not intended by the developers. I am sure that means something to someone somewhere, but this is again the reverse-engineering student matched with the LMAOBox user. It does not matter to me when someone is debugging his copy of Spore, but someone sniping me through walls in Team Fortress 2? That doesn’t sit well with me. I know I am not alone.
Indeed, Aboukadijeh recognized that institutionalized cheating deterrents such as the Valve Anti-Cheat system have made great strides in cracking down on cheaters. However, Aboukadijeh suggested that Valve was approaching this whole problem with entirely the wrong mentality. Since Valve deployed its VAC system on its own servers, it effectively pushed hackers into their own servers and enclaves. I am not certain I see the connection here; Valve is protecting its consumer base from an unwanted element. The out-of-control parent who runs out onto the soccer field and kicks some kid on the other team because he was too close to little Johnny doesn’t get praise and neither should any other cheater whose sole purpose it is to ruin the experience for everyone else. Isolating troublemakers to one side is not far removed from how society handles troublemakers at large. Besides, Valve has a history of hiring the most talented hackers and exploiting their knowledge for the benefit of the company, so there will be no shedding of tears for those people who don’t play by the rules. At the risk of going reductio ad absurdum, we don’t really see conventions of thieves or the local news praising a pickpocket. Some things are defined as out of bounds to give us structure. Humans handle a lack of structure very poorly; that is why we don’t live in that Hobbesian state of nature anymore, for fear of being a victim of injustice.
On the other hand, at least one study suggested that cheating is more because we assume we are still in that state of nature than for any more high-brow reasons. According to this study, the people who cheated did so because their assumption was that everyone else was cheating. The limitations of the sample size in this study mean only so much information can be gleaned about how this pattern of thinking might be applicable across the board for gamers, but it is interesting to think that cheating is normative. It really does not account for how cheating is frowned upon in some gaming circles, but it is an intriguing thought nonetheless. If Blizzard did not punish hackers, would Overwatch be overrun with rampant cheating? Who would enforce rules if not Blizzard?
The police, that’s who! At least in Japan, there is a report of three teens being arrested for cheating in an online FPS. I cannot tell under what law Japanese authorities arrested these players, since the development company’s statement is written in Japanese, but I guess cheating is serious business in the Land of the Rising Sun. If this story sounds outlandish, like the kind of thing that could never happen in the West, I have bad news for you. One developer filed a lawsuit against a bunch of hackers without even knowing the hackers’ names. John Does 1 through 10 were named as defendants by the developer; the complaint stated, “The true names and capacities, whether individual, corporate, associate, or otherwise, of defendants sued herein as Does 1-10 inclusive, are unknown” but the developer insisted on being given a chance to find out and amend its complaint accordingly. The developer’s legal argument for filing suit is that all players signed an end-user license agreement that forbids, among other things, the “use [of] cheats, automation software (bots), hacks, or any other third-party software designed to modify the Game experience…”
Hold the phone here! Using mods = getting sued? I sure am glad Firaxis is not that uptight about Civilization 5! Maybe the kicker to me is the developer’s final condemnation of what it considered unlawful activity: “The harm to [the developer] from Defendants’ conduct is immediate, massive and irreparable. By distributing the Hacks to the public, Defendants cause serious harm to the value of [the game]. Among other things, Defendants irreparably harm the ability of…legitimate customers (i.e. those who purchase and use unmodified games) to enjoy and participate in the competitive online experience… That, in turn, causes users to grow dissatisfied with the game, lose interest in the game, and communicate that dissatisfaction. This results in lost sales of the game and/or “add-on” packs and expansions thereto, as well as harm to [the developer’s] reputation, the value of its game, and other harms…” The rest of the complaint slaps the people who have made, promoted, or distributed this hack with several counts of copyright infringement and demands that they account for any money that they made or that the developer may have lost “in an amount not yet determined…” Look, I know copyright law is some sort of nightmarish labyrinth, but anyone can read what I have copied from the complaint and see that the developer’s interpretation of the word “irreparable” is not the same as everyone else’s. “Irreparable” is, to quote Dictionary.com, “incapable of being rectified, remedied, or made good.” To this developer, then, I should say I don’t think this word means what you think it means. Frankly, this is overkill, or at least Professor Consalvo would probably deem this to be a threat to burgeoning students of coding. The draconian measure of a developer suing a handful of people who are probably broke twenty-somethings is admirable, in a vengeful way.
I am all for punishing the unrighteous, but a lawsuit that speaks in vague terms of damages that cannot be calculated, all to enforce a strict policy of no cheating? Legal action is always an extreme measure and especially so for something so petty. I am content with the middle ground of Blizzard banning people from playing its games if people are breaking their license agreement. The problem is, as I said earlier, Blizzard’s interpretation of the licensor/licensee relationship is a troubling one, and publishers have been holding all the cards in defining that relationship favorably for themselves since they can hire the expert counsel, whereas consumers are often bullied by clickwrap contracts (such as long end-user license agreements that you must accept in order to use the product) and threats of litigation. As players, we only hold licenses to play someone’s software, and that license can be revoked more quickly than diplomatic immunity in Lethal Weapon 2. Forget defending cheating. Let’s defend ourselves against contracts that hamstring all of us.
How do you think cheating in video games should be handled?