What counts as cheating?

A few days ago, the Washington Post ran a short article on cheating in video games. Because people tend to prefer things to be simplified rather than made more complex, the piece doesn’t attempt to define cheating. But because people also tend to prefer exciting hyperbole, the article proclaims, “Here’s the ugly, sometimes dirty, often-overlooked truth in games: Everyone cheats.”

The guy the Post interviews says things like, “I don’t play games to necessarily play the game, I play it for the story line. I play it for the mechanics. I play it for the graphics.” Profound. I don’t listen to music to listen to the music, I listen to hear the melody, the harmony, the rhythm, and the timbre. The article also reports that games of yore are easier to beat than modern games. They are confusing complexity and difficulty; old games were fucking hard.

Feel the power…of NES games working even less frequently.

Journalistic criticism aside, the article did make me think about what should count as cheating, what shouldn’t and if, as the Post says, every gamer cheats. For some of the cheating methods described, I also attempt to analyze the player’s motive because in this court (that I just decided exists and is also in session), motives matter.

The most blatant form of cheating and possibly the only one that should be referred to as cheating consists of altering a games code or hacking a game. Creating duplicates items in a MMORPG and using a Game Genie fit into this category because both modify the original game for the player. Cheating in an online game is one of the few ways of cheating that will making people hate you; despite my categorization, using a Game Genie (Pro Action Game Shark or whatever they’re called today) will generally just make the game completely un-enjoyable. Players almost always hack a game to give themselves an advantage, but every now and then someone may cheat for other reasons:

The year is 1990. The location is Danny’s bedroom. The game is Herzog Zwei. Through the use of a Game Genie, we played the game with infinite funds. We played head to head and the rule applied to both of us, so neither side had an advantage. A cheating device allowed us to alter a game’s mechanics but not for the purpose of cheating; it made the game more fun.

Though it may be rare, cheating devices are sometimes also used to figure out the internal workings of a game. Final Fantasy Tactics fanatics, for example, have figured out the games algorithms by using a Shark Genie.

Liu Kang totally got served.

The next category of cheating is using a “cheat code.” These codes often unbalance gameplay, reward the player with things they haven’t earned (get a job, you bum), or remove the clothes of women in the game. I won’t put up too much of a fight over cheat codes being classified as cheating – they are called cheat codes after all. That a cheat code is put in a game by the developer does matter, though; it makes that sort of cheating sanctioned (and some will argue that because of this it doesn’t qualify as cheating). Cheating through a code is thus more honorable than cheating by rewriting a game’s code.

As with the first category of cheating, the cheat code was usually, but not always, used to gain an advantage in a game. ABACABB will go down in code history, but not because it bestowed the player with mighty powers. Instead, it declared, “Let there be blood!” and allowed Mortal Kombat to be fun again (which says something about the gameplay). And then there’s the Contra code, known to nerds worldwide. Sure it was cheating, but the game is nigh impossible to beat with the paltry three lives you normally start with.

Anyone who’s played a multiplayer game knows the next form of cheating. It isn’t so much cheating as exploiting design flaws in a game. No, it’s not cheating, it’s cheap. And if you don’t knock it off I’m going to punch you. Stop turtling, stop standing on the armor, stop killing me in a second every time I respawn, stop using that same combo, and stop fucking hadoukening. Playing cheap is debatably not even cheating, but it’s the only thing that’ll piss people off as much as cheating in a MMORPG.

Dun da da dun da da dun da da dun dun

Some people (mostly the fighting game nerds) will argue that if a game allows it then it isn’t cheating. Perhaps on the most hardcore level of gaming this is true, but non-experts simply want to enjoy a multiplayer game with their friends, not debate the merits of exploiting a lack of balance in a design. So then being cheap in the social realm is context dpendant: if you are in a Virtua Fighter tournament in Japan, no move you can perform (no matter how many times in a row you perform it) is cheap. But if you are in my living room and refuse to stop standing on the body armor and shooting a rocket down the corridor every time I pass by, I will think you’re a dick.

Luckily, when we play cheap against the computer, no one cares. Finding little flaws in a game’s design then exploiting the crap out of them is in the spirit of cheating, but is probably not actually cheating. For example, getting up to the final boss in Kung Fu Master but then running away to the beginning of the board, then going back to the end only to have somehow teleported past the boss is good strategy, not cheating. It’s not my fault the developer (or porter) can’t program properly, plus now I’ve scored a date with this chick in the chair.

Indespinsible…WHEN I WAS 15! ROFL!!!

Finally, some say that using a walkthrough or guide is cheating. There are a few reasons people use these tools, the most obvious being they save time and effort. Even saving time and effort comes in a variety of flavors. On the laziest side is the player who refuses to overcome challenges on his own and plays with a walkthrough in his lap. This is the closest to cheating that guide use gets. Then there are the players who only refer to a walkthrough when they get stumped and refuse to waste any more hours trying to figure out a poorly designed puzzle or what have you.

While it may technically fit into the saving time and energy category, I think it’s worth noting another type of guide user — the completionist. Many RPGs have tons of hidden and nearly hidden items, weapons, quests, and other crap and to find them all on your own is almost impossible, yet some players feel the need to do and get everything in a game. The perfect example of a game that requires a walkthrough for a completionist is Fire Emblem. The games are set up in a way that to get every item and character, you need to bring specific units into battle. Only they usually don’t let you know, so besides using a guide, your only way of getting everything is to get 40 minutes into a battle, realize you left an important unit in the bunker, and then reset.

Lastly, there are those who read guides for strategies. This is the mildest form of cheating and, frankly, even calling it cheating is kind of dumb. Learning how other people play Civilization IV is not any different from reading a book on chess. I can see how very specific strategies may border on cheating, like a strategy on beating one particular boss in a game. But even then, there are corollaries in other non-video games that aren’t seen as cheating; any comprehensive strategy book on a sport may have ways of dealing with different types of opponents.

So who cheats? Without doing an actual study, it seems anyone is unlikely to guess an accurate percentage, but my hunch is the Washington Post is wrong when it says everyone. If every mode of cheating I described actually counts as cheating then probably most gamers. If only hacking a game counts, then very few. Almost as interesting a question is how frequently players cheat. For some games, I’ve got a walkthrough printed out, others I refer to a FAQ only when stumped, some I only read strategies for, and then a few I play entirely on my own. Depending on your definition, most of us may cheat, but I doubt most of us cheat all the time.

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