Cheating: Video Games’ Moral Imperative

Michael Thomsen


Fun is often described as the most important element in video games, which in most cases translates into rule-following against a backdrop of movie lot freedom. Designers put players in an environment where uncertainty has been narrowed to a simple number of problems, careful sequencing of which keeps players from having to wonder where the problems came from or why they need solving. Fun is the relief that comes when open-ended problems are turned into multiple choice questions, or, better still, matters of reflex. It’s the end result of a player bartering away their obedience in exchange for an elaborate charade of advancement through levels and story stages, which makes cheating the most ethical approach to playing games, declining the call to follow rules and instead think of fun as a process of revealing the cheapness of the rewards that come from obedience.

In Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga captured the spirit of cheating as anti-play: “as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play world collapses.” Cheating threatens to destroy the precious commodity one has just spent a full day’s wage on, the locked progression of experiences contained on the disc. In the early days of console gameplay, cheats like Super Mario Bros.’ hundred extra lives trick were still admired because they were comparatively obscure and required some skill to execute.

Cheating has been a highly generative part of game culture throughout the years, not just in laying out the framework for microtransactions and free-to-play economies, but in widening the scope of gameplay itself. Quake’s rocket jumping, an unplanned exploit of the game’s damage modeling and physics, allowed players to reach new parts of maps, changing the game’s tactical balance. The germ of Grand Theft Auto was the result of players’ exploiting a glitch in Race ‘N’ Chase, a top-down racing game DMA Design was working on. During development, playtesters noticed a bug where the police pathfinding AI lost its orientation and would try and drive directly through the player’s car, creating the chaotic ramming and high speed collisions that proved to be more entertaining than the game’s original concept of racing.

Other cheats have acquired the undignified status of gamebreakers, destabilizing mistakes developers try and patch out to preserve the game’s integrity. Demon’s Souls Stockpile Thomas glitch, for instance, allowed players to replicate an infinite number of items and upgrade materials by going through an elaborate order of actions. Making use of the glitch removes the blanketing despair of being stuck with a +7 weapon and realizing the hours upon hours of farming it will take to get enough chunks and pure stones before you’ll be able to reach maximum level. The obsessive anguish of wanting something collapses into the indifference of having gotten the prize without having suffered through the process of its creation.

Dark Souls contained its own unauthorized warp pipe with a glitch that allows players to skip directly to the end boss area halfway through the game. The cheat lets players jump right into the Kiln of the Last Flame, making 30 minute speedruns possible. It also allows first-time players to skip some of the game’s most imbalanced and exploitative areas including Tomb of Giants and Lost Izalith (and its massive lava-bed filled with Tyrannosaurus Rex creatures).

Making use of this exploit destroys the Dark Souls’ core values, built around the tolerance of suffering. If you haven’t suffered the unfairness of fighting giant skeletons on narrow cliff ledges in the pitch dark, and later having to choose between holding a lantern or a shield, you haven’t suffered enough, you haven’t understood the game, you haven’t gone deep enough into your submission to the logic of its rules. It’s not about winning but the nearness of the game’s hostility to your actions, always a second or two away from outright rejection.

Other games have made the impulse to cheat a central to their moneymaking strategies. Where gold farmers and bots were once the shady class of rulebreakers spoiling a game’s economy, Facebook and mobile games have made cheating the entire point of play. Games like Field Runners 2 will sell you coin doublers and Facebook is always happy to sell you more in-game currency to buy powers and items when you haven’t earned enough from regular gameplay. Dead Space 3 is the most recent console game to embrace cheating so long as it can be monetized by the publisher, selling ammo, upgrade materials, and the possibility of halving the collection time for Isaac’s scavenger droid.

These developments in game design reveal the paradox of our attitudes toward cheating. A behavior that is finally defined not by fairness or unfairness but by who has control over outcomes. When unfair behavior is supported through the authority of the game designer it is an acceptable artistic implement, but when the player engages in imbalanced behavior for their own benefit it’s cheating. This tension is crucial to understanding video games as both experiences and expressions. Once a player begins to see the scope and general values of a game’s systems, it’s possible to  interpret them in an artful or emotional way––say realizing just how thorough and demanding Demon’s Souls upgrade stone scarcity is and reading into it an emotional metaphor for the onerous requirements of getting anything even marginally valuable in life.

Yet, interpreting a game’s systems does not lead to hours and hours and hours of subsequent value from carrying out the metaphor to its mechanistic conclusion. The more valuable part of a game is not winning but in the player’s struggle to understand why they want to win in this particular setting and with these particular rule values. Cheating allows players to reject the coerced emotions of the designers––like an audience talking back in a theater. But unlike films, games require players to internalize a worldview and change their behavioral impulses according to it. Because designers seek to directly affect a player’s impulses the need to talk back––to subvert and antagonize a developer’s rules and values––is an ethical imperative, what distinguishes a game from propagandistic anesthesia.

The most worrisome form of cheating comes when the hostility toward a designer’s rules are turned against other players, a way of harassing those adhering to rules someone else has rejected. Huizinga distinguished between a mere cheater, who “pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle,” and the spoil-sport, who actively seeks to interfere with other people’s experiences and “robs the play of its illusion.” Here the impulse to rebel against the impositions of the developer require harassment of other people, something that is crucially disruptive to the entire concept of making and selling games and so cheating becomes criminalized within the game world.

Developers and platform holders operate an elaborate system of computer surveillance and complaint reporting in order to locate and punish spoil-sports. PC players are given tools like Punk Buster and Valve Anti-Cheat, which scan game files on a player’s computer looking for hacks. Sony and Microsoft have similar mechanisms to detect hacked console hardware and provide tools for players to report problem players in online games. The penalties for being found and labeled by these mechanisms is removal and, in many cases, lifetime bans from a particular game.

Games match-make for skill and experience, but they do nothing to match people based on interest in play style. There are rarely modes or areas designed for experimental purposes, to give players who have no interest in competition or rules a place to create for themselves. Even in games like Halo 4 and Far Cry 3, which offer powerful level creation tools, there is a narrowness that comes from the modes’ separation from the traditional parts of the game. The story progression cannot be recomposed with player-driven modification, nor can the concept of shooting other players as a form of competition be addressed, criticized, satirized, or expanded upon from within the multiplayer modes that support them.

This structural conflict is not ultimately between cheaters and good players, but one that calls fun itself into question. We have never had a good or consistent definition of fun, and yet it is used as the tautological justification for all game design. Games that are organized and administered in the name of fun antagonize players who don’t share their basic values, defining anything antagonistic to rule-following as cheating, harassing, or playing the spoil-sport. We have made the desire to behave without rule a malady, and creative and efficient obedience the most respected form of behavior in game culture.

In The Culture Industry, Adorno described the various amusements of free time as “nothing more than a shadowy continuation of labor.” In pursuing the competitive leisure of sport “people first inflict upon themselves (and celebrate as a triumph of their own freedom) precisely what society inflicts upon them and what they must learn to enjoy.” Our pastimes are dramatic miniatures of our work-a-day selves, lavishing the mundane forms of labor we cannot escape in excess emotional rewards. The parallel with video game culture is powerful, with its scarcity models and derivation of fun from the domination of others. The role of game designer becomes an amalgamation of teacher, boss, and cop: building tutorials, setting productivity goals, and punishing those who try and break the rules with removal from the community.

What’s fun about video games is not the winning and the losing, but the relief that comes with obedience. Cheaters can be considered anyone interested in having an experience not predetermined by a rule or limit, someone intent on antagonizing those whose adherence to artificial rules numb their awareness of possibilities outside those other prescribed by the game’s systems. In this light, cheating is the only ethical action one can take in a game, forcing play to be a consideration of the rules themselves and not an obedient exploration of how to best follow them. Cheaters are not enemies of game culture and good design, but an essential group whose persistence should be embraced, internalized, and allowed to flourish into new ways of playing that even our most celebrated proctors would never have thought up on their own.

  • Jeremy Antley

    Interesting post- I enjoyed reading it. A few thoughts:

    I’m not sure I agree with ‘cheating’ as you have outlined it here. The examples you provide are more akin to a greater realization on the boundaries of the coded universe found in video games than they are with cheating. Is it really ‘cheating’ for someone to use a rocket jump in Quake? Or is it that the player pushed the boundaries of the physics engine to the point where they discovered a new means of using that engine to explore the world around them? You use the term glitch, but, again, is this really go hand-in-hand with cheating? In the strict sense of the coded ruleset running in the background, a glitch is no more than using that code base to operate or explore the video gaming world it comprises.

    Compare this with board games, which possess a similar rule set- but where actual ‘cheating’ play can occur with much greater frequency. You can ‘exploit’ poorly written rules through interpretation, an analogous form of the digital glitch in an analog model- but you can also blatantly break the rules and supersede them in board game play. Now this doesn’t necessarily break the game- it might give one player an unbalanced advantage, but the ludic model can still operate even the presence of cheating. But can you really ‘cheat’ in a digital game, whose entire operation and execution is bound by hard set coded rules?

    So I think what needs to be discussed isn’t cheating, but the types of rule-sets encountered though play. Digital games, to me, embrace a very ‘hard’ ruleset form- you cannot do things the code does not allow. Board games, in contrast, offer a very ‘soft’ or ‘permeable’ ruleset form- you can bend and break the rules because they cannot supersede your ability to do so. Now if you are talking about changing the social contract digital game designers try to impart in their design- such as the warp in Dark Souls- is this really cheating as in breaking the rules? The player is exploiting the code, but doing so in a way that is entirely permissible. So I’m not sure I would label someone who does this in a digital game to be a cheater. They strike me more as an explorer because, in a real sense, they can only push the boundaries of the code to their limit. They cannot break these coded rules (unless they modify the code- but this beyond the scope of just playing the game) they can only examine their contours and topography.

  • Pingback: === popurls.com === popular today

  • Robbie Hunt

    I was a bit worried about your article based on a synopsis I read, but I think, in the end, I more or less agree. I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that cheating is the only ethical choice in playing a game (sounds a bit like an excerpt from “My First Philosophy Essay” to be honest) but I do think cheaters deserve a space.

    Cheating is wrong when it interferes with another’s experience (think “your rights end where my begin”). But, honestly, that’s the only instance where I would consider calling this type of behavior ‘cheating’.

    If you are not devaluing another person’s experience – then you’re definitely within your rights to simply state that you’re playing a different game than they are.

    The best example in my point of view is the competitive pokemon scene. Hacked pokemon everywhere. And that is totally fine, if people want to pit their hacked pokemon against other hacked pokemon and see who’s the best – that sounds like a lot of fun.

    But when those same trainers using hacked pokemon come to me and tell me they are better at the game than I am, they don’t really have a leg to stand on. We are playing different games.

    Some value the lengthy process of creating a great pokemon. Others don’t care. We can all get along, if we just stop saying that our way is the only way to play the game. And also if we never play together, lol.

  • Tariq Robin Muman

    You write “Games match-make for skill and experience, but they do nothing to match people based on interest in play style”
    But what you mean is that this is missing from modern games, a good example being the original half life game for instance had a “modding” community where exactly this was done

  • Bob Singer

    Cheating when playing alone against the game is just like cheating in Solitaire. It’s moral imperative is up to you and your ethics. Cheating in a multiplayer or online game is cheating, end of story. If you are willing to compromise your personal morals (not your avatar’s, but yours) then cheat away knowing that you are not playing within the rules. If you have no problem bending your morality to violate the rules in order to use the games weaknesses for yourself, then cheat away.

    • Mozzie

      One of Raymond Chandler’s characters says of solitaire that it is no fun if you don’t cheat, and not much if you do. Which encompasses most of the issue.

  • Beardsmite

    The author seems well read, but not on the relevant subject of game design.

    What I feel is missing from this article is any mention or discussion of “emergent gameplay” and how this differs from “cheating”. Merely calling different things by the same name does not make them so.

    A better definition than I could give in case needed: “Emergent gameplay refers to complex situations in video games, board games, or table top role-playing games that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics.”

    Emergent gameplay is what happens when the interaction of designed rules produce something greater than the individual parts, something often unexpected. Rocket jumping in Quake provides a great example – it was not intentionally designed, but rather is a result of explosions imparting momentum on objects and the player having a weapon that creates explosions.

    Rocket jumping and other instances of emergent gameplay may not have been “designed” intentionally, but that does not mean that they are not within the rules. Emergent gameplay by definition lives within the rules. In this way emergent gameplay is fundamentally different from what is normally called “cheating”.

    Someone that is rocket jumping is doing something very different from someone that is using an “aim bot” to guide their rockets.

  • Chris Wagar

    This is an essay on cheating, yet you include the mario infinite life trick, rocket jumping, the stockpile thomas glitch. What makes you think these things are cheating? You imply in the second paragraph that cheating is a transgression of the rules. If the developers left it in the game, then it’s fair. Mario has the rules, you can hop on koopas for points, X hops nets an extra life, koopas bounce off walls. Hopping on a koopa nearby a wall, so as to automatically gain lives from it, is not a transgression of the rules, it is following them.

    The only thing that is a transgression of game rules is the use of an external program to insert or alter game files (such as the use of cheat engine or pokesav). Anything else is the program reading as written. These glitches or tricks aren’t slight of hand by the players. They aren’t some element external to the game’s rules acting on the game. The way the game is programmed is literally the game’s rules, and that includes everything. VAC or Punkbuster will never detect a player doing any of the things you’ve mentioned, because none of them break the game’s rules.

    The ultimate rule is, the intent of the designer doesn’t matter. They’ve designed the game they’ve designed, glitches and all. They and we simply have to deal with that. Sometimes it allows for outrageous skips, and that’s why speedrunning has multiple categories, to honor the many different ways a game can be played. There are pure speedruns, 100% runs, all boss runs, pacifist runs, and more.

    And the thing is, fun in video games is very much about winning and losing, and people who use glitches do so as another way to win. Anyone using glitches is still playing by the game’s rules, whatever they may be, and you can’t call them a cheater. In multiplayer settings, are glitch tactics viable? Yes. Completely. Multiple fighting games make use of glitches in their competitive scenes. Sometimes however they’re deemed too powerful or disruptive to the balance of the game. But the thing here is, so are other elements of the game. Cards get banned in magic, Akuma gets banned in SF2, some player 2 only tricks get banned on the basis of fairness. Glitches are an element of how the game works exactly like every other element, and they are subject to the same set of standards every other element of the game is. Here is an article on that matter: http://www.sirlin.net/ptw-book/what-should-be-banned.html Use of something banned is cheating because there is a consensus among players that particular discrete tactic or option is outside the game they wish to play.

    Glitching as you described it in all of your examples is EXACTLY obedient exploration of how best to follow the rules of the game. It goes further into understanding the rules of the game than anything else does.
    Cheating is still unethical. Don’t lump glitch users in with the cheaters.

  • Pingback: Social Scientific Web Wonders: #TDOPicks of the Week | The Daily Opium

  • Aaron Schroeder

    So, there’s something deeply right about this essay, but it’s expressed in such a way that I’m not totally confident that even the author gets the point.

    Cheating introduces a sort of meta-aspect into gameplay that reveal just how dependent the feelings of success and achievement that are unique to video games depends upon obedience to (and, one must admit, mastery of) rules. In Dark Souls, for example, the Kiln jump cheat allows players the achievement of ‘reaching the end of the game’ without going through almost any of its most difficult levels. What the ‘cheat’ reveals, then, is just how meaningless it is to ‘beat the game’ when skipping so much of the frustration and difficulty that motivated the player to cheat in the first place. The ‘empty’ feeling of having achieved nothing, then, will move the player not to cheat in the future – and thus, cheating only reinforces the importance of obedience to (and mastery of) the rules. In other words, rather than reveal the cheapness of rewards that come from obedience, it turns out that cheating reveals how integrally obedience and any valuable video game reward are tied to one another.

    Board games make for an exact analogue here. Consider that one can always cheat in chess: just ‘illegally’ move your pieces and checkmate the other king. What this cheating reveals is not how cheap is the satisfaction that comes from following the rules. On the contrary: cheating reveals how important following the rules is if one is ever to receive the sort of satisfaction that games have the ability to offer. So, you’re premises actually prove the contradiction of the author’s conclusion.

    That, and the author’s line games being more manipulative (or whatever) than other art forms is patent, ironically-disconnected, emo-kid-cum-M.A.-hipster b.s. All art forms require the acceptance of arbitrary modes of expression. Greenberg came up with this idea, like, 60 years ago. You can’t call it a “film” if its a guy playing a trumpet in the park. Thus, if the proper way to respond to (say) systems that require the acceptance of arbitrary rules is to thwart the application of the rules, then any ‘authentic’ experience of an artistic medium is more or less impossible. (Actually, its deductively impossible, since the enjoyment follows from the acceptance of the arbitrary rules, which are necessary to the artform.) Of course pressing those rules to their ‘interpretive’ breaking point can be instructive (this is, after all, Modernism) but eventually it leaves you feeling that you haven’t experienced art at all. If this is the function of cheating, and cheating is the only ethical action in a ‘arbitrary rules context’, then no one is going to be able to experience art. I call reductio on that.

  • Pingback: Cheats Domain News | Cheats Domain Game Guide

  • The Atomic Dwarf

    Let’s say you’re playing a strategy game, or something more complex like Civ 5 and you keep failing to complete the mission because you either didn’t build a substantial army or you can’t withstand the AI’s relentless attacks. The game isn’t fun anymore. If it becomes frustrating, annoyoing why not cheat to make it a more enjoyable experience?

    I agree with cheating in single player modes when the game becomes too hard and there’s no more fun in playing it but it has to be done with moderation. Cheat too much and you’ll make the game too easy. Than you might get bored and lose interest in it. I’m talking about money/resouce hacks here mostly for strategy games but the same concept applies for other genres as well.

    Cheating in multiplayer is a completely different thing. It’s not about the game being fun anymore but about your own self-satisfaction. I often found cheaters in multiplayer modes do it just to boost their own ego and by doing so ruin the fun for all the other guys involved. You cannot improve and become a better player by cheating.

    I’m a casual gamer. I play all kinds of games just for fun and if I ever find myself in a tight spot, I might try and cheat my way through but that doesn’t mean it’s a sign of disrespect for the developers.

    And when it comes to multiplayer, I just try it and see if I’m good or not. If not than just move on to another game. There is no point in spending so much time and resources on just trying to be the best at one game by cheating when there are hundreds of other games out there.