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Cheating is Bad, M’kay?

Isabelle Parsley Posted:
Columns Player Perspectives 0

I’m a gaming nerd, and like most gaming nerds with a tabletop gaming background, I know what my alignment is: I’m generally chaotic good. I try not to harm people needlessly and I mostly abide by rules and laws, when they make sense to me. D&D alignments are just as reductive as any other stereotype, but it’s still a broadly accurate description of my overall attitude.

I’m also a big believer in fairness, especially in MMOs. When you have hundreds or even thousands of people doing stuff in the same game world all at the same time, you need some sort of structure. If the game arbitrarily allowed some players to start with advantages that others don’t have, that’s not fair. In theory at least, everyone in MMOs starts out on an equal footing, and any difference thereafter is achieved through player skill or random luck. Theory, of course, is not always practice; item stores can let you buy a leg up, extra play time can let you get far ahead of other people, and so on.

I’ve made my peace with real-money transactions in MMOs, although a few years back I was fairly rabidly against them. For one thing they’re relatively well-balanced in most of the games I’ve seen – and for another, the cost of RM items and perks really isn’t all that prohibitive, so technically anyone is free to make use of them if they choose. It’s a tiered system of perks that’s increasingly prevalent in the world we live in: you can pay more for better service (or better stuff), and it makes very little sense to rail against it. Besides, it has revitalized the income model for MMOs in general and that’s not a bad thing because it strengthens the industry as a whole.

What I do have a huge problem with, however, is exploiting. That may be partly because I just don’t have that mindset: I usually only hear about them after they’ve been fixed and the entire player base has been affected by rule changes brought about by a tiny subset of cheaters. I generally don’t cheat in games, because it’s not fair and because it tends to ruin the game both for me and for everyone else. The only times I ever do it – I’ll fess up – are in single-player games: I regularly used the money cheat in SimCity, because my interest was more in designing cities than in waiting for them to slowly grow, and subways are expensive!

I’ve never understood the argument that exploits that don’t directly take anything away from me don’t affect me, and that I should just shut up and let the cheaters do what they want. I can understand why they say it, because it justifies their behavior, but that doesn’t make it true. Every major exploit I’ve seen fixed in a game has ended up with more restrictive mechanics and rules, and those affect everyone. You can’t just target the cheaters (more’s the pity). Worse, you end up with a design perspective that assumes everyone will cheat if they can, purely because some people will cheat if they can.

Neither is exploiting a rebellious way of sticking it to the developer Man. Get real; that’s another rationalization. All games rely on a basic set of rules to govern the behavior of their players, whether it’s Monopoly, Scrabble, or World of Warcraft, most especially those games (which is most of them) that have some competitive element. You can’t actually “win” an MMO, but it’s undeniable that we do all compete, even players like me who aren’t particularly oriented toward competition. If nothing else we compete against ourselves, and you can’t do even that without some sort of framework against which to measure your accomplishments.

And while it may be a thrill on several levels to figure out code (or rules) loopholes in games and take advantage of them, it’s ultimately detrimental to everyone else, both in the short and the long term. We don’t all have the ability to do that because most of us playing these games play on the tacit (and EULA-governed, incidentally) understanding that the rules are as they are; working around them is one thing, but using exploits is quite another. The only time I do it with glee is when I’m beta-testing, but in betas that’s actually part of the rules: find the exploits, find the loopholes, figure out how to reproduce them – and then report them. It’s how I know the activity can be fun, but it’s also how I know it’s not something I’ll ever do in a live game.

Yet even as I write this I know it will come down to two responses: those who agree, and those who will argue stridently and stubbornly that they should be able to continue their antisocial behavior because their making eleventy-million gold in two minutes, or moving three times as fast as my character does, doesn’t directly affect me and therefore shouldn’t concern me. No amount of logical argument – with examples – will ever convince them that the rules that get implemented as a result of their exploit are detrimental to other players, and thus that their behavior was detrimental to everyone else to begin with.

I’m not arguing that we should play our games like law-abiding automatons. We’re not built that way: human beings like to explore, they like to push boundaries, and they like to see what they can break, even in games – or maybe especially in games, where the consequences don’t involve things like having to eat your friends rather than freezing to death on a high mountain pass. But actively looking for ways to play the game outside the ruleset, rather than working within or around it, is behavior that negatively affects the entire community, however one may justify it.

I don’t always like the rules in MMOs, and even to me some of them seem needlessly restrictive, but I understand that they’re there for several reasons, the primary one being to provide a relatively level playing field for thousands of concurrent players. So I abide by them, though I may occasionally dance around them a little; but finding more efficient ways of doing things within the rules is not exploiting, it’s being smart, and it’s not anything most players won’t eventually figure out by themselves. (And in many cases, those more efficient ways of doing things will get officially incorporated into games sooner or later, like the ability to reset dungeons every so often in WoW.)

But cheating? That I won’t do, even if I can, because it’s not fair to everyone else. And that’s the bottom line.


Isabelle Parsley