Sunday, January 16, 2011


I was talking to a friend about video games when he said — by way of explaining why he hacked his son's game to add a few more powerful Pokemon — "everyone cheats".

That could well be true. it certainly seems like there is a lot of cheating going on. But I suspect the world can be divided into two camps: those who believe everyone cheats and those who believe most people cheat.

What's the point? I am not interested in discussing the repercussions on society (which there are plenty of). I am really only thinking of the narrower scope of games.

The distinction is that if everyone cheats, the only way to participate is to cheat as well. Or else you are a chump. If most, but not all, people cheat, there is still a moral question to be answered. And a question of purpose.

What is the purpose of gaming? If it is purely to win, then cheating has no negatives since it more quickly achieves the goal. If, on the other hand, gaming is about playing — about facing a challenge and overcoming it in the safe confines of a virtual world — then cheating defeats the purpose because it eliminates the challenge rather than overcoming it.

This is easy enough to understand when playing single player games. Take solitaire for example. There is no benefit to peeking at the cards that are face down or rearranging the deck — you are only cheating yourself and will quickly tire of the game. Since if you cheat you can always win and then the game has no point.

But the question of cheating becomes more complex when you are playing with or against other players. The incentives become more involved. When playing with others, there are additional incentives: wanting to do better than the other players; wanting not to look stupid or ineffectual; wanting to demonstrate mastery over the game... All of these can play a part, but with differing levels of importance for each player.

Online gaming is replete with its own language of competition and "pwnage", making the challenge of doing well for your own sake a much lesser force than the desire for bragging rights. Even single player games now come with "trophies", "badges", and other awards so you can compare your skills against other players.

Which brings up a special category of cheating: not losing. A number of games have had to modify their leader boards to account for players who "turn off" before a competition is over because they don't want a loss to negatively impact their total score.

This whole discussion sounds very self-righteous. I tend not to play many online multiplayer games, so it is easy for me to be holier-than-thou to those who prefer competitive play. But the fact is, I cheat as well.

Since I don't tend to play multi-player games (except face-to-face with friends) my cheating is of a different nature. That is, I cheat to continue. Or, in other words, the strategy guide cheat.

Games can be hard — they're meant to be challenging. Sometimes the solutions are just too hard or too obscure to figure out alone. For platformers, which tend to be linear in nature, this can be critical: if you can't solve the puzzle or beat the boss, you can't proceed. So your choice is either solve the problem or give up the game.

I don't like cheating. (I'm the kind of person who refuses to look at the box lid when doing a jigsaw puzzle because working off the picture would be "cheating".) But I will cheat for a game I am enjoying if I get stuck. It is a tradeoff I am willing to make under two conditions:

  • The game is enjoyable enough that I really want to proceed.
  • I have tried enough times to work it out, without success, that I know (or think I know) that I can't figure it out without assistance.
There is a third condition, which is that I only need to "cheat" a few times in a game. Once I have to look up the answer two, three, or more times in a row, I start to feel the game is too hard to be fun any more. (E.g. the original Kingdom Hearts on PS2 felt this way.) When this happens, then you are no longer playing, you are simply working your way through the strategy guide.

No, thank you. I'd rather be playing.

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