Towards a Medium-Specific Definition of Cheating

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November 2, 2012 by johnroberts373

Understanding Video Games defines cheating in videogames as “any behavior that gives the cheater an unfair advantage over opponents, and/or anything that runs contrary to the spirit of the game” (178). On the same page, the textbook also cites Mia Consalvo’s more specific articulation of cheating: “anything other than getting through the game all on your own, breaking the rules of the game (code), or cheating in relation to another human player.” Both of these definitions, for the same reason, are insufficient to the task of providing an adequate account of cheating in the specific context of videogames. The textbook’s definition is too broad to address the particular cultural and technical aspects of cheating within the medium-specific context of videogames. Consalvo’s definition is more specific, but seems (at least as it is represented) not to make important distinctions between modding and cheating or between the use of a strategy guide and the use of automation software, distinctions which make a difference when considering the ethical implications both of cheating and of being labelled as one within a community. In short, neither of these definitions is specific enough to make necessary ethical distinctions.

Therefore, I propose a definition of cheating within the specific context of videogames: in such a context, cheating may be defined as any behavior which satisfies both of these two criteria: 1) involves a contravention of software coded game rules, and 2) involves an ethical misconduct on the part of the player that has implications for other players. This definition will more closely align with some commonsense notions (using software mods is not necessarily cheating behavior) and also seem counterintuitive in other ways (using slave labor to goldfarm is also not cheating behavior), but as I will show, such counterintuitive aspects of this definition reveal a key misconception about community values which has its own ethical implications for the game industry more broadly.

Why is the contravention of game rules a necessary component of cheating? A counterfactual: if a player’s behavior is not breaking the rules of a game, then that player’s behavior is in accord with them. Playing in accordance with the rules of a game is, by practically tautological definition, “playing by the rules.” Any advantage a player gains through rule abidance, however unfair or dastardly, is (again by definition) gamesmanship [sic]. Hence, camping, though certainly unfair, is not cheating under this strict definition. Neither is the goldfarming, which although unsavory does not contravene the rules of the game. (The banning of such a practice in a game’s terms of service contract is largely nominal. If Blizzard, developer of World of Warcraft, wanted to eliminate or drastically reduce the practice of goldfarming they easily could by altering the game’s rules by capping the number of hours per day and IP address can be logged in. This topic will be returned to below.) Rule-breaking as a necessary condition for cheating addresses the issue of strategic play versus outright cheating, a distinction which UVG passes on as being a question of “local norms.” Before moving on to consider the issue of community standards, I should note here that I consider the introduction of ancillary code, such as occurs when players use auto-clicker programs to automate gameplay, fall under the category of rule manipulation. Although the code in question is not native to the game software, the introduction of extra code into the player-game interface alters the ecology of the player-game system on a fundamental structural level. Unlike the use of a strategy guide (for instance), auto-clicker programs alter a game’s rules and interface for their user and should not be distinguished from the modding of game software.

It was mentioned above that the status of camping as cheating behavior hinges on the community values of the particular gaming community in which the behavior occurs. This variability gestures towards the second cheating criterion of ethical misconduct. Cheating does provide the cheater an unfair advantage over other players, and rule/code manipulation that does not provide an advantage, custom skinning and texture mods for instance, are not intuitively classified as cheating behaviors. Ethical transgression obtains across two levels: broadly construed social ethics and more local and idiosyncratic game community standards. The act of hacking an MMORPG player’s account and stealing his or her items violates society’s widely shared property norms. Camping can only violate the local community standards. Interestingly, these local standards resemble formal game rules in that they represent limitations of the kinds of actions a player can perform. These “unwritten rules” of player interaction are however not rules in the strict ludological sense. They represent shared values, proscriptive as opposed to descriptive regulations. Unlike the (presumably) immutable, hard-coded game rules, community standards are slippery, subject to interpretation and alteration. House ‘rules’ do not share the same ontological status as software code, and should not be conflated as though they do.

While it is understandable that from the player’s perspective the slippage between assumed  rules and coded rules might seem arbitrary and insignificant, the ramifications of this distinction are, from a game development perspective, quite significant. Videogames are not simply neutral systems with which moral actors interact. In virtue of their ability to govern human behavior and interaction through software, they are also ethical systems, and the regulation of unethical behavior within them becomes a responsibility of game designers. The mistaken conflation of community standards with coded rules allows developers to use such standards as an alibi for abdicating ethical responsibility for user interactions. There is a very real and tangible sense in which, for instance, Blizzard bears some ethical responsibility for the slave labor goldfarming foisted on Chinese prisoners by their guards which takes place in their game. By nominally labelling this practice “cheating” as opposed to gamesmanship in a software system, the coded rules of which allow for such transgressive behavior, Blizzard can avail itself of a slippery notion of cheating as an alibi that deflects moral culpability onto aberrant players and away from the company, which continues to profit financially from a system that includes human bondage as an armature.



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