Cheating has been a long term accompaniment to gaming. From classic cheats like the Konami code and “IDDQD” to the exploitation of in game glitches, such as the infamous MissingNo. case from Pokémon Red and Blue.
But what about cheating in online games? How do we define exactly what cheating is, and are there forms of cheating unique to the ‘online’ aspect of games?
A first attempt at answering these questions has been made by Yan et al. in their 2005 work. In this they provide a taxonomy of cheating for online games, and identify several aspects of cheating that are unique to this form. However, in his 2011 thesis Tolbaru argues that the 2005 taxonomy is incomplete.
Specifically, he states that “the taxonomy provided by Yan & Randell (2005) introduces most of the cheats present in the games from the time of the article. However, it does not take into consideration several types of cheats. More exactly, Yan & Randell do not take into consideration the grey area of cheats, such as camping, griefing or using scripts and macros” (2011, p.37). As such, Tolbaru provides his own taxonomy, incorporating and expanding upon existing research:
It is this grey area that Tolbaru identifies as ‘game specific cheats’ that I wish to discuss. The category that most interests me, and many players involved in the PvE scene of MMO’s, are those involving the exploitation of bugs or loopholes within a game. In his work, Tolbaru proposes the following definition for cheating:
Cheating occurs whenever a player uses techniques, tools, activities or procedures that enable him to gain an advantage through a method that compromises confidentiality, integrity or availability of any of the services connected to the games environment or that was stipulated in the end-user agreement of the game as a cheat.
As such, Tolbaru thinks that it is wrong to think of exploiting bugs or loopholes of any kind as cheating, unless it is specifically stipulated in the EULA agreement of the game. He points out that as most games do not advertise the possibility of not having a perfect code, it is rare to find this stipulation in EULA’s. Certainly, nothing resembling this is found in EULA for WoW, where the only reference to exploiting is in the context of using the game as a means to real world gain. There is a reference to cheating in the EULA, but this is of no relevance for Tolbaru’s definition. Again, Tolbaru states that “regardless of the opinion of gamers or researchers, if exploiting a bug is not specifically written in the EULA, it cannot be considered a cheat and thus the player cannot be punished” (2011, P.86).
Well, there are plenty of cases of players being punished for actions falling under ‘exploiting’ that are not contained within the EULA but have been deemed as cheating by developers. Thus on a practical level Tolbaru’s definition falls a long way short. But what about on a normative level? Is the definition one that we should agree on in principle. In this respect I think it remains clear that it isn’t. Terms within a EULA have to be practicable in two directions. They must be able to be understood and interpreted by the users and must be able to be enforced by the developers. The case of exploiting makes this definition impracticable.
On the one hand, developers could update the EULA every time a bug is discovered. Despite impracticalities of this possibility, it raises a serious concern about gameplay. Any exploiter of a bug, before its inclusion within the EULA, will by definition not be guilty of cheating and not liable for punishment. Thus seeking out new bugs and actively exploiting them for advantage becomes highly optimal game play. This is clearly a situation that no games company would want.
On the other hand, a general statement about not using bugs or loopholes to ones advantage could be included within the EULA to try and cover all potential instances of bugs within a game. However, this solution is impracticable on a user level. It demands that the players of the game have an understanding of every instance in which a certain action within the game is in fact a bug and not intended, and in addition when using that action results in advantage. For many instances and for many players, these distinctions are not clear cut (see for example the GW2 fiasco).
Tolbaru’s treatment of exploits in online games therefore seems mistaken, but it is one that follows from his definition of cheating. If we are to reject his treatment of exploiting, his definition of cheating must therefore be modified.
In fact, I find the definition of cheating provided by Yan & Randell to be more fitting:
Any behaviour that a player uses to gain an advantage over his peer players or achieve a target in an online game is cheating if, according to the game rules or at the discretion of the game operator (i.e. the game service provider, who is not necessarily the developer of the game), the advantage or the target is one that he is not supposed to have achieved. (2005, P.1, my emphasis)
Under this definition, the link between exploiting and cheating is one that is entirely in the hands of the games operators. It is up to them to decide when advantage is or is not supposed to have been achieved. This definition does seem in line with practices of games companies we have become familiar with. However, the definition also implies that all cases in which unintended advantage is achieved is cheating. This doesn’t seem to be the case though, for the important reason that developer intentions are often limited. A particular raid encounter might have an intended strategy from the developers perspective, yet frequently they are surprised by the ingenuity of their player base in creating innovative tactics or utilising available tools developers never considered, to gain an advantage. A perfect example of this is Paragon’s defeat of Ragnaros in Firelands (more to follow), where the tactic they implemented and gear used to beat the encounter where unintended, but not considered cheating.
A further worry for this definition is a familiar one in that it places a heavy burden on the player base. Is it always clear to compteting players exactly what the intentions of the designers were? It is clear that it isn’t and that players frequently encounter grey areas in which they are unsure of whether or not their actions would be considered legitimate. How should players act in these cituations? What is their moral obligation? These are important and intersting questions, and in the next post in this series, we look at Buzzkill’s take on some of these questions.