On Cheating and Exploiting – Alt-F4

In a recent post on this issue we looked at Tolbaru’s taxonomy of cheating in online games and focused our discussion on what he identified as they grey area of ‘game specific’ cheats. Today, I want to look at another classification of cheating within his taxonomy, and talk through an argument by Kripparrian that claims that this too is a grey area.

The classification in question is ‘Cheating by abusing game procedure’ and is described as “A situation where the player abuses the procedure of the game – such as disconnecting when the player is about to lose.” A particular example of this is the game Path of Exile, where a player can disconnect from the game when their character is about to die to avoid death. Is this cheating?

What are the motivations for players to act in this way when faced with the death of their character? Typically with these types of games there are two modes of play which we might call the ‘normal’ mode and the ‘hardcore’ mode. In the normal mode, death of a character isn’t such a big deal, there might be a small experience loss or equipment damage as a penalty, but ultimately the player can pick up from the point at which there character was killed. For the hardcore modes in contrast, character death typically means the end of that particular character  This might literally be the case, for example in Diablo 3 where the death of a character in hardcore more prevents that character from being playable, or typically the case in practice, for example in Path of Exile where characters that die in the hardcore mode are demoted to the default leagues, and so undesirable to play for the hardcore player.

There are therefore high stakes when playing these hardcore modes. Character death means the termination of ones character, and all the time and effort one spends on that character. Avoiding death at all costs then is simply an obvious playstyle, and any method of preseving ones caharacter is desireable, such as disconnecting to avoid death. But should doing so really be considered a cheat or exploit?

Kripparrian claims that the argument, perhaps from the ‘casual’ gamer’s perspective, is that disconnecting from the game to avoid death ruins its integrity. It cheapens the experience of the game to be able to simply avoid death when confronted with real danger, not by using ones abilities or skills, but by instantly closing the game and starting up again from a safe point. This argument carries a lot of weight, particularly when we remind ourselves of our definition of cheating in online games, which stated that:

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.

The target players achieve by disconnecting is staying alive, and they achieve this in way that seems outside the intentions of the game. One is supposed to survive by utilising their abilities effectively, not by disconnecting.

But Kripparrian thinks things are not so black and white. He notes that people ultimately adapt their play-style according to how the games system’s work. For example, knowing that one can alt-f4 to instantly disconnect from the game and avoid death, alters the play-style of someone playing this game compared to another where one cannot. Comparing Path of Exile (where this is possible) to Diablo 3 (where it is not), a player is simply less cautious and might take more risks in the former, but not the latter. The consequences are ultimately the same, if you play outside the boundaries of calculated risk, your character will die and you will lose it. It’s only the boundaries of play that are different between the two games. As such, rather than cheating, being able to disconnect from the game becomes an additional mechanic that players have at their disposal to play the game. In effect, it could be viewed as a powerful ability the character possess that has a chance to save them from impeding death, but might also fail. After all, alt-f4’ing doesn’t always work. Sometimes the game, the connection, or the players PC lags or freezes and the character dies before a disconnect can occur. Relying on being able to disconnect in order to keep your character alive is a risky strategy, unlikely to pay off long term.

A second element Kripparrian highlights is that this potential ‘advatage’ that players gain from being able to disconnect from the game, might not (or at least, should not) be something the game’s developers did not intend. It would be relatively easy for the Path of Exile developers to stop this behaviour by having characters remain in the game after a disconnect for a certain amount of time, forcing players to only log out when in safe places. This is the case in Diablo 3. But there is a very specific reason why this is undesirable. While in a minority of caes, players purposefully disconnect from the game to avoid death, in the majority of cases disconnects from the game are unintentional. These disconnects can either stem from client side internet problems or server side, where the games servers themselves drop conenctions to the game. In a system whereby ones character remains in the game after a disconnect, these problems are often fatal. This has been a serious problem for Diablo 3, which has had severe problems with its server stability. Imagine a charater you had carefully played for months on end on hardcore mode, taking care at every moment to keep your character safe from death, and then one day your connection drops and by the time you log back in, the character is no more.

I don’t think anyone would find that fun. And so, by allowing instant disconnects, which remove your character from the game the instant a disconnect ocurrs, these kinds of frustrations are eliminated, and by and large user experience is dramatically increased. As such, there is a very good reason why developers would want and intend for instant disconnects to occur. If this behaviour is then intended, utilising it to play the game a particular way cannot satisfy the definition of cheating outlined above.

Therefore in this instance, rather than cheating, instant disconnects should be viewed as a game mechanic that players are able to utilise, just like they can utilise their charcter’s spells, abilities and items within the game. As such, not all behaviour like disconnecting to avoid losses can be classified as cheating and abusing game procedure, and another potential grey area within the classifications of cheating within online games is opened up.

Here’s Kripparrian’s original video:

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