Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Cheatin' Varmint - The nuanced ethics of breaking the rules

No matter the game, players have always sought out ways to obtain an advantage. Whether the end of this was to have the top spot on the high score board, to brutally crush enemies, or to explore the breaking points of a system, various methods have been employed ranging from simplistic physical techniques to subtle manipulation of game code. Often, as one player discovers a method for performing better in a game they are accused of cheating. Today I will delve into the nebulous concept of cheating and provide some examples to highlight were I think the line is drawn between cheating and legitimate play.

What is Cheating?
This innocuous question is deceptively complex and responses can be likened to those given to questions like ‘what is art?’; there seems to be no end of examples of activities that are universally accepted as cheating and vice versa. However, when investigating beyond these obvious cases, any semblance of a clear definition goes out the window. While this could form a basis for jumping into a heady discussion of meta-ethics I think it is best to keep things light. As such, I will refrain from structuring my examples in accordance to any established ethical system and am mostly going by my own gut intuitions (also known as the ethical system of ‘screw what you think Professor’).  In general, I consider instances where one player is given an advantage to be more heavily weighted into the ‘cheating’ category. That said, I do not think that advantage need be the only litmus test for whether an action ought to be condemned. 

Before the meat and potatoes, I would like to take a moment to state that the end-user license agreement is not a definitive source for what should be considered cheating. EULA’s are typically written to allow the developer/publisher a maximum of flexibility and control. As such, almost anything can be considered cheating by a particular interpretation of the EULA. Beyond this, sometimes developer/publisher statements of what constitutes cheating are dubious. Recently, a number of people were banned from Diablo 3 for speculating the auction house (ie. buying items they felt would improve in value and selling them for more when they did). While the specifics of these bans were tied to an exploit causing rampant instability in the player economy, I feel that they were justified in the stupidest way possible. By Blizzard’s definition, any time you purchase an item on the auction house it would be a breach of the rules to sell that item for more at a later time. I think almost everyone would agree is not a case of cheating but timely and intelligent analysis of prices.

So, with all this in mind, to the examples!

Case: Using a Pencil in the arcade game ‘Track and Field’
My Verdict: Not cheating.
The arcade classic ‘Track and Field’ was an excellent simulation of the lifetime of arduous labour and sacrifice necessary to perform at an Olympic level… for your fingers. Gameplay revolved around alternately tapping two buttons to make your athlete run faster and success was determined entirely on how quickly and accurately you could do this. The ingenious ‘cheat’ for this was to balance a pencil across the two buttons so that, in effect, pressing once would register two alternate pushes. I am sure some important studies have been conducted to determine exactly how much more button-pressing efficiency is gained by using a pencil and that they have all concluded ‘moar fasters’. The grey area here is that the player is using a non-sanctioned device to achieve better results than they could with their natural finger talents. To this I suggest that the pencil method itself requires a decent amount of skill (I can almost guarantee the first time you try it you will actually perform worse) and that the boost it gives doesn’t provide superhuman speed. As such, the pencil method is more akin to a weight-belt preventing guts from busting out than steroids.

Case: Diplomacy Flying Dutchman/Monopoly Banker “Loans”
My Verdict: Anything is legal so long as you don’t get caught. But seriously, house rules on this one.
I roll these two examples into one because the concept is very similar in both games. In Diplomacy, the Flying Dutchman is when an extra unsupplied unit is placed on the board and has orders written for it. In Monopoly, a banker “loan” is when a player takes money from the bank without cause. By the hard and fast rules of each of these games, neither action is technically cheating in that the rules do not forbid it. This logic is shaky because it is widely accepted that the written rules cannot possibly cover every foreseeable instance (it would be unreasonable to expect the rules to specify the circumstance of urinating on the board while eating a hot dog and wearing a newspaper hat; obviously this is the instant win scenario for every board game). That said, both of these examples are easily conceived and conspicuously absent from the rulebook which also omits a clause stating ‘these are the only rules of the game’. In these cases, I think whether the act is considered cheating is down to the house-rules. As such, it is up to players to ask in advance what the policies are regarding these actions and what the punishment for being caught performing them will be.

Case: Interface Mods and Macros
My Verdict: Sometimes Cheating
World of Warcraft was one of the first MMOs to open up its interface to modification. This allowed for users to customize what and where information would be displayed on screen. Further, macro support allowed players to have detailed sequences and priorities tied to the push of a single button. In general, most interface modifications are clearly legitimate. Moving enemy health bars and timers to the center of the screen (thus providing information without losing focus on the action) is a quality of life improvement that most people take advantage of.  Given that this type of customization is built into virtually every current MMO sans modification, I think this is a pretty clear cut case of ‘not cheating’. Where things get complicated, however, is when the interface is modified in such a way as to provide information to the player that is not normally (or easily) accessible. For example, big alerts stating ‘you have been targeted’ in PvP ultimately end up destroying the possibility of sneak attacks and provide an unfair advantage to otherwise unaware players. More pressing than this, is the use of macros which allow for more inputs then the game would usually allow. A macro allowing all the equivalent of 10 key presses at once allows for circumventing the way the game was meant to be played. To be clear, these macros are the type that activate all instant cooldowns at once and not priority scripts that just dumb down what skill to use on each cooldown; effecting multiple actions when you really should only be able to perform one is cheating

Beyond MMOs, modding often treads the grey area of cheating. The popular map hack for Diablo 2 allowed players to see the entire layout of the act without exploring. However, it was still up to the player to defeat the enemies in the quest for loot. The map hack eliminated a lot of backtracking and dead-end dungeon crawling in the name of faster gameplay. On the other hand, it also made specific boss runs trivial as players would take the most efficient route to the end often running or teleporting by any monsters. In the end, I think the map hack was used mostly as a quality of life improvement rather than a pure exploit and feel it shouldn't be labelled as cheating.

 I think the examples I have provided are pretty effective at demonstrating just how nuanced the concept of cheating can be. I would be surprised to find many people who agree with me on all counts. The fact that we don’t all agree is what makes, at least for me, ethical discussion fascinating.