A Machiavellian Defense of Cheating in Video Games

Video games provide an escape into another world for countless people.

If you have ever played a video game, you have likely encountered cheating on some level.  Whether earning infinite money in Grand Theft Auto V, glitching through walls in Legend of Zelda, or simply entering cheat codes in Guitar Hero, cheating can be kind of annoying, too.  But could there be a silver lining?  Is it possible that cheaters actually enhance our experience in this magic game world?

Cultural historian Johan Huizinga expressed a revolutionary view of cheating in his work “Homo Ludens” when he identified a basic difference between cheaters and “spoil-sports”.  Spoil-sports, Huizinga says, are those who completely break the realm of play, effectively ending the game.  For example, if a person simply picked up the soccer ball with their hands and threw it into the goal, that person would be a spoil-sport.  However, cheaters are those who use parts of the game to rig it in their favor.  This isn’t so much disregarding rules as stretching them beyond their ethical bounds, so the “magic circle” of play is not broken.  Conversely, there is the “purist”, or those who play the game exactly as it is meant to be played.  Purists rely on their skill and strategy alone to win.

In the world of video games, there is a sharp distinction between these two types of cheaters.  The first type, the spoil-sport, is the one who hacks and breaks the game.  In a multiplayer experience, other players may not feel like they are not even playing the game anymore.  A perfect example of the spoil-sport would be a player who uses wallhacks and aimbots in Call of Duty to ensure that all of his shots hit and kill.  This player breaks the game and ensures that no one else can possibly win, removing all strategy and skill, therefore breaking the magic circle of the video game. Since these kinds of hackers remove all enjoyment from the purist, we will disregard them and focus on the second type: the cheater.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a game with exploits that can be used without breaking the game.

The cheater, contrary to the spoil-sport, works within the confines of the game.  These are also called exploiters: those that abuse things that actually do exist within the game, whether the developers intended to put them in the game or not.  For example, in Bethesda Games’ The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, there is a glitch that allows the player to reach into an invisible chest that contains expensive items.  This is clearly not an ethical way to play the game and exploits a part of the coding, but it does not break the magic circle.  The player still must fight through all challenges, level up, and survive in difficult dungeons; in short, the magic circle of play is unchanged if the player has more gold or better items because the object of the game is not to have more gold or better items.  There is still a strong chance to lose, so this kind of play does not break the game but merely enhances a player’s experience with an arguably more pleasing gameplay.

Another example, this time in the multiplayer gaming world, involves Blizzard’s Starcraft II.  Starcraft II is an online warfare game with a heavy strategic element.  In the early years of the game, around 2010, players developed a strategy called the “4 Gate Rush” that exploited certain “overpowered” or “broken” units to force a swift victory.  Essentially, players teleported massive amounts of units to the enemy base early in the game and overwhelmed the enemy, winning the game.  Here is an example of the strategy, used to demolish the opponent in a ridiculously short time (start around 6:15):

When cheaters move away from the realm of the purists by exploiting the game, I daresay that these exploiters become the best strategists in the game, especially in multiplayer game modes.  In Huizinga’s definition, cheaters play to win the game, not break or destroy it.  They create new methods of playing and therefore lead the way in the evolution of the game. In the 4 Gate Rush example, exploiters force other players to adapt their style to defend against this all-powerful strategy. Now, many purists would argue that going against the way the game is “meant” to be played constitutes breaking the game, but these cheaters can retort that they are still playing within the confines of the game, only pushing the boundaries. The 4 Gate Rush users force an average player to develop better game skills and play at a higher level, therefore enhancing the game’s health.  Cheaters and exploiters, then, bring the rest of the players along and show the best possible strategies to play a given video game.  Feross Aboukhadijeh agrees, saying cheating innovates games, forming a new type of creative expression.  Forbes chimed in on the issue as well, justifying cheating in games but for different reasons.

Niccolo Machiavelli justified unethical actions if they cause a good result.

Machiavelli wrote in his work The Prince that Princes should portray all the great and glorious qualities of mankind, including humanity, mercy, and faithfulness, but the Prince should also be prepared to betray these qualities if need be.  Furthermore, those who are most successful are those who use cunning and deceit (cheating) to get what they want.  In his mind, the actions taken do not matter as long as the desired result is achieved.  Ethics mean nothing.  In short, the ends justify the means.

This “ends justify the means” argument certainly applies to our talk of exploitation in video games.  Cheaters push the boundaries, and, though through unethical means, elevate all participants to a higher level of play.  I believe, then, that we should welcome gaming’s cheaters with open arms.

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2 thoughts on “A Machiavellian Defense of Cheating in Video Games

  1. This is a fascinating post for several reasons. One of them is that I’m still stuck in CoD: Black Ops (from several years ago!) at a point where I really can’t kill enough evil commie meanies before getting killed. I’ve tried a bazillion times and would definitely welcome a cheat.

    But, beyond my lame gamer skillz, this post raises really interesting questions about what counts as cheating in video games. I don’t have an answer, but I’m not entirely sure, Kyle, that your open-armed welcome to cheaters follows from everything you’ve said. It seems to me you are saying there are destructive cheaters and helpful cheaters. So we’ll need a language and a set of concepts that goes beyond what’s defined as cheating by the explicit rules of the game (very interesting and complicated) and what’s defined as cheating by the companies that stand to profit from the games (somewhat less interesting).

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    • Now that I look back at this post, I agree that it seems I am welcoming all cheaters. If I could revise this, I would, because what I was trying to make a distinction between was Huizinga’s cheaters and spoil-sports. Cheaters are those who work within the confines of the game and work to win, not destroy the game, but spoil-sports are those who completely destroy the game world. I compared Huizinga’s cheaters to people who exploit bugs and glitches or things considered “overpowered”. Spoil-sports, then, are those who destroy the game world and remove all counter-play and therefore enjoyment (i.e. Aimbot users in CoD).

      I attempted to draw a distinction between the two but it is not very clear in my post. My overall point was to welcome the cheaters but still hate the spoil-sport in video games. I’m glad you commented back, Professor, and I’ll try to make my point and conclusion a little more clear next time.

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