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Opinion – Cheating and the social contract

Cheaters never prosper…except when they do….which is often.

Most players object to cheating.  Whether through a hack, exploit, or a code, most players object to the idea that their opponent is getting an advantage over them that the game does not allow.  We often see gamers objecting to cheating in single player games as well.  This is interesting as mods or previously agreed upon buffs are generally considered acceptable or even laudable.  The contradiction begs the question, what about cheating do players object too?

One of the most commonly made arguments is that cheating violates the intentions of the developers by affording an advantage they didn’t include in the game.  As this thinking goes, the game is sacrosanct and the developers are the final arbiter of what the experience should be.  With the age of patches and mods, that seems obviously wrong.  Developers are constantly updating their own programs, including basic gameplay changes. Even if they aren’t, the game’s fanbase is.  Mods can extend the life of a game considerably by adding new features, content, or addressing old problems.  In their actions, neither the fans nor the developers consider the initial game sacred.  So what’s the problem with cheating?

The problem is that cheating can violate the social contract between players.  Players pick up a game with the expectation that their opponents are playing with the same benefits and limitations as the game allows.  This forms a basic social contract that allows each player to judge their skill relative to their opponent.  If both players have an equal playing ground, then presumably the best will win.  In addition to skills testing, the denial of cheating appeals to a sense of fairness.  It forces each player to operate under the same constraints and therefore acquire achievements (be they ranking, speed of run, praise, etc) using the same tools.  Players who acquire the achievement with an unearned or granted advantage both achieve a status they have not earned and undermine the value of the achievement for others.  If enough players cheat, then other players cannot trust the achievement, and it becomes worthless.  This is particularly problematic in tournaments where players and viewers need to reasonably expect that what they’re seeing is the result of player skill and not cheat assisted.

The same contract can extend to single player games.  At first blush, cheating in a single player game effects no one.  After all, there are no other players playing said game and therefore no one else relying on the cheater’s input to determine the value of their own achievement.  The problem with this line of thinking is that single player experiences are often shared.  We don’t just play games, we share our stories.  We talk about the awesome things we’ve seen and the amazing things we’ve accomplished.  When someone cheats, particularly if they don’t acknowledge it, they make the comparison less valid.  They attempt to high jack an achievement they didn’t earn and bask in the glory of friend’s praise without the effort.

I’ll give you an example.  In my youth I played Baldur’s Gate 2 concurrently with a friend.  We both got stuck at a dragon until he told me one day that he’d beaten it!  It was easy!  He sat me down and I watched as he took his party, hid in a corner, and attacked the dragon.  The dragon’s AI couldn’t figure out how to get to the corner so it flailed about helplessly as it slowly died to arrows.  My friend was very proud and sought credit for “killing the dragon”, but that wasn’t really the achievement we discussed earlier.  Yes, the dragon died, but he didn’t actually face it.  He didn’t overcome the challenge of the dragon.  He found an exploit, used it, and took down one of the games hardest enemies without having to deal with the parts that made it hard.  Our social contract that conferred praise onto whoever beat the dragon was cheapened by his inclusion of methods that removed the challenge.

This is not to say that cheating is bad.  Also long as all relevant players are on board, cheating can be a great way to enjoy a game.  The problem with cheating is the value established on achievement between players.  When cheating is used to undermine achievements, be they compared skillsets or shared milestones, it breaches the social contract that establishes a hypothetical shared value on certain in game actions.  Without that social contract, the social and comparative parts of the gaming experience mean less and, assuming total breakdown, may be no fun at all.

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