To Cheat or Not to Cheat?

Words: 3230 Approximate Reading Time: 20-25 minutes

Being the victim of cheating in a game is something that can make a person’s blood boil, depending on what kind of cheating is taking place. But cheating more broadly has also been pretty prevalent in games for a long period of time. Older players will likely remember the days that games had cheat codes that unlocked various things. Sometimes those cheats unlocked mere cosmetic changes, and sometimes they unlocked major gameplay changes such as invincibility. The proliferation of mods that allow players to spawn in items, gain infinite experience, boost stats, and so on has become the new major way of cheating in games.

Generally speaking, I have a feeling that many players are in a kind of agreement about cheating: don’t do it in multiplayer, feel free to do so when you’re playing by yourself. But every now and then there are major uproars about cheating, with a certain segment of players arguing that cheating – even in single-player games – robs the players of an important experience and is therefore wrong to do even in that context.

So take this essay as an investigation of that particular argument.

I engage in this because I study ethics for a living, and to some extent cheating is about ethics. Insofar as conversations about cheating is about how it is wrong to do, that wrongness can only make sense from an ethical perspective.

Defining Cheating

It might be useful to try and settle upon some kind of definition for what “cheating” is, as there are a variety of things that are called “cheating,” as well as a variety of things that are similar to cheating.

Older players may recall the days when games featured cheat codes, that could be accessed through button inputs on the start screen or through putting in passcodes in a cheat menu. The ways in which these codes would alter the game varied as well: some would merely provide cosmetic changes to the game (Big Head Mode was a common choice), while others would genuinely make the game easier (such as activating invincibility or unlimited ammo). While all of these were colloquially referred to as cheats, it is only those systems that would actually affect gameplay, particularly by making it easier, that we should isolate as actual “cheating” for the purposes of these discussions.

With the rise of modifications, many players have taken to creating and downloading mods to games, or using other methods to alter the game’s data. These techniques can be equally varied in their outcomes: sometimes they are mere cosmetic changes, sometimes they make gameplay easier, and sometimes they can even make gameplay tougher, depending on what is installed. Of these three, our focus is on the second. It is only in making the game easier that we are concerned with the topic of “cheating.”

Much more difficult, though, is the use of various bugs or glitches in the game code. Especially problematic is when that usage can lead to advantages. And yet, often the use of bugs and glitches is seen as an important component of skilled play. So how can we effectively distinguish between good and bad usage of glitches? In a single-player game this distinction isn’t going to be terribly important, but for multiplayer games it will be relevant, since it will be the dividing line between ethical and unethical behavior.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to distinguish them, and perhaps it merely depends on the glitch and a sort of common understanding about its relative fairness. To try and explain this distinction a bit, I’ll use an example of a rather old game, Halo 2. Halo 2 had a robust multiplayer, and a few glitches. One fairly well-known glitch was referred to as “BXR.” Through a proper sequence of button presses, it was possible for a player to perform a melee attack and shoot in a more rapid succession than would normally be allowed, by making use of certain actions that would cancel out the animation of other actions. This glitch was generally regarded as a technique that was valid to use, even though it obviously gave players who knew about it a distinct advantage over those who didn’t.

In comparison, another glitch in Halo 2 was referred to as “super bouncing.” Super bouncing made use of particular parts of the game’s geometry to launch a player high into the air, often allowing them to reach parts of a level that would be impossible otherwise. Some players would use this glitch to find vantage points for sniping, or to hide from the opposing team, or to compel the opposing team to quit by annoying them. Super bouncing was widely regarded as cheating if used in a match.

The two different forms can give us a couple simple rules of thumb. The first rule is how much the glitch affects the game, either directly or in its overall flow. The melee glitch might make one player more capable than another at killing, but would not disrupt the overall flow of the match. By comparison, super bouncing could completely upend how the game was played. The second rule is how much of an advantage the glitch grants. While the melee glitch made one player generally better over another, it would not mean that the first player would always kill the other: two otherwise equally skilled players should still be fairly even with one another. However, super bouncing could give a player or team a much more significant advantage, by allowing one team to more fully direct how the game was played. These kinds of rules can help determine to what degree a glitch might be regarded as a mere competitive advantage versus actually cheating.

Multiplayer Cheating

It’s useful to get the easy stuff out of the way. Cheating in multiplayer games is wrong, pure and simple.

There is, of course, an exception to that rule. It is conceivable that players might enter into a game under an agreement that some or all players will have some kind of cheat available to them. Perhaps it’s for the purpose of creating a greater challenge for one player or team, or leveling the playing field. But as long as all players understand and agree to the rules of this game, cheating can be ethically valid.

But normally, the way cheating tends to take place in multiplayer games is that one player has some kind of game mod active that gives them an advantage over other players. Or a team might abuse some kind of glitch that allows them to gain a significant advantage over the opposing team.

Such cheating is obviously unethical because it is inherently unfair. Any competition must operate by an understood set of rules, so that the contest may be a test of skill. Even if one player severely outclasses the other, the contest is still fair in the sense that both players work within the same ruleset. Without that understanding upheld, there can never be any value to the competition itself.

However, many people who cheat in multiplayer games aren’t necessarily looking for such a fair competition. They often are either doing it simply to disrupt other players and upset them, or to make it easier to climb the ranks and show off. In the former case, the cheating simply adds to the unethical nature of the act: to cause displeasure to others for the sake of deriving joy is morally wrong. In the latter case, the cheating is only unethical on its basic level, but the cheater’s victory and ranking are meaningless, the hollowest of hollow victories.

But it’s unlikely that pointing out how it’s unethical to cheat in multiplayer and how any victories achieved through cheating are hollow will ultimately serve any real purpose. If the people who cheated cared about these things, they almost certainly wouldn’t be cheating in the first place. So instead, it is better to move on.

Single-Player Cheating

As the argument goes, the value of playing games is that they impose a challenge upon the player. That challenge is something to be overcome by the player through a combination of determination, repetition, and skill. To struggle with a game is not just normal, but to be expected. But the only value that can come out of this struggle is to overcome it by the player’s own will.

By cheating, whether it is through downloading a mod that makes the game easier in some way, or activating a cheat code that accomplishes the same purpose, the player is robbing himself or herself of this triumph. The victory that is achieved is ephemeral because it is not a real victory. It is merely a phantom that illustrates how the player was simply too lazy to really engage with the game. The player thus robs him/herself of the true experience.

What makes this robbery wrong is its setting aside of self-improvement. It would not be sufficient to respond “I simply want to be lazy,” or “I don’t mind not having the true experience.” To choose to be lazy or to choose to rob oneself of this value is to choose to be worse than one could be. This fact is what gives other players the right to criticize those who choose to cheat. Because “it only affects me” is true, but true in a way that plenty of other choices to make ourselves worse are worthy of criticism.

Note that the underlying premise here is not that another person cheating “ruins the fun for someone else.” It might seem like a logical conclusion to draw, given that the person complaining about cheating is angry about something that does not directly or indirectly affect them. But the basis for that anger is anger at something that is unethical, not at some harm – a harm which, of course, is not being imposed.

The Response

This is, I think, the best argument that can be made regarding the wrongness of cheating in single-player games.

I also think the argument is bad.

The easiest response would be “I’m not hurting anyone by cheating,” but I think this counter is too simplistic, appealing as it may be. Namely, not everything that is ethically wrong can be boiled down to “am I hurting other people?” There are analogous situations where we often think of someone’s own choices about themselves being ethically wrong: we might think, for example, about a person’s choice to remain incredibly ignorant. So it’s true you’re not hurting anyone if you cheat in a single-player game, but that’s not enough.

Instead, it’s better to attack the idea of self-improvement implied by the argument. To what extent does triumph against a particular boss or some other hurdle in a game lead to some genuine change in the player? The idea of self-improvement and the ways of tackling that can make sense with something like education, but do those same mechanisms apply when it comes to playing games? Does cheating genuinely rob the player of something that they might have otherwise attained?

The answer here, though, has to be no. Because what can such a triumph truly mean for the player? It can, of course, provide a sense of satisfaction, and we can potentially say that cheating might diminish or eliminate that satisfaction. But that means we can only say that cheating robs the player of this satisfaction. Which, importantly, does not relate to the goal of self-improvement. At the most, we can hold to the idea that players will be best satisfied with a game if they avoid cheating, but we cannot reach the conclusion that cheating in a single-player game is wrong or must be avoided, or to even shame or criticize a person who does cheat.

Add on to this the fact that overcoming hurdles requires things like skill and time. And not every player is going to be have ready access to these resources. We can, of course, recommend players away from such games that are going to require higher degree of skill and time to complete. But insofar as they want to experience those games for themselves, if they need to resort to cheating, then there is nothing wrong with doing so.

Let’s say, for example, that a particular game is well known for having an interesting story, but also for being very difficult. Should the game’s difficulty be a lock that prevents a player from experiencing the story? No. To claim so would be absurd, as there’s no reason beyond “other players did it the normal way.” Which as an ethical claim is meaningless, since a player cheating cannot diminish a non-cheating player’s experience, nor can it undermine that latter player’s accomplishment.

Compound this even further with the different reasons why people play games in the first place. The argument that people should value the triumph assumes that the only reason (or the primary reason, at least) is to overcome hurdles. That is, the enjoyment of games is necessarily linked to victory over the game. But this enjoyment, common as it may be, is not universal. There are players who are going to enjoy other facets of a game, and may want to be able to relish those other components without being hindered by the game’s difficulty. If that means cheating, there is no reason to suggest that they are playing the game wrong.

The Exception to the Rule

What has been proposed above shows that the argument for claiming it is unethical to cheat in single-player games is nonsense. Moreover, since it is ethically valid to cheat in single-player games, to criticize people for engaging in such cheating is, in itself, unethical, for it is attempting to shame a person for doing something that is not shameful.

However, there is an important exception to this rule.

The argument that cheating in single-player games is perfectly valid relies on the idea that the game is being played solely for the sake of the player. If a player was cheating – even in a single-player game – in order to trick other people into believing that the player was more skilled than they actually were, this sort of trickery would be unethical.

So imagine, for example, that someone was playing a game and recording themselves doing so. They’re doing a let’s play or a stream of some kind. The objective being to try and get viewers and, consequently, popularity and money.

Now if said player was activating cheats or mods and making it known they would be doing so (maybe it’s just to show off what the cheat or mod looks like, maybe it’s to make getting through the game easier), then that cheating is fine. Because the viewer is not being tricked.

But if that player was activating cheats or mods and hiding that fact from viewers, then it would be unethical. Because, presumably, the player would be doing this to make themselves appear more skilled than they truly are (and one potential draw for viewership is skillful playing).

This exception is fairly narrow, though. Cheating in a single-player game that you’re streaming or recording is not wrong on its own. It’s only the hiding of it that can make it wrong.

The Limitations of Cheating

The final problem to discuss is what cheating means for how we talk with other people about games.

Because while cheating does not (necessarily) impact our enjoyment of a game, it does (or can) impact our ability to assess the game.

There are some elements of a game that are not going to be impacted by cheating. Visual or sound design, or the quality of a story, are components that can be judged independently. So if I were to cheat in a game, I can talk about whether the game had good or bad level design, or a good or bad story.

But one way we sometimes talk about games is in terms of their difficulty. Sometimes we might find them too easy, and sometimes we find them too hard. It is definitely possible for games to be too difficult, even absurdly so. It’s possible to overcome these challenges, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that absurd difficulty is any less absurd.

But the problem is that cheating in a single-player game, which is often done because a game is too difficult for the player, leads to the player being unable to genuinely step back and assess to what degree a game is too difficult on its own.

It might seem like merely needing to resort to cheating would be sufficient proof that the game is too difficult. But recall that part of what we argued earlier in defense of cheating is that different players have different skill levels and amounts of time to learn the things necessary to overcome challenges. So if I feel the need to cheat to get through a game, it can only show that the game is too difficult for me. But that doesn’t mean the game is too difficult period.

So while it is possible for a game to be too difficult, any player who wants to make that claim should disclose if they have cheated in that game to complete it, and be ready to explain why their cheating does not essentially invalidate their claim. Because cheating potentially prevents the player from being able to view a game’s difficulty from what we might call an objective perspective.

Of course, what this doesn’t mean is that if you cheat in a game you’re not allowed to have an opinion on it. In fact, it doesn’t even mean that if you cheat in a game because it’s difficult that you’re wrong about the game being too difficult. It only means that if you think the game is too difficult, you need to first step back and really think through your argument. It’s entirely possible that the game is too difficult. But we need a clearer viewpoint to assess that difficulty.

By the same token, attempting to reject a person’s opinion of a game on the basis of “they cheated to get through it” is baseless. The fact that you were able to get through a game without cheating does not mean the game isn’t absurdly difficult. Only that you are sufficiently skilled and/or patient and have the time to put in to beating the game.

Concluding Remarks

To some extent, I don’t imagine much of this essay to be terribly controversial. I would venture that the vast majority of people would agree that cheating in a multiplayer game is wrong and should not be done. And still a majority, but perhaps less than the former group, would agree that cheating in a single-player game is fine.

But even when we are in general agreement, it is still important for us to think more carefully about why we hold the beliefs that we do. Thinking more deeply about these topics is necessary for how we talk to others – and can prevent pointless bickering. And just as necessary is establishing these principles to understand what our beliefs actually mean. Hence the relevance of these exceptions and limitations on the rules laid out. Because we need to be thinking not simply about our broad ideas about cheating, but about all sorts of different possible combinations of scenarios that might lead us to more complicated principles.

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