Players disagree about what constitutes cheating. In her book, Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, Mia Consalvo defines cheating as an action that “breaks the magic circle,” meaning players leave the imaginary world to reach outside for answers. This “magic circle” concept originated in Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens, in which he explains how play takes place in a closed-off area, separated either physically or mentally from the rest of the world. Consalvo further defines cheating as an action that gives an unfair advantage to the cheater.
Some hardcore, purist players, Consalvo says, claim beating the game on anything other than merit constitutes cheating. It takes away from the personal joy and satisfaction of solving a difficult puzzle. Such players refuse to read any guides, consult any websites, or learn any special codes. On rare occasions, they may ask a friend for advice, but only if the alternative means quitting the game out of frustration.
Other players maintain more lax views and refer to strategy guides. The collection of more than one thousand game strategy guides in ICHEG’s archives at The Strong provide detailed plot walkthroughs, charts with statistics on weapons and armor, and lists of side quests and rewards. Many early game creators, such as Infocom, published “hint books” that offered tips and tricks on how to get past difficult areas. Some, like the InvisiClues book for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, were interactive. Hints remained invisible until a player highlighted the guide with a special marker. Because game publishers approve guides as official merchandise, some gamers believe using a publication is not cheating.
With the advent of the Internet, sites such as GameFAQs.com allow players to submit their own hints, tricks, and walkthroughs, many of which are far more detailed than the official guides. These sites also often include cheat codes that instruct players to press a string of buttons in rapid succession to gain advantages like full health or unlimited lives. The most infamous of these, the Konami Code, first appeared in 1986, when developer Kazuhisa Hashimoto created a Nintendo port of the arcade shooter Gradius. To ease testing, he programmed a code that gave him instant access to all power-ups granted throughout the game. Kazuhisa forgot to remove this code upon publication, and a group of players discovered it. The code appeared in subsequent games and became especially popular in Contra, where players could submit the code on the title screen and gain 30 lives.
A much more invasive form of cheating involves manipulating a game at the technological level. Third-party accessories such as Game Sharks and Game Genies temporarily alter a game to the player’s advantage, providing full access to weapons, access to an endless number of lives, and by opening all levels. Another accessory called a mod chip can be permanently attached to a console and allow gamers to play pirated, home-brewed, and foreign games. Mod chips are illegal in many countries, and installing one violates the console’s warranty.
Finally, some gamers believe cheating only occurs in multi-player games. Competing against a computer or console doesn’t count. Players must instead gain advantage over one another through underhanded means. Popular examples include botting, or programming a script to play the game when the gamer isn’t physically present; installing third-party software to allow a character to run faster or claim monsters easier; and hacking into another player’s account to steal their gear and money. To combat these issues, online games either employ Game Masters or run automated programs to detect illegal activity and ban cheaters.
With such varied definitions of cheating, it’s easy to understand why players argue over whether or not their actions should be considered wrong. It’s clear, however, that shattering the “magic circle” in any form changes the gaming experience by linking the game’s fantasy world to our own. How do you define cheating in video games? What outside assistance, if any, do you seek when stuck?