Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #177:

How to Cheat at Online Games, Part Two

by Shannon Appelcline

A year and a half ago I wrote an article called How to Cheat at Online Games (TT&T #145). The point, of course, was to discuss potential holes that players will try to punch in your game, and in the process I mentioned seven big-ticket cheating items: collusion, collusion out-of-band, making extra characters, avoiding consequences, scripting, exploiting bugs, and social engineering. However this Thanksgiving weekend I saw something that helped me clarify my thoughts about cheating and that helped me to recognize the areas where cheating isn't as simple as s seven-point list.

As long-time readers of this column may know, I watch reality TV game shows, among them Survivor (see TT&T #74) and Big Brother (see TT&T #145). As a game designer I find them fascinating, because they take simple game design concepts and show them large, thus making any great features and any great flaws of the systems very, very clear. So this Thanksgiving holiday I sat down to a new reality TV game show, one which I'd never seen before: The Amazing Race. And, as usual, this new game show provided me with new thoughts about our own genre of play.

The Cheating Guidos

There's just one season of The Amazing Race out on DVD right now, and that's season one. In season one there's one notable team of players, "Team Guido", named after their demonic-looking dog. They're notable because in the game they're capable and they're smart ... and they cheat.

Or at least that's what of their competition says.

Most of the Guidos' "cheating" amounted to trying to trick the other players. You could use my earlier term of "social engineering" to describe what they do. But unlike what I outlined in my previous article, this was directed at the other players not the gaming staff.

One notable incident occurred at a train station in France. The Guidos helped other teams to get tickets, and then directed them toward a train, but at the last moment spun around and ran for a different train themselves. The other teams never forgot that. They'd already thought the Guidos were cheats because of similar social incidents in the past, but this confirmed it for them.

A much more blatant incident occurred in an airport in Tunisia. The Guidos had a later flight than some of the other teams and they tried to make their opponents miss their earlier flight by blocking the security line when the other teams were already running late. The Guidos fumbled around, pretended to lose their ID, and then physically blocked the other teams after they were through security.

More Shows, More Examples

A similar incident that had people calling foul occurred this last week in the current season of The Apprentice. Both teams decided that they needed bullhorns, to try and help publicize a product throughout New York. The bullhorns were somewhat hard to come by, but one team managed to get Radio Shack to collect all the bullhorns their stores had in the city to one store, so that they could come by and purchase them. The other team, however, chanced upon this stash of bullhorns, and ducked into the Radio Shack pretending to be the first team and purchased everything ahead of them.

When he learned about this incident later on, Donald Trump was very pleased with the thieving cheaters. Which brings up the question, "What is cheating?" Trump clearly didn't think the bullhorn-thieves were cheating because he actually lauded them. Likewise, the producers of The Amazing Race didn't think the Guidos were cheating because they weren't penalized for any of the incidents I mentioned.

If you go back to the granddaddy of reality TV gameshows, Survivor, the whole question becomes even more puzzling. In the first season of that show Richard Hatch started creating alliances to assure himself of victory in the votes. The opposing team, Pagong, actually thought that such alliances were cheating. Of course they were knocked out of the game so quickly and ruthlessly by the dominant alliance that now a smaller team being kicked out by a larger team is called a "Pagonging". And ever since anyone who ever had a chance of winning at Survivor has been in an alliance.

The Definition of Cheating

This all leads me to a basic precept: players and game administrators will perceive cheating differently.

For most players, the definition of cheating probably has to do with unfairness: if someone takes an unfair advantage in the game, they're cheating. Many players also see cheating as soon as something unexpected occurring. If they didn't foresee some opportunity themselves, then it feels to them like it shouldn't be allowed.

Conversely most administartors measure cheating based upon veracity of gameplay to the gameworld: if someone breaks game reality, they're cheating. Most of the "cheating" examples that I discussed in my previous article break the most basic precepts of game reality: that one player plays one character in a game, and that he acts totally within that game as if it were reality, rather than reality allowing for an entire computer network to be built around that game. Collusion, extra characters, consequence avoidance, and scripting all let greater reality seep into game reality, and further allow players to exploit the difference between the two in an unintended fashion.

This is in marked contrast to the reality TV examples I described. Player hinderance, player alliance, and resource theft all exist totally within the gameworlds. In some of their commentary the producers of The Amazing Race said they were surprised by the Guidos' actions, but they never did anything about them. Of course any serious gameplayer would never have considered the Guidos' actions unfair because they're a part of almost any game reality you might be familiar with, as hindering, allying, and stealing are the intended hearts of many games, from Axis & Allies to Monopoly.

The problem was player expectations, and if I want to offer one suggestion on player-perceived cheating it's this, set player expectations. If players have a better idea of what's allowed in your game, then they'll have a more realistic definition of "fair", and they won't get mad when a game's played well.

Defining Real Cheating

The answer to solving cheating as defined by administrators isn't quite as simple, because keeping in tune with a "game reality" is pretty darned vague. A better definition for what constitutes this sort of cheating is probably, anything that breaks the rules or spirit of the game, as laid out by the game administrators. This then requires a good description of the rules and spirit of your game, but hopefully you already have a start in your terms of service (see TT&T #168).

The important thing to remember is that every game is different. For example multiple characters are against the rules in most of our games, but not Meridian 59, where the culture has developed differently.

You'll also note that I said "rules or spirit", and that's important.

If there's something that I've learned from twenty plus years of gaming, it's that every tenth gamer is a rules lawyer. They'll take your Terms and your rules and do the best to twist and warp them, explaining how their personal attacks weren't exactly personal attacks as you defined them, and how their stealing of resources from other players wasn't exactly resource theft as you define it.

The object of taking people to task over their actions is ultimately to make your game more enjoyable for the vast majority of players and letting people get away with bad behavior because they're dancing along the edges of your ruleset won't accomplish that. So make sure "cheaters" (and other abusers) know that you'll be judging them by the character of their actions, not by the definition of the word "is".


I've rambled a bit more than usual this time around, so I'd like to reiterate a few points:

  • Players will define cheating differently that your staff will. Understand that difference. You want to make your players happy, but at the same time their definitions of cheating may not be useful at all for the game you're trying to create.
  • You can ultimately make players happier by explicitly defining which "unfair" practices are totally valid.
  • Having your own, staff definition of cheating is tricky too, because every game is different. Define it as clearly as you can, so that players know what's allowed.
  • Understand that most real cheating involves breaking through the facde of a game.
  • Judge actions based on the spirit of the actions, not the absolute letter, because it's the spirit that's ultimately going to make your game fun or not fun at all.

[ <— #176: Online Games & The Law: More Latest Cases | #178: Collective Choice: An Introduction —> ]