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I Love (Game) Genie

January 26, 2009

gamegenie_header1I recently came across a news story concerning a financial-economic coup in EVE Online. Eurogamer posted an article about player Xabier embezzling $80 billion of ISK—the game’s currency—and then ran off with his new found “wealth.” Immediately I noticed a poster in the comments reply, “Isn’t this kind of this not illegal, but somewhat encouraged in EVE Online?” May question to poster is, isn’t this sort of behavior encouraged throughout the games industry on the videogame medium in general? And by behavior I am not referring to gold farming or theft, but rather the act of cheating.

There is a great feature article in the September 2007 issue of the now defunct Games for Windows Magazine where writer Ed Halter discusses the book by Mia Consalvo called Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames. I won’t go into the text but it is an interest read albeit does not discuss the mechanics and specifics of cheating in videogames but rather an overall social angle of study. But cheating is a prominent aspect in videogame culture. I bet you anytime you pre-order a game from Gamestop the clerk does not encourage you to purchase the walkthrough guide on release day. Even back in the early 8-bit era games included walkthrough guides with purchase to market their games.

GFW Sept 2007 Issue.

Joshua Ellingson's artwork for the feature article: GFW Sept 2007 Issue.

Cheating is a practice that was almost encouraged by game developers often putting in codes or secrets for the player as Easter Eggs. There was a time that I would always attempt to enter the Konami code in a game just to see if it works. The modding community for the PC is an evolution of designers opening up their game to players to tinker around with and exploit. I don’t remember a time when it was not expected to have console command on a PC game, especially a shooter. A major proportion of the speed running community often uses TAS or tool-assisted videos to promote the community to the public. The act of cheating has always been encouraged while at the same time frowned upon.

It goes back to the old argument over who has control of the videogame, the designer or the user? Looking at one of last year’s biggest games was Grand Theft Auto 4 where many of codes such as god mode were left out of the game. Instead, the developer Rockstar North took the helm and actively controlled the majority of the game experience. Though GTA4 is still a sandbox game, much of the appeal in being an invulnerable killing machine was taken away. Imagine if Guitar Hero: World Tour had a cheat to instantly unlock all of the songs? Would that make the game better or feel like a cheap way of playing the game? Looking at many videogames today, it is very rare to see developers purposefully integrate cheat codes and other forms of exploit purposefully for the gamer to play around with these days. The notion of cheating has become a taboo subject between the gamer and the developers.

Cheat codes in videogames is almost treated like the unwanted child that developers these days hide in the attic. But it is a commonly used and historically accepted practice in the medium. Remember the Nintendo hotlines where players could call in for help or assistance? Today these individuals have taken the form of many walkthrough sites: IGN walkthroughs, Wikicheats, GameFAQs, etc. Players consistently state the need to have fun in a game and whenever they hit a roadblock more or less they will go online for help. Games today such as Tomb Raider Underworld or Telltale adventure games provide hint systems for stuck players. Even the guide arrow in Bioshock or the cookie crumb trailer in Fable 2 can be considered a developer integrating elements of walkthroughs and game cheating for the convenience of the player.

Nintendo has recently patented its own hint system for future games—though I doubt this will ever be integrated as common practice if at all. But many gamers have questioned whether the dumbing down of the experience is hurting gaming traditions, the community and even the medium itself. But often we forget how the act of cheating is promoted regularly to us and how we as a community have embraced certain practiced while dissenting on others. It becomes an almost schizophrenic love-hate relationship between the designer and player. Both want different facets of cheating but can’t agree on which very similar to the argument on who ultimately controls the experience of the game.

Nintendo introduces the cheat-box alongside its hint-box.

Nintendo introduces the cheat-box alongside its hint-box.

Personally, I do not wish to see “cheating” become phased out of vidoegames. It is an integral part of the medium not only with historical significance, but gaming cultural significance. But I am referring more towards the personal experience towards cheating rather than the multiplayer experience. As games become more polished and legitimized in popular culture designers reach a crossroad where games rely more intertext relies more on narrative and visual nods as easter eggs rather than intercode where cheating can be exploited to unveil these eater eggs. The old saying goes that cheaters never prosper, but that does not mean we can have fun while doing it.

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