LIARS CHEATERS AND THIEVES

Why you should break every game you can get your grubby little hands on

One of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken is an old Dark Souls 2 screenshot, of some character in some outfit I liked, with my souls count frozen at 69,420,666. Which isn’t unusual — I’ve made a habit of using memory editors, save editors, or whatever else I can use to mess with games in this way. Often friends, in response to these shenanigans, will ask me things like, “Why do you cheat? Aren’t you ruining the game?” Which is a very difficult question to answer! I guess the short answer would be “yes,” and the long answer “yes, that’s why I’m doing it.”

Testing the upper limits of a no-weapons character with the sex number, the drug number, and the devil number.

To start, you can look at games as a collection of rules and systems. (There is a lot of contention on this topic, but it’s a good framework for this topic) Which items are useful in which scenarios, resource accumulation/scarcity, how quickly money can be acquired, how to interact with a character to make them like you — these are systems, collections of rules that dictate the ways you can engage with the game. And how you play the game is informed by these systems; playing a game is, more or less, working within these rules to achieve a desired effect.

So by extension, cheating in games is “breaking” those rules: you are playing it in a way that it isn’t meant to be played. Whether it’s using some poorly-coded invisible wall to access an area early, or something more overt (like using some 3rd party product or a memory editor to manually change health/money values), it all can be broken down to, functionally, breaking the rules of the game. This is a pretty big deal! Games are rules — at the core they are the art of systems, and to change these systems is to change the game itself!

Perhaps understandably, people often see cheating as a destructive act — you are taking this huge, complex collection of interlocking systems, and pulling the foundations out from under it. What could it do but collapse? The popular image of cheating is one of breaking down carefully constructed systems for a cheap thrill, the thinly-veiled power fantasy of breezing through the game with Ridiculously High Numbers. Isn’t the challenge what makes it fun? Aren’t you missing out on the journey by skipping to the destination? Can a game really be fun without the possibility of failure?

Of course, this is a very limited image of “cheating” as a concept — walkthroughs and other outside information can easily give a player an edge. House rules are very common in just about any tabletop game, and many games encourage fudging dice rolls to prevent the party’s failure. The necessity of a “failure state” in and of itself is already a contentious issue in many game circles (what even constitutes a failure in the first place, after all?). We’re at a very interesting point in gaming’s development as an art form, where we are really digging deep into what makes a game and what doesn’t. We’re constantly redefining the preconceived notions around games and their systems — and the discussion around games has become progressively more nuanced as a result! And in the same way, we need a more nuanced look at the mechanisms and implications around engaging with games in subversive ways.

Console commands, also known as ye olde cheats, in Fallout: New Vegas

For example: one of the big misconceptions around cheating is it presumes cheating as something complete and all-encompassing. Cheating invokes an image of ridiculously powerful gear, impossibly high stats, infinite money, complete invulnerability — things massive in scope, that change the game to the point of being completely unrecognizable. Just think of the term “game-breaking!” It’s rooted in an image of a game’s systems being destroyed, figuratively or literally.

However, this doesn’t account for the fact that that, even in its most dramatic instances, cheating would still have you play by most of the game’s rules. Giving yourself the strongest weapons doesn’t necessarily mean you no longer engage with the combat systems, even if they are made much easier. Skipping combat doesn’t mean you don’t engage with the navigation systems, or narrative systems, or whatever else a game might have. If people are cheating in a game, clearly they still want to play it! If they wanted to skip everything, why are they playing at all? Often it comes down to just saving time — I could spend a lot of time getting myself some gimmicky PVP build in Bloodborne, or I could just give themselves all the resources I need and save myself a couple hours. Different methods, same result.

But people still get upset at this! It’s talked about as if the player in question didn’t “earn” those resources. Cheating is seen as a personal failure — if a player cheats on a game, it just means they weren’t good enough to play by the rules and still win. You’ll hear all sorts of discussion about the way a game is “meant” to be played. But this sort of analysis is unfair to players! Games are so often dismissive or unaccommodating, and the culture that has formed around it equally so — it prides itself on games that encourage huge time commitments, are prohibitively difficult, or pile on a ridiculous number of things to attend to. It’s a culture that’s fueled by a desire to feel accomplished, by winning out against a stacked deck. In essence: many games pride themselves on their inaccessibility! Games are so often dismissive or unaccommodating, and the culture that has formed around it equally so. But what obligation does anyone have to play by all the rules? Maybe the way the game is “meant” to be played is poorly thought out, or even unfair to the player. (The exception to this, arguably, are competitive games such as Counterstrike — these games are rooted in a number of people with access to a more-or-less symmetric set of tools, unlike single-player games which are inherently asymmetric.)

In other words, this attitude (and the popular image of cheating as a whole!) presumes an “ideal game” of sorts. It sees the game in question as complex and intentional, with all of its systems exactly where they should be, without anything extraneous or broken. Anything contrary to this is often chalked up to a lack of resources, or a team being spread too thin. But the reality of game design is that many games are often intentionally made in bad faith — it’s almost standard practice at this point for high budget games to add in systems to artificially extend playtime using repetition, or to add tedium as a way to encourage microtransactions. These sorts of things are not the fault of a low budget — these unfair systems are baked into the core of the game itself. But even this argument presumes an ideal state for game systems — that some given system can be “correct.”

Binding of Isaac can be a little overstimulating when you give yourself a bunch of power-ups.

In reality, no one can decide, objectively, what makes a system “work” in some absolute way. In other words: personal, individual factors affect a person’s capability to enjoy a game. Some people may have the time and energy to micromanage the nuances of Fallout 4’s encumbrance system, but others may simply have too little time on their hands, or get bored too easily to properly enjoy the game. Some people get anxious playing games with lots of sidequests like Dragon Age, or don’t have the twitch reflexes for Dark Souls, or any number of potential individual stressors. (I mentioned repetition specifically because it’s something I have a hard time dealing with– it makes me antsy and restless!) Ultimately, it’s impossible to make a game accessible to everyone. And this is why cheating can be such a useful tool — it allows people to selectively circumvent game systems, and allow people to enjoy games that would otherwise be inaccessible or unenjoyable!

So, if we return to the question of “why cheat:” I think cheating is, at its core, changing a game. Giving yourself infinite money doesn’t destroy the game; it simply lets you circumvent most of the systems involved with accruing money/resources. It doesn’t destroy the game, or make it unrecognizable. We cheat because we want one part of playing a game, but not another. Something I almost always start with is giving myself infinite currency — this actually has a pretty minor! Most games are balanced around having an effectively limitless supply of money (from grindable encounters or other repeatable actions), basing shop inventory on the player’s story progress. Thus, the game becomes less about resource management, and equipment becomes more strictly based on game progression. Nothing that drastic changes! We still mostly play within the rules of the game — we just change them to best suit our own desired experience. If you want to enjoy the story of a game without wasting time on its combat, or make a cute house in Animal Crossing without grinding for tons of bells, or see what happens at the end of Nuclear Throne without playing again and again, then cheating is the logical conclusion — why bother engaging with those systems? What obligation do you have to play by all of the game’s rules? Not to mention the possibility of cheating being enjoyable in and of itself — it can allow the player to explore the logical conclusions of game systems, or see what happens in otherwise impossible scenarios. You can give yourself the stats to defeat that scripted encounter, or see how the game plays at the limits of character progression. Cheating, as a tool, can allow a player to explore the limits of a game in ways that would be time-consuming or impossible to do legitimately!

Which is the crux of the argument here: cheating, through selective modification of a game’s systems, can actually be a constructive act. It can allow more people to enjoy a game, and in this way become more accessible to more people. Of course, it’s not the same kind of accessibility as colorblind-friendly color schemes/UI, which are often necessary to people being able to play the game at all. But accessibility is about comfort, and allowing yourself to break certain rules can absolutely make a game much more comfortable. For people who are stressed out or upset by certain game systems, having the tools to avoid them can make games much easier to enjoy! 
In this way, cheating can be considered a form of reclamation, taking the power away from the game (and as a result, the culture around it) and giving it back to the player. It’s a very effective tool of change, something that can salvage or enhance games that would otherwise be inaccessible or uncomfortable. Which, for some people, is a lot! There are so many games I’d have never completed without cheating, either because it was too difficult to stay focused or I simply didn’t have the time to dedicate to it. The ultimate point here is that games can be exceptionally demanding, but no one actually has to play by its rules. If a game is too difficult, or too obtuse, or too complex, you can just go around it! Tailor the games so they suit you, not the other way around.

This is what makes cheating such a potent tool: it can create experiences with games that are more personal and enjoyable. Beneath the big numbers and silliness lies the capability to take games from their context, and change them into something more accepting. At the end of the day, no one has any obligation to a game — there’s absolutely no reason not to break them open, take what we want, and leave the rest behind.

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