Cheating in games is a contentious topic for whatever reason. But not always. It’s just one of those weird things where you don’t know who is going to care and who is going to be laid back about it. There was a time, though, where cheat codes were social currency and people would trade both cheats and rumors alike around the playground. Then access to this very site opened up a world of guides and cheats to a larger audience. But what is cheating and when does it matter?
I’ve heard multiple arguments about whether or not a strategy guide constitutes cheating. In fact, I was once bullied for using one and then I turned right around and mocked others for using one. But the thing about strategy guides is, more often than not, they’re not cheating. Of course, context is going to matter. If you’re using a strategy guide for a game like Mega Man X, I would argue that you’re not cheating. The game is, largely, about navigating problems and reflexes. The biggest benefit to a guide is that it helps you find items and provides the ideal order to encounter bosses. In that way, it feels more like a recipe book. Instead of investing time into learning the ins and outs of the game, you use a reference. The same could even be said about Dark Souls, where a guide can help you with builds and such. If a guide for Dark Souls were cheating, then a Dark Souls subreddit might also be considered cheating. But how about a strategy guide for a puzzle game? One that provides all the answers. Now that is most certainly cheating, in the same sense that copy someone else’s test answers is cheating. It flagrantly undermines the spirit of the experience. But it’s also harmless.
Now, the most obvious forms of cheating are cheat codes, which is cheating by their very definition, and hacking. Both of these have rich histories and are often applied in different ways. Cheat codes tend to be put there by developers, either for consumers or for debug modes. Hacking, which could include things like the Game Genie or Action Replay, usually allow for things outside of the developer’s intent. How these two forms of cheating are wielded are worth considering.
Cheat codes have a myriad of effects. Putting one in secretly for a local game against a friend is probably bad form, but also probably just a goof between friends. Cheat codes tend to have a local effect rather that don’t reach across the world through the internet. Some of them even enhance games. Some make games more difficult. Some make them comical. Some give avatars huge heads. One code, in particular, stands out to me because it both makes the game easier and also exponentially more enjoyable. In Diddy Kong Racing for the Nintendo 64, players can input the code JOINTVENTURE which unlocks an otherwise inaccessible co-operative story mode.
Hacking and modding can go multiple ways, but have more potential to do harm. Because they can often be implemented online, they can utterly destroy the experience of other players. “Bots,” in MMORPGs that automatically claim rare resources, robbing players of opportunity, are particularly sinister and there was an entire economy set up around selling in-game currency and items for out of game money. Some hacks make characters incredibly strong, allowing the player to hunt down other players which I guess gives them a power trip or something? It’s not a mentality I totally understand. Some hacks are just trolling. Then there are the ones that just allow a player to have more control over their experience of a game and whatever form that takes is probably fine. I’d even argue that it’s probably nobody’s business how people game alone.
Then there are the forms of cheating that are more a matter of social contract. Take local shooters, even though they aren’t common anymore. In games like Halo 2 or GoldenEye 007, players shared a screen. It was hard not to see what the other players were doing in your peripheral vision but if you agreed to “no screen cheating,” then it was your duty to try your best. Of course, nobody could really prove anything, even when it was pretty obvious. If, however, there wasn’t a rule against “screen cheating,” then looking at someone else’s screen becomes part of the strategy. In all honesty, “screen cheating” arguments are some of the most heated discussions I’ve seen on the topic in all my. Life. Well, except that infamous “you cheated not only the game, but yourself” which may have been a bit tongue-in-cheek, but did give rise to a pretty big debate over how people experience particularly difficult games.
In the end, it’s all pretty simple. You probably know what’s cheating and what’s not. Some people will be passive aggressive or maintain some sort of plausible deniability but I really believe that a great majority of people know when they are taking actions that lack integrity. Now, I’m not saying cheating itself lacks integrity. But when you use it at the expense of another, you lack integrity. When you use it to enhance your own solo gaming experience, that’s fine. If you defy the spirit of the game, be honest with yourself. Don’t lie to people about whether or not you beat a game legitimately because lying is cruel, but also you shouldn’t feel the need to lie in the first place because video games are meant to be fun. In the grand scheme of things, beating games isn’t all that important.