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Feb 18, 2004



I guess this is the essence of Mia's project, but for me, the interesting threshold question is: what does it mean to "cheat"? According to this, it means "To violate rules deliberately" What are the rules of computer games and how are we aware of those rules? Jane McGonigal's work on "pervasive games" suggests that in some games, there are no rules.

I was looking at Chaim Gingold's master's thesis last night, and one concept that grabbed me was "syntonicity." We structure our interactions with game software in patterns that map our expectations of interactions outside of the gamespace.

I think the most interesting thing about cheating is identifying the harm. In the solo game, I think we can all stipulate there is no harm. (Can we stipulate that?) In group games, however, cheating is socially transgressive. As far as that goes, Anne-Marie Schleiner's work would seem relevant here, because it demonstrates social transgression via code-breaking as a political statement.

Re the ethics of researcher cheating vis-a-vis the hoi polloi of gamer cheaters... Hmm... I don't know.... Is the work of game researchers significantly ub3r from an ethical perspective? :-)


Taxonomies and analysis of non-normative play are quite the rage these days. Everyone should check out TL’s recent Power Gamers paper. Salen and Zimmerman (Rules of Play) have a fascinating alternative to Bartle-types, which goes as follows:

First of they use three axis: Degree of lusory attitude / Relationship to rule / Interest in winning

Using these they define 5 main player types, which can be sketched :

  • Standard Player
  • Dedicated Player: intense / intense / intense
  • Unsportsmanlike Player: like dedicated or cheat / obey some / intense
  • Cheat: pretends / breaks / intense
  • Spoil-Sport: none / none / none



That taxonomy would make a game critic a spoilsport, I'm afraid. Too bad for critics. Note that one need not worry about such things when dealing with narratives.

TL, I think your power-gamers paper is kind of unclear as to exactly where the average power-gamer stands in relation to rules/cheating. You suggest they are percieved as cheating more often, but I'm not sure they're really cheating.

Instead, they just seem to "read" the game instrumentally in terms of objectives and efficiency. To some extent, they're actually more rule-abiding (as you describe them) than the non-PGamers.


You know, the spoilsport status of the research IS relevant to how socially transgressive the cheating is in a multi-player game. The Salen/Zimmerman taxonomy might add something significant...

Analogically, a cheater in a sport, e.g., someone throwing spitballs or using performance-enhancing drugs, annoys fellow players because of the cheater's motivation to win and desire to conceal the rules violations that facilitated the victory.

The researcher's spoilsport isn't designed to dupe the players. The "cheating" (if you can call it that) is more like the anthropologist that just shows up on the basketball court with a clipboard. She violates the rules and breaks the gamespace, certainly, but there's really no scienter in it -- she's just alien to the enterprise of the game.


Yikes, could someone define 'cheating' here? Does it mean violating the TOS? Or does it mean violating some player-established norms of game-play. If the latter, then this will vary widely with the meta-games that are deployed within the game. In certain circumstances the mere act of reflecting on gameplay could be cheating (you aren't fully participating in the fantasy). Seriously, its hard to imagine any remotely interesting research project that didn't involve "cheating" on some level. As for violating the TOS, there is are a lot of meta-games that you can't even witness without using software patches that violate the TOS, and there are objects you could never even get a look at if you didn't buy them on ebay.


Not sure if I made it clear enough in the original post but I completely agree that a large part of what is at stake here is what exactly cheating is and how particular communities define that category. Peter hits the truly thorny part exactly. Violating TOS (or even formal rules) is just one way of talking about it and my own predisposition is to be curious about everything around those markers - how actual people in practice think about what is or is not cheating and how cultures/activities within games develop uniquely as a response. As for the PGers and cheating, I totally agree with you Greg that that group of players often has an attention to the structure of the system that other players don't (it's interesting to think about them as more "law abiding" in some way, I'll have to mull that over). What I found striking was the ways the activities of PGers are often seen by more casual players however as bordering on cheating, or at the very least acting against the spirit of the game. (Not to mention the players who rationalize the use of things like ShowEQ as a way of leveling the playing field when they feel they simply cannot compete fairly against PGers/uber-guilds.) In that piece I was more trying to point out the ways activities can have vastly different meanings to players. I'll definitely go through it though when I revise and try and clarify some of those issues.


TL -- you actually did make it clear enough. Sorry that my post doesn't seem to reflect that -- I actually re-read your post after commenting and saw that what I said was a bit out of synch.

The "spirit of the game" issue is a quasi-political issue, isn't it? SOE could attempt to impose some particular "spirit." Arguably it does. But I doubt most players care much about it. MMORPGs don't have a well-defined rulebook (like hockey or football), thus the perceptions of the "spirit of the game" must be arrived at by the players independently.

So if the PGrs think they've got the right reading and the non-PGrs think they don't, then you've got two factions (perhaps two "interpretive commnunities," if you buy that idea) and who decides which set of practices is cheating and which is not? Is it majority rule?

Re cheating and TOS/EULAs, you could conflate the two rhetorically, but as a matter of legal theory, breach of contract is really not the same as cheating. Contract generally occurs between two parties who enter an agreement. As far as I can understand "cheating," it seems to occur when an actor violates broader social rules or practices.

In some case, breach of contract can be efficient, meaning that society will be better off due to the breach. I don't think we'd ever say that about cheating, which is generally understood as fraudulent behavior which does not benefit society.


I've noticed in my interviews with just general players that cheating is seen as an *ethical* thing, rather than a legal/illegal activity. And everyone has their own version of what constitutes cheating. Most agree on 'gaining an unfair advantage' but then when we start talking about actual practices, a range of what is cheating appears- some player see cheating as extending to 'asking a friend for a hint.'

Here's a question: would you ever knowingly cheat in a multiplayer game just to see what other players would do? Would this be akin to those shady social science experiments of the past? It would produce a REALLY interesting paper though (if you could live with yourself).


Mia, I think what you describe would be considered "griefing" and not cheating.

Although it could be cheating, it's really about the interest the perp has in the reaction of others that defines a grief.

IMHO of course.



I tried to post this earlier in the thread, but typepad on whatever choked on me.

Rogue servers? No way is this cheating. This is something for the business people to figure out. Players should not be punished for it.

In my opinion, you can't take a design defect or shoddy programming and call exploitation of this cheating. Software code can and must be perfect. Object duplication and faulty AI are bugs that should be fixed. Griefing and tweaking, on the other hand, those things are cheating.

I don't think we'll see tweaking controlled as long as developers (or players, pick one) think that all goals should be attainable by all players. This mindset makes the rare and powerful items too common, and it ulitmately throws a wrench in game balance.

As for griefing... this may be an issue of money. You need to have in game enforcement. If you take a look at a game such as DragonRealms, you can see that griefers can be handled effectively. Without enforcement on the part of the admins, anti-griefer talk just feeds the fire.


So then a researcher could be a cheating griefer. :) Although my sense of griefing was as you say, the interest the griefer has in causing the reaction, and gaining pleasure from getting attention/response/etc. If the researcher is doing it as a test of responses, would they then still be griefing? Or conducting an ethically suspect experiment? Just more to chew on I guess.


Mia> "would you ever knowingly cheat in a multiplayer game just to see what other players would do?"

So you're positing the researcher breaks the established game rules in order to ascertain the reactions of those playing the games to the researcher's violation of the rules? If I were a player subject to that experiment, I think I wouldn't feel it was griefing per se... I'd feel it was more like one of those silly TV shows, like The Jamie Kennedy Experiment.

Jamie appears in a wide variety of disguises, getting his "marks" involved in an equally wide variety of bizarre predicaments. When a joke has run its course, Jamie delivers the show's immortal tag line: YOU'VE BEEN X-ED!

I don't think people feel cheated by that kind of situation, but they certainly feel played. I guess that's more or less how people on LegendMUD felt about Karyn.


Mia's got a new post looking for information about the frequency of paid subscription sites offering MMORPG cheating info. Of course there are a ton of important walk-through and information sites out there for the popular VWs -- they're practically required to play many of the games. And I've seen lots of "how to" power-leveling guides for sale. But this is the first subscription site I've seen offering access to MMORPG "cheats." Anyone seen this type of site before? Comments should be posted over at Memory Card.


Maybe this comes down to intention and outcome i.e. research ethics generally.

The ‘Jamie’ show – a US version of the UK show ‘Beadles About’, and all a derivative of Candid Camera I think has the intention of duping for humours entertainment (allegedly) and a set of outcomes including entertainment of the masses, profit for the performers etc. I think also that the members of the public / celebs that appear in these shows have to sign consent forms before things are aired on TV which puts a slightly different spin on the public performance part of it (use of CCTV / police footage being similar but moot).

There are also the cases of experimentation on animals and clinical trials of drugs, in both cases the intention is one of improvement of health the outcomes include actual or possible suffering and experimental data plus the benefits that may accrue from that.

I think that many forms of act that fall under a wide interpretation of cheating e.g. purchasing characters / virtual items, would be acceptable. However, griefing (which here I take as intentionally causing emotional stress through in-game acts) I think would be problematic (and I’m not sure you could ask for volunteers as would the griefing then be real?).

Would griefing it get through an IRB I wonder?

I suppose one might question the value whole point of researching VWs – it’s the possible social outcome of such research worth any distress it might cause?



Interesting thread - nice to see Mia and T.L. work on these issues (with a lot of help, of course)!
From my perspective, some of the difficulties here could be fairly quickly cleared up by separating out at least three sorts of (more or less) standard ethical frameworks.
1) deontological: what is right / ethically legitimate is determined by attending to basic rights (especially those spelled out in Human Subjects Protections protocols - i.e., anonymity, confidentiality, minimization of harm, etc.) - as well as expectations, tacit and/or explicit agreements, social/legal contracts, etc.
2) utilitarian: in quick and dirty form - the greatest good for the greatest number. (Individual rights and expectations tend to get trampled on, however.)
3) virtue ethics: what do I do - what actions, choices, habits, practices do I undertake (including such basic ethical injunctions as the Golden Rule, which is pretty nearly universal in world ethical and religious traditions)- in order to become an excellent human / humane (Confucian version) being? Obviously, here much turns on our conceptions of being human - but there are general agreements on fulfillment of important potentials (capacity for rational free choice, compassion towards others, talents that benefit self and others, etc.) as part of human projects (in the existentialist sense, for example, in which we create who we become through our choices).
As a start -
1. Deontological: some of the questions and comments are directed to the ethical requirements that follow from one's role as a researcher - including (a) what are the ethical rules and obligations of my particular discipline and methodology (e.g., the anthropologist with the clipboard at the ball game) - and/or of the university and/or national oversight committees (the requirements for ethical human research, including Human Subjects Protections protocols) - and/or the legal requirements of the country / ies in which the researcher(s) and/or the subjects reside (_very_ messy!).
(b) what is referred to here as "the spirit of the game" might also set up deontological guidelines - i.e., the violation of which is cheating - because violating these is to violate the _expectations_ of participants.
"Griefing" (defined as intentional causing of emotional distress) would certainly raise eyebrows among IRB members (violation of primary injunction to avoid / minimize harm) - but a researcher might plausibly argue in response that such behavior is part of the rules of play / expectations for a particular game, and thus represents no serious ethical violation. (That would be an interesting debate!)
2. Utilitarian. Researchers who would argue that cheating (however defined) is justified because it will provide, for example, important knowledge that would benefit society at large (whatever cost in suffering and/or violation of rights to specific individuals) are taking a utilitarian standpoint.
It is frequently helpful to notice that the debate between those finding cheating under such circumstances justified and those who don't is oftentimes more fundamentally a debate between these underlying ethical frameworks. In my experience, recognizing this helps clarify and move towards resolution.
Cultural note: U.S. and U.K.-based researchers and ethical guidelines tend to emphasize more utilitarian approaches - while E.U. and Scandinavian researchers and ethical guidelines emphasize more deontological approaches.
3. Virtue ethics. A strong virtue ethics position would argue against cheating (once defined with reasonable clarity), whatever larger benefits either within the game space or researchers community. Whatever the harms / benefits for others - cheating amounts to a series of choice, actions, and, eventually habits, that make one less fully human / humane than one can be.
O.k. - too long for a blog, I realize, but I hope these initial comments might be helpful. I also hope Mia, T.L., and Ren will build a paper on this for AoIR 5.0!
Charles Ess


Charles-- thanks for the great post. I can see traces of each position in various players that I've talked to, and also in the approaches of various researchers (games researchers and media researchers generally). It helps me understand how each person approaches the problem, but how then would you reconcile a multi-player game where various individuals are coming from different positions? Some games have different servers for people wishing to engage in activities that others consider wrong/unethical (Pk-ing) but not all games do, and some players (those darn griefers) seem to have the most fun poking at people with different standards for 'fun' play. I'm not disagreeing at all- just wondering where to go from here with this great stuff.


Mia >Some games have different servers for people wishing to engage in activities that others consider wrong/unethical

Interesting idea – split architecture by normative moral code: the deontological shard etc.

>I'm not disagreeing at all- just wondering where to go from here with this great stuff.

Where I’m going (trying to go) is taking this kind of approach (I think its necessary in serious ethical analysis to baseline thing in each of the normative traditions else its very easy to form arguments / counter arguments that are philosophically tangential hence under analysis would just lead to a meta-ethical dead end) but then adding ideas about how role and context may or may not change the moral status of acts i.e. cheating is a thing that only has meaning within a particular community of practice, hence to ethically evaluated it you need both to understand how value is constructed in that community and in relation to global ethical norms.


This question seems to me to be a lot of faux-ethical nailbiting that has more to do with making the study of games more resemble real world ethnography with a code of conduct and all that crap. But this is a game folks, an activity which by definition is without moral consequence, a la Huizinga: get over it and research...

I suggest you guide how you spend your research money with some more concise guidelines:

1) Will the research manifest in results that serve the public good of the real world? If yes, continue to step 2. If not, revise your plan until you're hitting something that impacts the public good. Is public good a moving target? Yes. Is it fuzzy? Sure. But you're the researcher, you've been given funds because we trust your judgement.

Also, put your research in perspective. One way is to focus on the real world oppportunity costs occasioned by your research dollars: people are getting killed out here and also starving or dying for want of the dollars you are spending. So get over the moral qualms about whether you are ruining someones game, because you're already ruining someone's health care, or food supply, or student loan. Your research must be more important: that's why Uncle Sam and/or academic departments cut your paycheck.

2) Will the cheating plausibly effect the behaviors which you are attempting to observe? If no, continue to step 3. If yes, cheat less or differently OR qualify your results by stating that your methods may have impacted your observations.

3) Commence research and quit navel gazing.

Realize this might lead to some broken hearts amongst players in the game world. I think they'll get over it: the imperatives of the state to understand the phenomena of virtual worlds override the hurt feelings you might make by cheating to make efficient observations.


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