Yesterday I obtained an Avenger Reflex controller skin for my PlayStation 4. I bought it because these things fascinate me, and I want to do some research on them from a phenomenological perspective on how bodies integrate with videogames (I wrote briefly about this here). When I tweeted about my new possession, however, it was a side comment I made about a marketing blurb on the box that got the most attention.
The blurb promised that the controller skin will “Increase your PS4 gaming skill without cheating!” I find that fascinating. This device is confident that it will give its user an advantage over other players, but it is categorically ‘not cheating’. I am not particularly interested in claiming that it either is or isn’t cheating. Rather, I think a lot of fascinating insights can be pulled out of a statement such as this one to better understand videogames generally: why is using this device to improve your chances not cheating? What sort of advantage would be considered cheating? Why?
To think about ‘cheating’ is to trace the very contours of what any one game is. It exposes both what is possible within the playing of that game, and what is acceptable. To cheat is not always to clearly and deliberately contradict the written rules, but just as often to attempt to push those rules as far as they will go only to accidentally go too far. Often, it isn’t until someone cheats in a certain manner for the first time that it can be considered cheating at all. Sometimes rules are just bent in a way they have not previously been bent before, and the players or surrounding community comes to the decision that such a bending is not acceptable. Most importantly: despite the clear-cut rigidity of most rules, cheating is subjective. It is not rare for one person to think the other has cheated and the accused cheater to believe that they have not.
Some sport examples. I remember the Sri Lanka cricket player Muttiah Muralitharan from when I was a kid. In cricket, bowlers are meant to bowl with a straight arm, while Muralitharan used to bend his arm slightly. There was a huge debate about whether or not his bowling style was legal or if he was ‘chucking’ the bowl. I forget why those who argued it was acceptable did so (I think the excuse was he had a medical condition, but don’t quote me on that). Rules were changed, people were unimpressed. Also in cricket was the underarm bowling incident of 1981 which was technically legal at the time, but which was booed by the entire stadium and ultimately led to the rules being changed so that this technically-not-cheating action would henceforth be cheating. Perhaps more relevant to what I want to eventually say about the Avenger Reflex are the various suits worn by swimmers and runners to increase their performance, usually with some controversy. If the 100m sprint is about human bodies being pushed to their spectacular limits, then is it fair that the augmentations of different clothing styles are used by different teams? What about different prosthetics in the paralympics? Similar is the issue of doping and the very blurred line between what sort of performance enhancing substances is acceptable, and what sort is not.
Not all of these are ‘cheating’ per se, but each is an example of a sportsperson trying to push the confines of a game’s rules as much as possible without breaking them to gain an advantage. In some cases, they pushed too far. In some cases, they didn’t push too far, but it was later decided that the distance they pushed should be considered too far. A much more literal example might be a race car driver who is allowed to drive anywhere on the road but who will always drive as close to the inside of the track as possible to decrease the distance travelled, sometimes letting a wheel just slip up onto the red-and-white, flirting with taking an illegal shortcut. Here the realm of acceptable behaviour is a very tangible, spatial spectrum.
To play a competitive game is to constantly flirt with cheating. To come as close to cheating as possible without actually cheating.
So rules and cheating are complicated, and they are doubly so in digital games. While ‘rules’ are often considered a formal element of game design and one of the first things taught to game design students and critics alike, ‘rules’ don’t adequately account for how videogames function. Videogames don’t really have rules—they have afforded behaviours and restricted behaviours. When playing a videogame, some things are possible and some things are not.
Compare soccer with Fifa ’16. Soccer has a range of agreed-upon rules that are voluntarily followed by the players. There is nothing physically stopping a soccer player from picking up the ball and running it to the goal and shoulder-barging the goalkeeper out of the way. They’re just not allowed to do that. (Bernard Suits, who wrote The Grasshopper would complicate this by saying that if you did this then you would, in fact, no longer be playing soccer at all, so thus rules are not ‘voluntarily followed’ because they must be followed for you to be playing soccer at all).
In Fifa ’16, it is (to the best of my knowledge) impossible to have a character pick up the ball and run around while holding it. It’s not simply against the rules, it is impossible within the affordances of this digital world. Similarly, gravity does not fall under the rules of soccer (does soccer have an explicit rule that it must always be plays in 1G gravity? What if someone played soccer on the moon? Is is still soccer?), but in Fifa ’16 the simulation of gravity is refereed no more or less strictly than the simulation of kicking the ball. Fifa ’16 doesn’t have a rule book but a spectrum of possibilities and dynamics coded into this piece of software. There are things you can do with it, and things you can not do.
Fifa ’16 is a representation of the rules of soccer, which means it is interesting but also complicated, so here is a non-sports game example. In Super Mario Bros. there is no rule that says you are not allowed to run into a goomba from the side. Super Mario Bros. has the attribute that running into a goomba from the side will return Mario to the start of the stage and subtract a life. This is not a rule that can be broken but a fact about this digital microworld, just as it is a fact of this world that a soccer ball kicked into the air will return to the ground.
You could still call these rules, perhaps akin to the rules of physics rather than the rules of law or the rules of a non-digital game. The rules of videogames are properties of a world. Just as you can’t defy gravity, you generally cannot break the rules of a videogame. Chris DeLeon makes a similar argument. Similarly, I had this to say about Rocket League last year:
for all its modelling of soccer, it is impossible to cheat in Rocket League. If you can do something, it was allowed by the game programming and is thus permitted. Rules, in sport, exist to prevent the players from doing things that are physically possible (such as picking the soccer ball up in your hands). Rules, in this sense, don’t exist in videogames. They exist around videogames (screencheating, kicking the controller out of your mate’s hands, disconnecting the internet before you lose a game) but they do not exist within videogames. Videogames, unlike non-digital sport, are constrained by what is possible, not what is allowed.
More than an absolute, objective and true statement, thinking about videogame rules (or lack thereof) exposes a huge range of ambiguities that can challenge what we think to be the contours and shape of what digital games are.
Is glitching a game out cheating? Are speedrunners who clip through a wall cheating? What is and isn’t an acceptable exploit to speedrunning? Is screencheating in Halo cheating? There’s no rule written down that says you are not allowed to screencheat. If it is cheating, why isn’t it cheating in Screencheat? Or is the only way to play Screencheat by cheating (in which case not really playing it at all, according to Suits). Is using scripted macros in a fighting game to only have to press one button instead of ten cheating? Is using God Mode in Doom cheating even if it is possible to do so within the game? There’s no rule, that I know of, that says you are not allowed to kick your opponent in the shins in Street Fighter 2, or to jump your friend’s worm into the ocean rather than hand the controller over in Worms. So is doing either of those actions cheating? What is and isn’t cheating in digital gaming? Why are some actions socially acceptable and others aren’t? There’s answers to all of these that could be explored, but here I am mostly interested in the fact that these questions can be asked in the first place.
Typically when videogames do encounter cheating it falls into one of two categories. Firstly is glitches and exploits where the rules/affordances of the game are not what they should be and cause the game to be unbalanced in a way they should not me. This is easily fixed by game updates and ‘nerfing’ as it is cheating (or acting unfairly) ‘within’ the game, comparable to the underarm bowling incident, perhaps. Something was possible that should not be possible.
More common, though, is cheating (or acting unfairly) ‘around’ the game, but which I mean actions happening in a way other than intended by the game between the playing body and the input device, beyond the typical jurisdiction of the game software. Screencheating, kicking the other player, using a custom controller with ‘rapid fire’ ability. Some of these are more accepted than others, and thus not all of them are cheating in any simple sense (you could argue they aren’t even necessarily ‘unfair’ if everyone is allowed to do it). But all are working towards gaining an unequal advantage in the game by doing something outside the purview of the game code. Each is being sneaky while the ref is looking in the other direction.
Cheating or exploiting in digital games reveals and revels in the social context of digital play. Cheating ‘around a videogame can draw our attention to how gaming never just happens on a screen or in a world but is always situated in physical and social contexts.
So let’s counter that earlier claim: videogames do have rules because videogame play is not exclusively digital.
But are the non-digital components of digital play constrained by rules at all? Or does anything go in this domain? It depends on who is the referee here. If the referee is the computer code then, yes, anything goes in the realm it cannot police. But do other players have a say? Do the developers? The sports body in pro-gaming leagues?
These are complex questions with complex answers, just as they are for non-digital sports. But the interesting thing they highlight in general, I think, is that videogames typically can never fully account for bodies, and thus bodies are the most common site for players to try to find an advantage over the computer (or over other players through the computer). Bodies are a site of digital resistance.
Analogue bodies can never be entirely surveillanced by digital machines. Some aspect of their movement and sensing will always avoid detection. Players use this to their advantage by screencheating, by placing the controller on the ground to mash a single button, by using third-party controllers. More exciting, for me, are the developers who have made videogames that explore precisely this dynamic. Doug Wilson’s games Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally Okay Now and Johann Sebastian Joust ‘deputise’ players through their ‘self-effacing’ design that calls for interactions between bodies that simply can’t be fully policed by the digital machine. Players have to decide, on the fly, what is and is not acceptable play here. Anna Anthropy’s Chicanery has one coded rule: the last player to let go of their button wins. It is up to players what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour to cause others to let go. Less explicitly, games like Fingle or Mega-GIRP simply can’t know if their player/s are playing how they are ‘meant’ to play, or if they are using extra or different bodily configurations for an unfair advantage.
But this is true of my earlier non-digital examples as well, isn’t it? The swimmer’s suit, the cyclist’s drugs, the bowler’s crooked arm are, much like the Avenger Reflex, trying to find ways to augment the human body to work more efficiently within a ruleset designed for the spectacular performance of non-augmented human bodies. Bodies and rules intersect in all sorts of mesmerising ways in all sorts of plays, which is made all the more complicated when this collides with the intersect of bodies and digital machines. (See also: folk games like hide-and-seek or tag that often don’t even have unanimously agreed-upon rules in the first place).
The Avenger Reflex can claim to improve your gaming skill “without cheating” so confidentally because it allows you to move your body much less to press buttons much quicker without the computer knowing. It is ‘not cheating’ because the computer cannot police it. It is ‘not cheating’ because this particular community has decided that how the playing body couples with the videogame hardware is beyond the purview of the game’s rules.
To stress: I have no interest in declaring what actions are and are not cheating. That is up to developers and communities of individual games and sports. I am interested in how different actions and behaviours come to be seen as either acceptable or not acceptable, and what this says about the shape and boundaries of the videogame form that are outlined by players’ constant desire to gain an unfair-but-acceptable advantage like an island is outlined by all the sea that surrounds it.
I’m mostly just musing in this post. Other authors have done much more considered research into cheating and digital games. Look up the work of Mia Consalvo, Marcus Carter (especially his work on Eve e-sports), Abe Stein, Doug Wilson, and T.L. Taylor for more detailed and rigorous discussions.