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Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames

Author: Mia Consalvo
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007
Review Published: July 2009

 REVIEW 1: Bryan G. Behrenshausen
 REVIEW 2: Tanner Higgin
 REVIEW 3: Ray Vichot

One of the key concerns of historically cognizant cultural critics of games is that game studies, in the interest of disciplinary autonomy, will jettison the progressive politics implicit in the kind of analysis offered by Mia Consalvo's Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames in favor of a focus on what makes videogames special or unique as technological objects. Toby Miller warns against involvement in the dialectic of "moral panics versus enthusiastic celebrations" that results from this technocentric focus. As a supplement to heavyweight theoretical battles, Miller suggests embracing the current historical moment to build a game criticism mindful of "political economy, textual analysis, and ethnography" which will allow critics to "consider who makes the games, who profits from them, how they target audiences, what the games look like, what they are like to play, and how they fit in with social life" (8). Recent foundational texts in the field such as Ian Bogost's Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, McKenzie Wark's Gamer Theory, and Alexander Galloway's Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture successfully avoid the historical pitfalls of media studies and offer useful analytical frameworks to interpret games. However, few scholars have released book length studies documenting the activity within and surrounding gamespace necessary to move the field politically forward. T.L. Taylor's Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture is one of the more closely aligned studies to the approach in Cheating, but Consalvo's focus is much more acute, a welcome narrowness perhaps afforded by the overview provided by Taylor's study.

Cheating begins with an anecdote about Consalvo's origins as a gamer and, like many of us, it's a genesis catalyzed by the holidays and the unwrapping of a brand new game system. For Consalvo, it's the beloved Atari 2600. And it's her avowed status as a gamer and embeddedness in the culture of games that makes this book a welcome expansion of scholarship in game studies because the writer knows the political nuances of how games are played, talked about, used, and abused. This introductory flashback about the Atari 2600 is used to introduce "gaming capital," one of the two central concepts in the book, borrowed and modified from Pierre Bourdieu. Capital is the cultural prestige that a player gains from obtaining and socially exerting knowledge about games, not only in terms of their mechanics and manipulation, but in regards to the larger discourses associated with them. And it is this notion of gamic discourse that Consalvo takes great pains to emphasize is a worthy object of analysis in itself. Deploying Gerard Genette's "paratext" as her second key concept, she argues that we should not regard games as isolated objects of study but involve their "peripheral industries": strategy guides, message boards, advertising campaigns, and so on (9). This periphery is particularly important when discussing cheating as the restrictive and sealed confines of gamespace often require outside means of subversion. Relying theoretically on paratext also requires a revision of historical conceptualizations of the "magic circle" wherein gamers are isolated in gamespace from the real world. Instead, the arguments in Cheating are not interested in spatio-ontological distinction but the boundaries demarcated and subsequently usurped by rules and cheating (7). Consalvo provides an analytic for the struggles that ensue at the contested and often breached boundaries of the magic circle.

In the interest of expanding the breadth of gaming capital, I would also argue that it is tied directly to the competitive architectures of games, a result of the oft-forgotten status of games as capitalist industrial products, and the inevitably masculinist discourses that such design breeds. In this way, capital becomes a kind of abstract unit of exchange between players in the quest for accumulation and dominance. For the most part, Consalvo avoids overtly political or theoretical claims like the one I just offered in order to construct a more accessible and introductory historical mapping of the contours of cheating culture. For example, she does address, in a roundabout way, that men cheat more than women, and also offers the enlightening point that women, when represented equally in a game, cheat just as much. But what is left out is how cheating, particularly griefing, can often be considered a gamic analogue to masculinist, racist, and homophobic violence in daily life. In this way, I think the goal of Cheating is to open up space for more theoretical excavation which can more thoroughly and delicately tackle the cultural politics of gamespace. This openness to debate and interpretation sits at the heart of the book since its topic, cheating, is, as admitted by Consalvo, a contested term. Perhaps the text's best quality then is how it provides a necessarily restrained backgrounding of an incredibly fruitful issue that can be explored from any variety of theoretical perspectives in future studies.

To this end, part one is titled "A Cultural History of Cheating in Games" and it presents three concise historical accounts of easter eggs, strategy guides, and mod devices respectively. These chapters are useful in that they chronicle games historically, a practice often ignored in favor of celebrating each iteration of "newness." That being said, experienced gamers will be familiar with most of the developments she tracks. The final chapter of the section on mod technologies (i.e. game genies, gamesharks, and mod chips) gestures towards some of the more significant work that can be done in this area. Building on the oppressive logics of protological control embedded in game technologies argued by Galloway in Gaming, Consalvo investigates how modding is an inherently political action that offers "a clear challenge to who controls access to or experience of the gameplay situation" (73). She continues on this line of thought offering the provocative suggestion that code usage perhaps challenges "the 'preferred reading' of the game encoded by developers" (77). Here she exposes some of the more interesting aspects of gaming: the continuous struggle of authorship and control between player, designer, and technical artifact through the lens of everyday practice (rather than the creation of new technological objects as in Galloway's "countergaming").

These issues become more pronounced in the second section "Game Players" which, through player interviews and discourse analysis, interrogates how players negotiate and understand cheating. The typology of players Consalvo charts breaks down into four categories: those who wish to get unstuck, play god, speed up gameplay, and, quite frankly, just enjoy being asses. Importantly, her point is that this is not an exhaustive or stable list and that the definitions and boundaries of sanctioned gameplay, and how players identify themselves in opposition to the rules, are ever shifting, in large part due to the ways the paratextual industries, such as magazines and websites, characterize the use of codes or exploits (to offer one example). Demonstrating this push/pull relationship, she extends her analysis to the virtual arms race between the instrumental actions of players in the mod and exploit community and the anti-cheating industry dedicated to thwarting them. The struggle between player and the restrictions of the code most effectively illustrates Consalvo's central point that:
Game code can be thought of as an expression of power -- it creates the possibilities for player actions in a game, yet at the same time sets bounds for that expression. It is in the "play" that individuals enact with code where the game is performed. Some players, however, refuse to accept such limits, and instead seek to exercise their own power over code. (131)
As evident in the passage above, the work of Michel Foucault is the theoretical frame for the power relationships described between cheater and game. The result is that cheating, conceptually, is an effect of power and a discursive construct with material consequences. The tenuous nature of any definition of cheating and cheaters demonstrates that the term is constantly under construction. Its usefulness then is as a permeable but operable boundary. To put it differently, "cheating becomes a bellwether defining what good just as much as what bad gameplay looks like" (147). But what is the necessity of creating "good" and "bad" gameplay? The implication throughout the book, given Consalvo's focus on the cheating "industry," is that it's about protecting intellectual property, but it is also about -- and this is a path left mostly unexplored -- productively managing the labor of players. This is a relationship best exposed by gold farming in virtual worlds and games like Little Big Planet that rely in larger part on player-created content. Therefore, while ethical debates about player activity are necessary, it is also equally important to critique the ethics of policing player activities which are increasingly profitable as a source of labor.

My extension of the argument put forth in Cheating is a purposeful move inspired by the suggestions offered in the concluding chapter. In this chapter, "Capitalizing on Paratexts: Gameplay, Ethics, and Everyday Life," Consalvo issues a much needed call for ethical analysis of games in conjunction with reflection on how gameplay impacts daily life. This is an important critical contribution that makes explicit the subtext of recent scholarship on games that identify the very significant ways in which the "real world" is increasingly mimicking the logics of gamespace. As a consequence of this characterization of culture, games are revealed as one of the most intellectually rich sites of ethical contestation and negotiation and, as Consalvo so effectively illuminates, cheating should be at the center of the debate.

Bogost, Ian. 2008. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Galloway, Alexander. 2006. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Miller, Toby. 2006. "Gaming for Beginners." Games and Culture. 1.1: 5-12.

Taylor, T.L. 2006. Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wark, McKenzie. 2007. Gamer Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tanner Higgin:
Tanner Higgin is a Ph.D. student in English at the University of California, Riverside. His work focuses on race, gender, and power in videogame culture. He has been published in The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto, Games and Culture, and the forthcoming anthology Joystick Soldiers. He is currently at work planning his dissertation on the politics of race in videogames.  <thigg001@ucr.edu>

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