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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

What is cheating? What does it mean to cheat at a game? Does the notion of cheating differ in digital games? From these initial questions, Mia Consalvo's Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames aims to look at the contexts which surround not only the notion of cheating in games, but in the constructed space of games itself. Her examination of cheating leads her to look at the industries which surround the game development industry which ranges from game magazines and guides, to 3rd-party hardware manufacturers, to anti-cheating software developers. She also looks at how players view cheating, both from a single-player gaming and online multiplayer gaming perspective. Finally the question of cheating begs the reader to re-examining how permeable the boundaries created by Huizinga's notion of the "magic circle" are and how rules and their transgression, play a role in how we see games as part of the larger culture.

The main concepts Consalvo uses to talk about these disparate elements are paratext, gaming capital, and game ethics. Borrowing from Genette, Consalvo uses paratext to describe the ancillary media about the playing and consumption of game media that is, in itself, not game media. The first section of the book takes a historical approach as Consalvo describes the emergence of paratextual industries. In the first section she looks at gaming magazines of the late 80s and early 90s as the initial media that gave gamers a sense on how to evaluate games (30-31), what it meant to be a gamer (32), and how one increased their gaming capital, which Consalvo bases off of the earlier ideas of cultural capital (3-5). The second chapter focuses on a niche industry that grew from the magazine, the walkthrough, or game guide -- and how that provided a means for players who were stuck to play through a game in a manner similar to earlier magazines (44). Consalvo also references how the format has been adapted to different media and how they may or may not complement game playing better than print (59-63). The third chapter looks at technological means of changing gameplay, in particular the Game Genie of the third and fourth generation of consoles, mod chips, and boot discs and the ways these technologies were approached by players and developers. Certain players tended to view these devices as a means of subverting the limitations placed by developers, either to complete games in a manner not intended by designers or by circumventing the hardware completely (79). Designers and developers, conversely, opposed these devices as either subverting the gameplay created by designers (69) or as either copyright infringement (67) or, in the case of mod chips, as promoting piracy in the industry (72-73).

The second section focuses more on how players and companies negotiate what constitutes cheating. This section appropriates a more ethnographic approach to the topic, with much of Consalvo's research in this section based on interviews and, in Chapter 7, an ethnography of the Final Fantasy XI community, both in game and on one of the largest forums for the community. In chapter 4, Consalvo looks at single-player game play and what players considered cheating as well as their motivations for cheating. While players considered cheating to grant an unfair advantage (86), their definition of gaining that advantage ranged from doing anything other than playing the game without outside assistance (88) to cheating being limited only to multiplayer situations with any subversion of code or hardware being fair game (92). Player motivations for cheating consisted of: "Because I was stuck" (95), "Playing God" (98), "Fast Forwarding" (99), and "being an Ass" (101). Chapter 5 opens up to look at multiplayer games and their activity at both a technological (113-116) and social level (117-118). These methods for cheating, especially technologically-based ones such as hacks, bots, or mods, potentially allow a cheater to gain gaming capital either by acquiring in game items and status, or by the status of being a well-known hacker itself (123). The chapter ends with a discussion about gender and cheating with a look at a female-heavy online multiplayer game and how, as in male-dominated game spaces, the amount of cheating performed by female gamers was about the same as in other games (125).

Chapter 6 looks at the "mini-industry" (145) of anti-cheating software developers and looks at three approaches to combat cheating: encryption (133), "parallel [defense]" (138), and policing and punishing cheaters (138) and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Here Consalvo introduces examples of cheating through code and the industries of policing cheaters as a discourse of power in the Foucaudian sense (131). Finally, Chapter 7 details Consalvo's ethnographic work on the community of Final Fantasy XI players, mentioning several instances where players debate what constitutes cheating within the mechanics of the game, such as Real Money Trade (RMT) or in-game scams and how the players handle individuals they perceive as cheaters. Consalvo posits that, in the massively multiplayer environment, cheating is perceived as a form of deception and lying, even if the mechanics of cheating are more technical in origin (such as a fishing bot) than social (170). Consalvo also suggests that allowing players to police games for cheaters may be a means of giving them both more agency and a deeper sense of belonging within the virtual world (132).

The third section, consisting of one chapter, attempts to tie the elements of the first two sections together, namely paratext, gaming capital, and player means and motivations for cheating, and try to describe what a "game ethics" would look like. Here is where Consalvo considers the magic circle once more, describing the double standard that actions within the magic circle are subject to. On the one hand, there are arguments to be made for the magic circle to be a walled off space, separate from that of the real world. Yet, all too often, they are subject to all of the judgment by rules established outside of the magic circle, leading to an "infantilization of space" (189). Alternately, the circle can be a permeable space, especially considering the way in which games and the paratextual media of games invade "real life." Consalvo argues that games can inhabit a variety of "walled off" or permeable spaces depending on the boundaries players establish for themselves. Consalvo concludes by stating, "To suggest that games are a space apart from daily life and our normal rules for living is just as much of an ethical choice as making them part of our daily practices ... what we need to do instead is ... determine how ethics fit, how we see them informing games and gameplay, and how we choose to integrate games into our lives" (190).

The biggest strength of the book is the breadth of context with which the activity of cheating is situated. Consalvo's use of interview, textual analysis, and ethnography lend weight to her overall argument that cheating is an activity that, while seeming concrete, actually is a constructed and negotiated, oftentimes vaguely, boundary. I should note that, as a former active player of Final Fantasy XI and poster on Allakhazam (though unaware of Consalvo's research at the time), her insights as to the nature of the community and how it views various activities as cheating is spot on, though I am surprised she did not mention one of the most contentious cheating issues of the community: that of the user-created "Windower," a mod which allowed players to alt-tab out of the game (which at the time was enabled officially), but created controversy as to whether that modification of code (as well as subsequent "plug-ins" which allowed non-standard actions ranging from Japanese text input and the revelation of data normally invisible to players) constituted cheating.

However, this breadth of context and methodology does lend itself to perhaps the book's largest weakness: a lack of depth. While largely accounted for in the book, since the aim is to examine the issues surrounding cheating and how gaming practices are negotiated, there are places where more clarification or explanation would have been useful. One example is her differentiation between the "9% of cheaters 'who want to take your game down'" (108) and griefers (102). There is considerable overlap between these two groups, especially considering griefers such as those described in Burcu Bakioglu's (2009) recent work on Second Life and Habbo Hotel griefers and further clarification between the groups would make the distinction clearer.

Overall, Mia Consalvo's Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames does an incredible job of examining cheating not merely as an isolated ludic practice. The book is a great resource for game design and game studies courses and curricula. Beyond videogames, the book is also valuable as a look into the ways in which media and culture interact as both regulated by producers of media and transgressed by consumers of media. Cheating is an activity that is inexorably linked not only to the cultural context that sets the boundaries for cheating, but also suggests that these boundaries are as mutable as the edge of the magic circle itself.

Bakioglu, Burcu S. "Spectacular Interventions of Second Life: Goon Culture, Griefing, and Disruption in Virtual Spaces." Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Vol. 1, No. 3. March 2009.

Ray Vichot:
Ray Vichot is a recent graduate of the Digital Media Masters Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology and an entering student in the Doctoral Program in Communication at the University of Southern California. His research interests are centered on fan culture, digital media, and internet culture. In particular, he is interested in the way media is repurposed by fan reception and remediation. He is eagerly awaiting the sequel to Final Fantasy XI: Final Fantasy XIV.  <rayv@gatech.edu>

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