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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
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Mia Consalvo

Reading Mia Consalvo's recent contribution to MIT Press' dazzling array of literature on videogames made me realize I'm a dirty cheat. My bookshelves are crammed with decades-old back issues of Nintendo Power, dog-eared on the playground for easy access to game codes and world maps. In high school, I helped a friend use PayPal to collect actual U.S. dollars from online players in exchange for virtual weapons in Diablo II (but only after he showed me how to abuse flawed game code and duplicate entire piles of gold coins to upset local economies). My immaculate, white Nintendo DS hides a sordid secret: an imported flash cart that plays downloaded game ROMs. Its partner in crime, my Sony PlayStation, plays similar questionable fare thanks to a chip soldered onto its motherboard. GameFAQs is an oft-clicked bookmark in my Web browser, and I'm the first person to prematurely bolt when losing an online match of Super Mario Strikers Charged -- just so the geographically remote winner can't collect her prize points.

I can't deny it: My long and enthusiastic history with videogaming is also a tradition of cheating, ignoring the boundaries of acceptable or preferable videogaming practice in the pursuit of strategic advantage, quicker progression through a game, access to forbidden material, and the constitution of a gamer's identity. In Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, Mia Consalvo explores "how players choose to play games along with what happens when they can't always play the way they'd like" (2) -- a project tracing fluctuations in the player/industry power ratios that continually (re)structure the material-semiotic topography of that practice we call "videogaming." My experiences found resonances in Consalvo's text, which is foremost a book about transgressions: of algorithmic margins, of end-user license agreements, of corporately-imposed hardware limitations, of the human trust so precious in anonymous virtual environments, and of the boundaries delineating socially acceptable and unacceptable digital play. Consalvo's project is refreshing because it isn't overly moralistic; the author refuses to chastise cheaters or render judgement about which videogaming practices are appropriate and which are reprehensible. Instead, Consalvo recognizes cheating as a situated, contingent and generative force that motorizes various intersecting forms of capital flowing through videogame culture.

The first of Cheating's three sections historicizes cheating's pertinence to digital play. Key to understanding cheating are videogames' various paratexts, a concept Consalvo borrows from literary theorist Gerard Genette, to identify texts that interact with, structure, and otherwise frame primary texts. Videogame magazines, strategy guides, advertisements, packages, and press materials all function paratextually to influence players' interactions with videogames and demarcate the contours of appropriate gaming practice.

Perhaps most importantly, however, paratexts cultivate what Consalvo calls "gaming capital." She explains that "being a member of game culture is about more than playing games or even playing them well. It's being knowledgeable about game releases and secrets, and passing that information on to others" (18). Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital, Consalvo illustrates the ways in which gaming's paratexts are both pedagogical and ideological as they circulate throughout game culture and produce ideal gaming subjects, who are typically "young, male, and heterosexual, with plenty of disposable cash" (22). Accruing gaming capital -- achieving the status of an "elite" member of gaming culture with refined tastes (and a vocabulary to articulate these proclivities) -- represents a core concern for Consalvo, as practices considered "cheating" often transpire in the pursuit of capital that would enhance a gamer's cachet. Moreover, tracking the flows of gaming capital recognizes videogaming as an embodied and cultural practice, the "meaning" of which cannot merely be located "in" the text or "in" the mind of players -- but rather at the intersection of domains previously believed discrete (as if the arcs of Huizinga's magic circle could really contain everything there was to study about videogaming).

Cheating's first chapter is therefore a textual analysis of ur-gaming magazine Nintendo Power, one of the earliest attempts to corral gaming capital and market it to players. In the process, Consalvo notes, Nintendo delineates the bounds of both "good" videogames and "good" videogaming practice. Interestingly, Nintendo's paratext offered players copious world maps and walkthroughs for easy consumption -- but often hid other types of cheats, such as codes (like the infamous Konami code) that grant additional lives or continues in special sections marked to set them apart from more innocuous fare. Consalvo argues this early distinction instantiates a discourse hierarchically organizing cheating practices according to their relative levels of acceptability. Deploying terminology developed by Alexander Galloway in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, we might say cheats occurring in gameplay's diegetic moments are thus less egregious transgressions than those that occur in non-diegetic ones. A key tension arises early in the establishment of gaming capital: Savvy players need magazines to keep them informed about new releases, trade news, tips, tricks and secrets -- yet truly "elite" players must enact disdain for paratexts that provide an advantage to less capable players unable to "go it alone" and beat games on their own merit. This disjuncture sparks a debate about the acceptability of magazines and guides that rages in player interviews throughout several subsequent sections of Consalvo's text.

Chapter two examines strategy guides for contemporary videogames, paratexts that "can signify, as game magazines have, the further commodification of gaming capital" (42). Consalvo probes the niche that game guides have carved into the videogaming market -- a niche game publishers are quick to seize. She writes: "Understanding how cheat codes and Easter eggs have developed value and been commodified can provide a key to further deciphering the larger game industry and, more important, players' expectations for what is part of -- and not part of -- the central gaming experience" (43). An ever-tightening relationship with guide publishers means game publishers can expect guides delivered alongside their games on release day, adding to a title's authenticity and credibility (both of which are intimately tied to gaming capital). Guide publishers, on the other hand, benefit from exclusive licenses with game companies that guarantee complete access to a games' most deeply buried secrets and, of course, increased profits. The only participants in this circuit who don't see these clear benefits are guide writers, knowledge workers of videogames' paratextual industries who "are increasingly employed in positions where they can be quickly tapped for their labor and just as quickly set aside when the project is completed" (55).

In chapter three, Consalvo discusses the market for cheat devices -- hardware add-ons for game machines that "enhance" videogame software and hardware. Such devices can include bootloaders and mod chips (to bypass consoles' region checks, play imported or pirated software, even install Linux), as well as commercially available products like GameShark and Code Breaker (which temporarily re-write pieces of loaded game software to alter the conditions of play). These devices "challenge us to ask not only if such devices should be legal but who should control the gameplay experience and how much control should reside in any kind of technological device" (66). Certainly, legal issues surrounding such devices are a major theme of this chapter, as cheating presents an issue for legislators as well as players. While the legality of cheat devices varies throughout the world, the instruments collectively "question who controls the game space -- is it the game companies, players, third-party technology makers, or some combination of all three?" (66). Devices like GameShark challenge game designers' authorial intent, cheating their artistic visions. Publishers are likewise cheated -- out of potential sales from software that has instead been pirated and played on hacked and modded hardware. To Consalvo, player hacks and mods suggest a mode of player resistance; they "point to fault lines in the game industry" that "expose a system of choices and decisions points, made to encode or direct a particular flow of capital and distribution" (78). This interesting chapter could have become even more powerful had Consalvo chosen to include the voices of the hackers, modders, and cheaters she interviewed, rather than speaking for them.

Because cheating is a dynamic and contingent practice, any attempt to understand it necessitates turning to video gamers themselves. The chapters in Consalvo's second section triangulate data collected via online ethnography, open-ended interviews, surveys, and correspondences to explore how cheating is defined, enacted, negotiated, justified, and snubbed by videogamers in a variety of contexts.

Player narratives in Consalvo's fourth chapter quickly complicate attempts to locate "the rules" of a videogame in any singular, bounded space. Certainly game manuals and software code do not prescribe certain conventions that arise spontaneously when players interact in a shared physical space to play together. So Consalvo's seemingly simple question -- "How do people play games?" -- elicits thick descriptions of cheating practices illustrated in players' own words, which mark concerted efforts to articulate the complex nexus of issues swarming around ostensibly banal gaming practices. One principal theme emerges from respondents' multivalent replies to Consalvo's inquiries: Cheating, regardless of how it manifests, always confers unfair advantage on the transgressor. Yet players disagree about what exactly "counts" as cheating, as well as the extent to which certain practices can be executed until considered abusive. Purists believe anything -- save for the help of another player in the immediate vicinity -- is cheating. Period. Full stop. Others regard online walkthroughs and guides acceptable because they do not break the diegesis of the game, but any other practice is -- including deliberately abusing "quirks" in game code. This aversion to harnessing exploits may be unsettling for some, such as Galloway and Thacker (2007), who in The Exploit note that such exploitation is the form of political resistance in networked societies ("Look for traces of exploits," they write, "and you will find political practices," p. 82). Still more cheaters claim cheating is a problem relevant only in online gaming; it cannot occur in single player environments.

And yet they cheat. Some do it because they cannot solve a tricky game puzzle impeding their progress through the game; some do it to speed up this progress; some do it for a rush of power; and some do it simply "to be an ass" to others (101). No matter the reason, however, players constantly (re)define "good" and "bad" gameplay. Chapter five offers insight into these and other motivations for cheating in online environments, "large spaces unmoored from more traditional identity markers" where "repercussions for poor behavior, including cheating, become more difficulty to make stick" (112). Consalvo speaks with gamers who exploit glitches (like the aforementioned bug in Diablo II that allows duplication of rare items with a single mouse click), and those who write sophisticated software to automatically perform repetitive tasks (fishing in Final Fantasy XI, for example) while they're away from their terminals. Nevertheless, the most intriguing accounts of successful cheats are those that contain almost no references to technology. Some clever cheaters "game the player" and socially engineer their advantage in online worlds. They may "borrow" items from others with no intent to return them, pose as in-game moderators and solicit others' account credentials, or lure players into dangerous areas to steal their goods. These transgressions of human trust remind us that even in light of complex technological methods of gaining advantage in videogames, "players can cheat without having any technological expertise at all" (119). The chapter concludes with Consalvo's longest sustained conceptualization of cheating: a "ludic, situated, iterative" (127) and hence performative gesture that blurs boundaries between "in-" and "out-" game, undercuts expectations (players', developers', machines'), produces bodies, and constructs "selves."

Consalvo's exclusively human focus certainly reinforces her contention (stated quite early in the book) that "player agency is central to understanding games" (2). I would suggest, however, that a focus on only one modality of agential movement in gaming situations oversimplifies what is truly a rich, nuanced interplay between operators and machines -- both of which, Galloway (2006) argues, co-create the site of play -- and overlooks a potentially heuristic form of cheating in the process. For Galloway, "both the machine and the operator work together in a cybernetic relationship" as a videogame unfolds; "the two types of action are ontological the same" (5). Unable to ignore the role of the machine in the gaming situation (a role as important as that of human operators) game researchers should also be unable to overlook the possibility that the machine might cheat -- or, at least, appear to.

A cheating videogame became the subject of some controversy when players of the breakout hit PuzzleQuest: Challenge of the Warlords complained that the game's artificial intelligence was simply too good at solving its own puzzles. Prompted by swelling frustration and suspicion over the game's "fairness," one player ("J. Lutes") began a thread on the Web site message boards of Infinite Interactive, PuzzleQuest's developer. The thread -- entitled "Cheating AI?" -- asks designer Steve Fawkner to publicly address the issue. Fawkner replied less than a day after the thread began, insisting "the AI in NO way cheats." Weblog DS Fanboy later satirized the issue in comic form.

Regardless of whether or not PuzzleQuest's AI "actually" cheats (I suspect Consalvo would agree that suspicion of its cheating is interesting enough to warrant inquiry), we might view this episode as an imperative not to ignore the role of the machine in the gaming situation. Doing so risks neglecting potential insight into the nature of machinic agency, into players' expectations of their videogaming apparatuses, and into the value each places on fairness (from all bodies at play). These issues will only become more germane in light of Nintendo's recent patent filing for a system that allows "stuck" players to automate gameplay and watch the videogame "play itself" through tricky moments.

Cheating in online games can be "both a security and a public relations issue" (129), and so the sixth chapter explores the anti-cheating industry that has arisen in the wake of online videogaming's meteoric increase in popularity. Consalvo says she will "read" the relationship between players and anti-cheating firms "through Foucault's theorization of discourses of power" (131), yet this instance (and its related footnote referencing Discipline and Punish) are the only direct invocation of Foucault in the chapter. Nevertheless, readers can intuit a Foucaultian orientation toward anti-cheating business' disciplinary strategies, which "serve to (re)construct and reinforce particular ways of seeing cheating and those who cheat" (130). Consalvo argues that "game code can be thought of as an expression of power -- it creates 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" (131). Using examples from the three largest international anti-cheating firms, Consalvo describes how such creative, generative ludic performances persistently push and threaten the boundaries of acceptable videogaming, while corporate firms continually attempt reinscribing them through various disciplinary practices. The effect of this dynamic interplay ensures the perpetual modulation of control in virtual environments.

Chapter seven, "A Mage's Chronicle," is an account of Consalvo's digital ethnography -- a 500-hour immersion in Final Fantasy XI, published by Square Enix. It neatly layers themes from previous chapters using examples from player interviews, forum posts, and Consalvo's lived experience. It contains a helpful primer on virtual worlds and MMOs, but most interesting here are Consalvo's descriptions of player responses to perceived transgressions in FFXI's online world. Many solutions for governance emerge from the collective action of player-citizens determined to erect apparatuses for maintaining equality and fairness. Blacklists of deviant players appear on Web pages; online discussion boards transform into forums for airing grievances. Paratextual components of this governmental discourse continually influence Square Enix's responses to practices such as "power leveling" (hiring a character with healing ability to help low-level players tackle foes ordinarily thought too dangerous) and the game's vibrant "real-money trade" (exchanging actual currencies for FFXI's in-game virtual currency). Capital intertwines as players trade one type (money) for another (power, prestige, game levels), while others wield their in-game status (their store of gaming capital) as a commodity to be traded in out-game markets ("renting" themselves to the highest bidders wishing to power level). Consalvo's ethnography once again demonstrates the magic circle's permeability.

This final section of Cheating contains only one brief chapter, which unfolds half-knitted, threads fraying in all directions, waiting to be picked up by other scholars and industry professionals. Numerous vectors charted throughout the book -- player communities, renegade ludic practices, innovative game developers, anti-cheating industries, paratextual operations -- converge to shape gaming capital, and these lines of force prompt novel questions, complicating a naive understanding that games are somehow a discrete, trivial subset of everyday life. Instead, they are "important areas for learning about how we play, how we make decisions, and how we think about what is right and wrong for us, in different contexts and different situations" (187).

Consalvo admits that while "games are experiences we integrate into our daily activities, and there is no game space that's easily walled off, there are rules and rewards that apply to games, and these do form a boundary of some sort" (190). So while games are "spaces for exploration of not only fantastic worlds and rhetorics of power but also playing with rules" (186), they cannot be judged by the same ethical criteria that have hitherto governed norms of appropriate action in everyday, quotidian spaces. "What results when such judgements are applied is an infantilization of the game space," Consalvo notes,
It suggests players cannot understand a separate set of rules and rewards, or that we can have no spaces where such alternate systems might function ... A one-to-one mapping of values robs games of their unique character and rule set, creating a space derivative of real-life standards of behavior. When that happens, choices that might be interesting or significant within a game are diminished, and choices are robbed of their playful, experimental quality. (189-190)
Conflating models of ethical play in gamespace to those in everyday spaces doesn't suit Consalvo. New modes of evaluating gaming practice are necessary to appreciate -- and cultivate -- users' playfully performative dispositions in increasingly regulated cultural structures. After all, videogamers embody a promising force for change, growth, subversion, and resistence in informatic societies. Consalvo offers no alternative to an ethical system currently couched in direct correspondences between ludic and and everyday spaces. Instead, she leaves these threads hanging, awaiting the grasp of future scholars, developers, legislators, and, of course, cheaters.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Galloway, A. R. (2006). Gaming: Essays on algorithmic culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Galloway, A. R., & Thacker, E. (2007) The Exploit: A theory of networks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Genette, G. (1997). Paratexts: Thresholds of interpretation. London: Cambridge University Press.

Bryan G. Behrenshausen:
Bryan G. Behrenshausen is Instructor of Speech Communication at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, USA. He earned his M.A. in Communication from the University of Maine, Orono, where he began researching the performativity of videogaming.  <bryan.behrenshausen@millersville.edu>

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