Completing a game with the aid of infinite lives—even if the means of achieving those lives were made available by the original programmers—is, by definition, cheating. -Why Do We Cheat?
When I registered this domain a little over a year ago, the idea of “infinite lives” as a euphemism for cheating had already occurred to me. Maybe I’m in love with the notion of having unlimited chances to get something right, to pursue the best possible outcome. In real life, you have one chance. Entering a code for infinite lives is like time travel—it’s breaking the rules of time and space. It is, essentially, the ultimate cheat.
I’d been trolling 61 Frames Per Second, a rather young games blog, for posts by my friend Nadia Oxford. And via this post, I arrived at her recent article, Why Do We Cheat? It isn’t only a history of cheating-in-games; it is a rumination on cheating’s wherefores. After all, everybody cheats.
From the article’s introduction:
Every game has rules and a means of breaking those rules. Videogames, which are among the most complex games on the planet, feature suitably complex means of cheating. There are in-game codes, hacks, mods, code-altering devices, algorithms, walkthroughs, and many other means of breaking down a game in order to do what you’re not supposed to do.
To cheat in a game without a code or walkthrough requires real talent. I once witnessed Jeremy Parish and Jane Pinckard’s lengthy, animated discussion of Scott Sharkey’s admirable game-breaking genius. There is always a way to force a sprite outside of the boundaries of a screen or into actions that, according to the laws of the game, aren’t really permitted (or even possible). The trick is finding it.
We agreed that Sharkey had a real talent, itself fueled by some innate and unstoppable curiosity. I’m convinced, now, that creative play and destructive play are alike. Really living in a virtual world to its fullest requires, to some extent, breaking it. (Sharkey once inadvertently discovered a problem that, if exploited, would have ruined an entire virtual world’s in-game economy; he rushed to inform the game’s developers.)
Easter eggs, exploitable game errors, patches of code that can turn clothed avatars into a nudie beach: these are all magical, somehow. I remember, in my childhood, attempting to outguess the Game Genie. There was already the requisite book of codes I’d refer to—the book itself was a source of awe, an 8-bit spellbook. And I’d locate an invincibility code, then enter it into a similar game, just to see whether it would work. My memory might be playing tricks on me, but I feel like sometimes it did work. Maybe it didn’t.
I like game modifications—those bits of code that users have added later, usually without permission—because they are like those cheats we employ in everyday life. Who doesn’t reappropriate his POM Tea glasses? Who doesn’t know how to jostle the keys in the lock of the front door just so? Or how to clean the apartment windows with newspaper and vinegar? There are people who resolder old toys or use programs on Game Boys to make strange, new music. By cheating ordinary objects of their original purposes, people can give them new purposes.
But back to videogames.
Are cheats as interesting as they used to be? Even with the Game Genie, the codes were long, and they were difficult to enter, and they seemed a little mystical and arbitrary and accidental. Ten years ago, cheating in a PC game often meant slipping into the developer’s debug console to enter new commands. And all these lines of code that were meant to be hidden would rise to the surface, trilling down the monitor. Perhaps the real magic of a cheat or ruined boundary is seeing the insides of a game all splayed out.
So much of the magic is gone: for maximum firepower, I might enter the secret passcode “Rambo,” for instance. The codes aren’t accidental anymore, because a game developer has already prepared the cheat codes for me. Cheats are magical only when a legitimate secret is uncovered. What I call a “cheat” no longer necessarily denotes a broken rule. What happened?
Have we become too impatient for game cheats? Maybe we’ve become neurologically rewired; we’ve become too impatient to deconstruct games the way we once did. Even when I owned hint books for Sierra adventure games, I could stop myself from peeking into them—each book was a big red button, the last-ditch walkthrough. Now, when faced with a problem, I tire early in. “Someone’s already figured this one out,” I think to myself a little sadly. “Someone’s already beaten this puzzle.”
Why do we cheat, anyway? I have resolved that there are two kinds of cheats. (This may well be a cop-out.)
There’s the kind of cheating that is, essentially, giving in to the game. When I turn to a walkthrough, I am succumbing. I have been beaten. There is a secret to the game, and I don’t trust myself to find it. I cannot outguess the game’s design. The internet has facilitated this brand of premature hopelessness, so although this type of cheat has always existed, I nonetheless think of it as the Modern Cheat.
Then there is this cheat’s polar opposite; for the purposes of this blog, I’ve called it the Magical Cheat. This rule-breaking involves genuine play, and it recasts the videogame as a different kind of playground. Cheating isn’t “giving in” at all; it is defiant! There must be a secret to the game, a wizard behind the curtain! With ‘magical cheating’, a childlike pioneer learns the thrill of discovery. A third of the discovery is trial-and-error. A third of it is genius, or patience. And a third is happenstance—that’s the word pragmatists use for “magic.” This kind of cheat is as much about seizing control of the game, I think, as it is about chance. It is, in every way, off-the-rails.