Perhaps it's time to let your players cheat

A brief look at why players cheat and why as designers we shouldn't always take it personally.

There’s a certain truth about gamers (and about people in general) that we tend to ignore or turn away from. Put simply, people love to cheat! It’s not always the most comfortable thing to accept, but there’s a little part of most people’s psyches that get a little frisson of excitement from the idea of stepping outside the rules. So many of our cultural heroes are rebels, who stand out for their willingness to break boundaries and confront authority in the way most of us secretly wish we could. We’re taught to obey the rules, yet we can’t help but salute those who refuse to conform. Inside us all is a little rebel just waiting to break free.

With regards to games, cheating has always been a significant part of the gaming world. From the very earliest days of games there were cheat codes built in by programmers, then devices that allowed players to circumnavigate the rules with infinite lives or invulnerability or free movement. Even when cheats were not obviously available, players have always looked for ways to cheat within the game, using mechanics in ways they were never intended, or looking for sections of the game where bugs or improperly finished areas could be exploited.

But what drives players to cheat? There are several ways to view this. The one we tend to lean most easily towards suggests that players embrace cheats as a way to progress past overly difficult gameplay. People get stuck, so they look towards cheats and guides as a way to avoid frustration. This is certainly true in a lot of cases, yet it doesn’t explain the whole picture. While a gamer may indeed activate a cheat to pass a particularly difficult boss battle or nightmarishly complex puzzle, often cheating can be detected in places where little or no difficulty can be found, and where the cheating can be seen by the designers as achieving little more than to devalue the overall experience.

So why do players cheat when they don’t need to? The answer is actually pretty simple, and lies in a basic element of human psychology. We all want to feel clever. Cheating in a game gives players the sense that they have outsmarted the game and by extension its creators. The rules are there and in force, and yet they have discovered a way to circumvent the limitations places on them. The player feels smart and feels free! Take that, evil empire!

As game designers we are all too often guilty of a cardinal sin: we want people to experience our creations in the form that we intend and expect. We want them to hear our stories (I’m looking at you here non-skippable cut-scenes!), struggle through our difficulty curves, and emerge gloriously many hours later with the precise glow of victory that we set out to achieve. When players subvert that journey, all too often we react with a form of outrage! How can they be having fun with our baby if they don’t play with it just as we wanted them to?!

Well, the painful truth we need to accept is that if you love something, you have to be able to let it free. We know very well that emergent gameplay can be a huge benefit to our titles, yet there’s something about a player deliberately sidestepping rules that still manages to grate on our sensibilities. Difficult as it may be, I think it may be time to accept that sometimes the joy player get from getting one up on the game creators is something we should not only accept but indeed embrace.

As a designer when you see your players stepping outside the rules, how do you react? Do you rush to patch in a way to prevent them? Do you rage internally while thinking about how in the next game you’ll make sure this never happens again? Or do you perhaps smile, watch your customers enjoying their little moment of rebellion, and think about little ways you could maybe allow them to do so in your next game too?

For a good example, let’s look at Minecraft. A game built around emergent experiences, yet one in which players routinely not only create using the tools intentionally provided but find new ways to step beyond the designers intentions. A clear example here would be Slime farming. Players studied the exact spawn conditions which allow Slime to spawn into the game. They then built elaborate structures designed to allow Slimes to spawn and trap/destroy them to allow them to collect large numbers of Slime Balls far more efficiently than simply wandering around cave systems hunting them manually.

Now by any reckoning this is a clear example of players cheating the game systems. They are forcing the spawn routines to fire and manipulating the result to their benefit. The designers could have reacted by putting in place new spawn conditions or tried to lock down the player’s ability to circumvent the rules, but instead they happily allowed a cheat to become a feature (and it would be hard to argue that it has hurt their brand in any way as a result). As a result thousands of hours of gameplay and tutorial videos were posted to Youtube explaining how to do it, and the company benefited from additional free advertising and returning players eager to try out this new hack.

So when does cheating become something that we as designers should try and close down? Well one obvious instance would be when one players cheating has a detrimental effect on the game experience of other players. Multiplayer wall hacks, aimbots and the like are a clear example of cheating damaging game experience and risking the reputations and future of a brand. Yet even in multiplayer its worth considering each instance on a case by case basis. Eve Online players for instance routinely stretch the game rules to their very limits (and often beyond) in ways that could be seen as damaging the overall game experience (arranging events that bring thousands of players together in the knowledge that this can and likely will cause server issues), yet the overall effect has been to create a brand known for its incredible community events and causing many thousands of lines of press attention for its grand battles.

As with most aspects of game design, cheating is something that we really need to approach on a case by case basis. This shouldn’t be a surprise, if there is one rule about game design that lasts the test of time, it is that there is an exception to every 'rule’ of game design. More importantly we need to let go of the idea that our games are ours. Our job isn’t to create our own creative wonders. Our job is to create things that our players find wonderful, immersive and joyful. If a little cheating along the way results in a journey that makes the player feel more powerful, clever and fulfilled, then that seems a small price to pay.

[All opinions expressed here are my own, and are not intended to represent the opinions or views of BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Europe]

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