Playing by the Rules

A player can cheat at any game. In video games, this might take the form of exploitable bugs, devices like GameSharks, and watching walkthroughs to maneuver around a difficult puzzle or anticipate the ramifications of an in-game decision. While the drawbacks of cheating in multiplayer games or competitions are obvious – cheating gives a player an unfair advantage over others and ruins the spirit of the competition – the impact that cheating can have on a one player game’s experience became controversial during our class discussion on Thursday. In the context of a puzzle-heavy game like Braid, the challenging gameplay is a deliberate part of the gamer’s experience: frustration, repetition, and forcing the player to look at a problem in new ways gives the player a great sense of satisfaction when they finally crack the puzzle, even if it is hours later. If the player is ultimately unable to complete the puzzles, or is too impatient or lacks the time to master the various mechanics, then they will ultimately never complete the game’s story. In the high fantasy rpg Dragon Age: Inquisition, decisions made by the player impact political alliances, the loyalty of allies, and can have life-or-death consequences for characters in the game. One wrong decision can dramatically affect the player’s story and the outcome of quests. In both types of games, a player may choose to use walkthrough guides to reach a desired outcome: completion of a puzzle or a particular plot line. If no competition is involved – if nothing is on the line but the single player’s experience – then why does the suggestion of cheating raise such strong feelings in others?

When we recommend games to our friends, we want to share with them a particular experience that was memorable, exciting, or even heartbreaking. I frequently recommend Undertale to my friends and sometimes buy or loan it to others, but with one rule: if it’s your first time playing, you can’t consult walkthroughs, watch Let’s Plays, or “spoil” the experience in any way. This isn’t even a rule that I myself adhered to my first time playing: before I ever bought the game, I was so curious about it that I read several articles and watched some gameplay. I ruined many plot twists for myself and, as a result, my game experience felt inferior to that of my friends who went in without prior knowledge. I’ve since experienced the game vicariously through the fresh experiences of my friends. In my first playthrough, by knowing too much about the game I had effectively cheated – but I affected no one’s enjoyment but my own.

Continue reading “Playing by the Rules”

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How to Play

by Theo Dentchev

A lot of people out there believe there is only one way to play a video game: as the developers intended. These people think that anything not explicitly defined in the game is off limits, and everything has to be done within preset parameters.

Then there are those who believe that there isn’t any one way to play; do whatever works. There are no preset parameters: anything is permissible so long as it doesn’t break the game. Basically, provided that a certain tactic is available equally to all players, if it doesn’t stop the game you can (and should) do it.

The former group would say the latter group is “ruining the game.” I hear it all the time in forums. And it seems like the majority of people belong to the first group. The second group usually consists of a minority, but one which is more dedicated to and knowledgeable about games or a particular game.

So who’s right?

I think the first question that need to be addressed is where does the control of the developers end? Some people tend to treat the game designers as akin to Gods; their word is law and should not be broken. I think that the second group would argue that the developers role ends (in large part) the moment they release the game. From then on the game is in the hands of the players. Essentially, the developers have given us the tools and it’s up to us to decide how we’re going to use them. The developers are not omniscient; they can’t predict every single combination someone out there might try. So naturally there will exist tactics and strategies that they were unable to foresee. And there will also exist exploits of the programming which escaped their notice. Should exploits be used? As I noted earlier, the stance for the use of exploits would be that as long as everyone has equal access to them and they aren’t game-breaking they are fair game. People against them would say it’s somehow immoral or unethical; it’s cheating. But is it? What’s the difference between abusing a programming oversight and using a strategy which the programmers didn’t foresee? The answer is there is none. And in the case of the latter that first group of people will use a different word to describe it: cheap. It goes hand in hand with cheating, since both aren’t “honorable” ways to play.

I think perhaps that is somewhat motivated by the fact that in competition, PvP, players don’t like to lose, and channel that resentment towards the tactics of the player. Rather than admit they were responsible for their own defeat, some people would rather be in denial and lash out, try to discredit their opponent’s victory to make themselves feel better. But then you might point out to such a person that they could do the same thing. A common response is that exploits or “cheap” strategies “take the fun out of the game,” and that they would rather win “legitimately” (according to their arbitrary code of honor) rather than win using cheap tactics or “cheating.” They claim they would derive no satisfaction from such a win.

The problem with that position is that they conveniently forget that fun is subjective. For some people the challenge of strong tactics and exploits makes the game more interesting, as they have to think of new ways to address these tactics, and either new tactics are found or everyone uses that one strategy. And if does turn out that everyone uses one strategy, inevitably people will start to find ways around it. Some people will still be better than others. The metagame will evolve. Provided the game is deep enough of course. And if it isn’t, if there is only one strategy (like tic-tac-toe), then that’s just a deficiency of the game. There’s nothing wrong with exploring the limits of a game and seeing how adaptable it is. That’s where the real allure of playing beyond the basic guidelines provided by the designers lies.

And really if you don’t like losing you have three choices: play in an isolated environment where the gameplay and players are artificially limited in their development, or change, adapt to the new strategies which are emerging and overcome them or perfect them. The third option is, of course, to stop playing. It’s better than complaining anyway, for all sides.

So I tried to start this off from an objective perspective, but I think it’s been clear for a while now that I’m quite biased towards one side. I will say though that at one time I used to think like the first group, believing in the concepts of “cheap” and “unfair.” Heck, I still lapse into that sometimes when I lose and frustration clouds my mind. But even then the cold voice of logic underlies it reminding me that those are just artificial constructs of my invention, and that the reaction is born of resentment. If you want to actually improve as a gamer, you’re going to need to learn to shed those notions and adjust your attitude to a willingness to learn from those that crush you, and one day you might actually return the favor. If you don’t you won’t ever beat them.

– TD