Cheating in Online Games

Who can you trust?

Hand at laptop computer's keyboard

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As long as there have been games, there have been cheaters, and video games, particularly online games, are certainly no exception to this rule. While cheat codes are commonly used in single-player games to overcome difficult stages of the game, or just to spice it up a little, it's an entirely different matter when you're competing online. Multiplayer games are usually intended to be contests of skill and strategy, and most players simply won't settle for anything less.

Online games have been a cheaters paradise in some ways because you can remain relatively anonymous, the technology is difficult to secure, and hacks tend to spread quickly over the Net. The motivation for cheating can range from wanting to earn the awe of your friends, to wanting to ruin the game for other players, to wanting to have a heap of game currency to sell on eBay. It appears that there will always be someone that refuses to play by the rules.

A Sordid History

Aside from the removal of cheat codes from multiplayer versions, early online games were rarely designed to prevent cheating. After all, playing an FPS with other people over the Internet was a borderline miracle only a decade ago, never mind ensuring that no one was tinkering with the software. It wasn't long, however, before the availability of hacks started to have a very negative impact on gameplay. If you were a Team Fortress player in the mid-90s, you probably remember a time when there seemed to be more cheaters than not in the game, and using a small arsenal of hacks was considered necessary simply to "even the odds."

When multiplayer games become overrun with cheaters, honest people will either stop playing or they will restrict their play to password-protected games between friends they trust. In fact, several online games have, at one time or another, seen a huge exodus of players due to cheating. Age of Empires comes to mind, and America's Army had become almost unplayable prior to the introduction of Punkbuster. Multiplayer Web games and poker rooms are also frequently targeted by cheaters, particularly when there is money at stake.

The gaming community has always been at the forefront of efforts to keep the contest fair. Server admins have long been circulating lists of known cheaters and implementing ways to check client game files for alterations. People started looking for more comprehensive ways to combat the problem, and finally, solutions such as Even Balance's Punkbuster software emerged. Punkbuster is now used by over a dozen retail titles, making it the most common anti-cheat software used in online action games.

Subscription games like Ultima Online and EverQuest have even more at risk because a loss of players is directly linked to a loss of income. They've had to make catching cheaters a priority right from the start, but they also have the advantage of controlling the servers the game is played on. When a problem is discovered, it's relatively easy to make changes and/or ban the culprits. Today's MMORPGs operate under the watchful eye of large contingents of game masters, and it's still impossible to ensure that there are no shenanigans going on. The most one can hope for is that the shenanigans will be discovered and corrected quickly.

How Cheaters Cheat

Unfortunately, there is a tremendous variety of ways to cheat in most online games. One common form of cheating is to collude with other players or members of the opposite team. It's not difficult to use communications outside of the game, such as an instant messenger or telephone, to gain an advantage over other players. The effectiveness of this varies from one game to another, but there is really no way to stop it at this point in time.

While collusion might increase your odds, it won't give you god-like powers in the game, which is why hacks, file modifications, and aiming proxies are popular. This type of cheating frequently involves altering the software or the data files in some way, such as changing the enemy's appearance so that they glow a bright color or become visible through walls. Proxy servers have also been used to insert instructions into the data stream going to the game server, giving cheaters superhuman aim. In many cases, hacks are the result of reverse-engineering the game and end up being circulated on the Internet.

Bugs and exploits that were overlooked when the game was developed can also cause serious problems. If users find some way to crash the server, or cause severe latency, for example, you can bet it will become a poor sport's last line of defense when they find themselves facing a loss. It's the high-tech equivalent of knocking over the Monopoly board.

Occasionally, a radical adjustment to your system settings, like turning up the brightness or gamma on your monitor, can result in a small advantage. This is relatively rare, however, and tends to make the game look horrible, which is enough to discourage most people.

Many accusations of cheating prove to be unwarranted. Almost everyone who is very accomplished at a skill-based game has been falsely accused of cheating at one time or another.

Who Can You Trust?

Downloading a hack for a game and installing it on your system is a lot riskier than it used to be. The fact is, hacks have become notorious for spreading a malicious assortment of viruses, trojans, and spyware. Quite often the hacks don't work as advertised, the author attempts to charge money for them, and they infect your machine with a trojan in an attempt to steal account information.

In researching this article, we found several alleged hacks for games, including World of Warcraft and Battlefield 2 (with Punkbuster), which turned out to be nothing more than phishing scams. To make a long story short, there is no honor among cheaters. It is ironic, however, that a cheater's worst enemy may wind up being... other cheaters!

Fighting for Fair Play

The good news is that cheating has become significantly more difficult in recent years. Not only have game developers found better ways to secure their products, but third-party software has also made large advances in sniffing out and banning cheaters. These efforts include Valve Anti-cheat (VAC), Cheating Death, HLGuard, and the ever-popular Punkbuster. As well as performing automatic checks for known cheats, some of these programs give server administrators powerful tools with which to investigate suspected cheaters. This can mean finding out what software a person is running in addition to the game, and even the capability to grab screenshots from the suspect's machine.

Of course, despite advancements on the side of fair play, the war against cheaters is an ongoing battle. Some hackers see anti-cheat mechanisms as a challenge, and they will go to great lengths to compromise the anti-cheat software as well as the game. When a new way to beat the system becomes known, programs are updated to combat the problem. Sometimes a cheat will work for only a few days before an effective countermeasure is put in place.

Be aware that there is a small price to pay for fair play in terms of privacy. The user agreements attached to most MMORPGs these days give the game operators quite a bit of freedom to determine what suspect players are up to, and tools like Punkbuster are capable of probing your system pretty thoroughly. Generally, the people doing the investigating are trustworthy and interested only in maintaining the integrity of the game, but the potential for abuse is there. Most gamers consider this risk acceptable, but it's always wise to keep any really sensitive information on your computer encrypted.

At the end of the day, it's a lot more satisfying to win while following the rules than it is to win using some cheap hack or exploit, so if you're here looking for ways to cheat in online games, I hope we've given you some reasons to reconsider.