For as long as games have provided a challenge, people have sought to circumvent the rules and to succeed by nefarious means. In short, they cheat.
With the first arcade games, cheating was usually a by-product of the limitations of the hardware and programming. For example, there’s great glitch in Galaga where, if you leave a specific pair of ‘bee’ ships alive on Stage One, the enemy ships on subsequent stages no longer fire at you. It kind of makes the game pointless, but then many cheats do…
As video games became more complex and even harder to beat, so special codes were built into the program. These enabled testers to play the game to completion, by skipping levels, gaining invulnerability, unlimited ammo and so on.
One of the earliest examples of cheating in video games is the renowned Konami code – up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A – which first appeared in the 1986 release of Gradius. It was subsequently used in many of Konami’s coin-ops and console releases – although, in neat twist, when used in the Super NES version of Gradius III it blows up the player’s ship!
From infinite lives to God Mode
As well as dedicated cheat codes there are also programmers’ debug codes, which work in the same way but provide access to many of the game’s variables, again for ease of testing. Of course in the wrong hands, it allows gamers to alter an array of settings – number of lives or ammo, instantly gain trophies, access specific levels, slow the game down, or even change characters and colour schemes.
In 1990, when Nintendo’s NES monopolised the video game home market, UK developer Codemasters came up with a device called the Game Genie. Shaped like an NES cartridge, this pass-through device acted as bridge between the game cart and the console. Gamers could enter codes for whatever assistance they required. However, the Game Genie could also make games harder and even unlock hidden sections of the game that had been created but were unused in the final release.
Versions of the Game Genie were made for other consoles and handhelds from Nintendo and Sega, and it paved the way for competing products, including the GameShark and Code Breaker, which worked on a similar principal.
The innocence of tips and tricks
Cheat codes – including those for Game Genie – were a regular staple of the tips sections of popular gaming magazines. Sitting alongside detailed maps and walkthroughs, they were a valuable part of a magazine’s appeal.
After all, video games as a medium are unique in that they do not easily reveal all of their content: artwork can be examined at length, films and plays watched to their conclusion, and books read (although you can always cheat and skip to the last chapter). But to see all of a developer’s work takes time and effort. Many games are played without ever seeing the last few levels, let alone the ending. Indeed its been estimated that only ten per cent of people finish the game they are currently playing.
And yet cheat codes are petty much obsolete these days – mainly due to the complexity and design of modern games. Take a title like Assassin’s Creed: Origins… You could make the hero, Bayek, invulnerable, but you’d still have to compete all the missions to progress. Similarly there’s no traditional level structure to skip – and even if you did, you run the risk of breaking the game (or at least the storyline) in the process.
Are you a save-scummer?
Today’s gamers have to cheat in more subtle ways, but with quick saving (check out the term ‘save-scumming’) and multiple difficulty levels, it’s easy enough to replay a stage or just drop the settings down a notch, get past a particularly tricky section and raise it again. Is that cheating? They are functions built into the game…
And as games have grown more complex, so gamers are arming themselves with ever more sophisticated ways of cheating. The insanely popular shooter PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds recently had to ban 50,000 gamers who fell foul of ‘BattlEye’, an anti-cheat protection system developed in Germany.
Despite PUBG’s relatively simple last-man-standing contest, many contestants still prefer not to play by the rules. Cheat sites offer hacks which, when installed, provide things like ‘aimbot’ to help you target other players, ‘ESP’ so you can see the name of every player on the map, or ‘wallhack’, enabling you to target other players through walls.
From cheating to griefing
There are similar hacks for many competitive multiplayer games, and while they’re manly used for an easy win, some – rather sadly – just use them to mess up other people’s games.
The scale of PUBG’s cheating purge isn’t entirely unprecedented either. During its Summer Sale, Valve banned 40,411 Steam accounts where gamers were setting up cheap multiple accounts to test hacks against Valve’s Anti-Cheat system (VAC) in games such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive. This kind of activity is prevalent in other competitive multiplayer games, too, including Overwatch, Battlefield 4, The Division and the Dark Souls series.
The latest cheating in video games controversy comes in the shape of microtransactions and so-called Loot Boxes. In short, these enable you to buy in-game upgrades for real-world cash. At its best, a Loot Box system can give players a helping hand and increase a game’s enjoyment.
At its worst, it engenders a ‘pay to win’ approach, where competitiveness isn’t down to skill and practice, but who has the most cash to burn.
Cheating against the developer’s original intent is one thing, but when you’re gaining an unfair advantage over other human players, there’s no real winner.
In the on-going battle of wits between hackers and developers, let’s hope the developers stay on top, for the sake of all honest players who compete for the challenge, not just for an endless stream of self-congratulatory Pyrrhic victories.