Rules are meant to be broken; video games are no exception. Cheating has a long and storied history in video games, from the infamous Konami code to playing as Bill Clinton in NBA Jam. But that was back when gaming meant sitting huddled around a TV in the basement with your friends. Now, players log into online gaming platforms like Xbox Live to compete with 46 million other gamers. The adage “you’re only cheating yourself” doesn’t ring true when gamers take on millions of other people, and even the video game development companies themselves.
In 2011, the online gaming industry made $19 billion, not only from the sale of the original software, but also from countless microtransactions that happen during game play. Video game expert Scott Steinberg says that a relatively small group of cheaters can chase legitimate players (and their money) away from online gaming. “It’s entirely possible to break not only the in-game economy, but the actual economics around the game.” To avoid this, Steinberg says game developers spend vast amounts of time and money policing their game servers trying to find and ban cheaters.
According to Mia Consalvo, author of the book Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, cheating for real world profit has been going on for almost two decades, and has cost the video game industry millions of dollars. One of the more common forms of cheating involves the use of “bots,” which are small pieces of code designed to automate certain game processes and gather materials valuable in a particular game. “Instead of selling these things in the game, they’d list them on eBay, and make real money that way.” Consalvo adds.
In 2009, a player named Michael Donnelly developed a particularly effective bot called a “glider” to be used in the popular online game World of Warcraft, and began selling it to gamers through his company, MDY Industries LLC. The District Court of Arizona found Donnelly guilty of violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, shutting down the operation and setting the legal precedent that cheating by rewriting or overriding the code of online games isn’t just unscrupulous — it’s illegal.
As the online gaming market expands through cell phone gaming, PC gaming and a strengthening of console games’ online offerings, space for cheaters to operate will only continue to grow. Unlike the video games being fought over, the struggle between the cheaters and game developers won’t be won with strategy and skill, it will be won with money.