An odd bonding experience that I had with my mother as a child was over the first Crash Bandicoot game: rare as it was that she would ever have anything positive to say about video games, she took to Crash well and, as a seven year-old with a moderate amount of intuition, I could always tell when she’d spent the day playing Crash while I was at school by the blisters taking form on her thumbs. The shared affinity we had with Crash, however, was to end shortly after the level Heavy Machinery: neither of us were able to progress any further, so we turned to the only reasonable way of progression – the latter pages of an issue of the Official PlayStation Magazine, where we found the password to unlock all levels with all hidden objects collected (Triangle, Triangle, Triangle, Triangle, X, Square, Triangle, Triangle, Triangle, Triangle, Square, X, Triangle, Circle, Triangle, Triangle, Triangle, Circle, Square, Triangle, X, X, X, X, for the curious). Of course, our curiosity to know what came next was sated, but at the expense of the mystery of the game and the rewards of completing a challenge on one’s own initiative. Of course, this merely shows that cheating in our case robbed us of what could have been a good experience: the matter at hand here is more to do with whether this sort of cheating is to any meaningful extent “wrong” or “improper” within the relevant game world.
The issue of multiplayer cheating will be dismissed: if it is not believed that allowing oneself to have an unfair advantage over another without their consent in any competition is just, there is not much that can be argued with – it is the basis of all conventional theories of justice that unfair advantages are not just. With that established, the general purpose of the cheat codes generally found in games shall be set out.
Cheat codes are generally included in games in order to facilitate playtesting: in order to ensure a quality product, the game has to be thoroughly tested – and every part of the game. Level skip, unlimited resource and similar cheat codes would allow for this processes to take less time than the already inordinate amount that it may take to ensure that every aspect of a level plays as it should and all in-game assets behave as they should. Though generally phased out by the growth in real-time achievement tracking in games (such as the PS3’s Trophy system and Xbox 360’s Achievements) requiring a level playing field for the unlocking of such rewards, there are still methods of exploiting a game in order to make one’s passage through it simpler, such as taking advantage of stupid AI within a game or Call of Duty’s four-iteration-old quickscope trick (which, ironically, the inclusion of cheat codes for playtesting may have made more apparent) with similar moral dimensions of misappropriating the tools given to one by a game in order to secure one’s safe passage through its more challenging sections.
Intuitively, the use of cheat codes or game mechanic exploits poses little moral or intellectual challenge: these tools are provided to us by the game designers, thus it seems reasonable to re-purpose them without fear of such actions being anything other than morally permissible. After all. we may use a bread knife to cut bread, as was intended, but we may also use it to open letters, cut sellotape or even to open a window that has been painted shut. Tools do not of themselves have only creator-permitted uses: tools are useful by virtue of what the user makes use of them for. A knife, to carry the example forward, is an incredibly versatile tool and can be used without any moral qualms for many tasks. The developers of a game may have intended cheat codes to be used to speed up the playtesting process, but their uses are manifold: the player could also use the codes to increase the speed of their playthrough and there be no moral issue with this. The inevitability of providing a tool is that humans, being as creative as they are, will find non-sanctioned uses for it.
The smallest modicum of introspection, however, will show that not all uses of tools are morally acceptable: our bread knife could be used to commit violence against a person. Save for any mitigatory circumstances, we would hold that this use of a tool would be morally reprehensible. If we scale down this hypothesised violence against a person to violence committed against a creative work: we would still admonish someone for taking their bread knife to a painting – this is clearly not a legitimate use of the tool. Likewise, the use of cheat codes and gameplay exploits to progress through a game may be an improper thing to do: just as in the case of the painting, we are using something provided by the world the two objects inhabit (knife and painting; cheat codes and intended play experience) to perform an act that could be frowned upon. Just the efforts of the painter are ruined by the use of the knife on their design, the efforts of programmers, level designers, playtesters et al are being wasted by the use of tools not for their intended purpose.
From the discussion above, it seems that the issue of appropriate of tools comes down to how much one values the work of the developers in creating a game world to be enjoyed in accordance with the rules that they have designed for their world. Further clarification may be possible through the analysis of the framework given above through both a consequentialist and deontological lens.
Under a consequentialist view of the world, the use of cheat codes would be justified simply if the results of allowing that action lead to desirable consequences. In my Crash Bandicoot case, then, the use of the unlock everything cheat code was an improper act: the use of the code, though unbeknown to me at the time, would lead to me becoming disillusioned with the game and thus leading to poorer consequences for me than if I had simply persevered and become able enough to complete the game on my own – the situation here would have been one of greater net enjoyment of the game. Such a case is merely anecdotal, however, and heavily dependent on the contingencies of both myself and the case in hand. It would be too difficult to imagine a game more narrative-based than Crash Bandicoot and a player for whom the narrative takes a precedent over the gameplay itself. For such a person, the use of cheat codes may in fact unlock parts of the narrative experience that they themselves would not have been available to them otherwise. Such a person’s experience would invariably be improved by the use of cheat codes and result in a better outcome than the frustration of being unable to progress. This way of valuing actions, then, does little to tell us about the moral dimensions of cheating beyond answering whether it was the right or wrong thing to do in individual cases.
A deontological morality instructs us that we should do whatever is required by duty. It may seem odd to talk of duties inherent in how we play games, but by virtue of purchasing games (or rather, licenses to play games) we enter ourselves into certain contractual obligations (such as the obligation not to copy the game that we have bought) – contractual obligations that imply duties to perform them, under pain of punishment. Talk of duty pertaining to video games, then, is not as ridiculous as it may sound. The duties that we actually have in playing games appear to arise from the reasons for which we play games: if we play games in order to enjoy the alternate worlds presented therein, then it follows that we should be duty-bound in order to protect our reason for engaging in the game playing to play by the rules of this world. We should not use cheat codes as it undermines the reason for which we engage in the activity. If we take a more concrete formation of a deontological principle in Kant’s categorical imperative, then we cannot perform an action morally if we would not wish that acting in accordance with the principles that lead us to an action would be a universal law. If we apply this to the use of cheat codes, then it would follow that if we believe doing so to be morally worthy, that we should wish that actions that undermine the nature of the world should be morally permissible. Given that this type of actions (such as undermining the general principles of Newtonian physics) is generally impossible, it would be ridiculous to wish it to be a moral law. Cheating in video games, then, cannot be construed as moral.
Though the deontological view of ethics may provide a case for the belief that the use of cheat codes and gameplay exploits is indeed an unethical act, it seems unlikely that such a discovery would change much about the gaming community. When x amount of money is only keypresses away, people will make the decision to make those keypresses in order to buy their Sims the latest piece of the Katy Perry Sweet Treats collection, or any other less specific case of in-game benefit from cheating. For myself, though, it will always just be a way to ruin game mechanics.