Time for fair play: Online cheating by gamers is increasing - and it's seriously spoiling the fun

The idea of fair play has often been ignored by gamers desperate to slay end-of-level bosses or achieve the ultimate high score, but that's now changing. David Crookes reports on the fightback

Hands up everyone who wants $1 billion dollars free of charge. OK, so there are a couple of catches. The first is that, technically speaking, these dollars don't really exist. They're virtual, and can only be used in a video game. The second problem is that the people who are handing out these digital dollars are hackers (Boo! Hiss!), and their efforts to flood the game's economy isn't down to the goodness of their hearts.

The money-logged game in question is GTA Online, the multiplayer online version of the best-selling console title Grand Theft Auto V. Pumping illicit cash into a game where the idea is to start with nothing and strive to achieve has caused huge disruption for GTA Online's economy and removed the motivation for the players affected.

The recent influx of unlimited dollars led to countless complaints from gamers, and with hackers hell-bent on disrupting the game to take a short-cut to success, GTA's developer, Rockstar Games, was forced to take its game offline to remove the counterfeit cash. This week it vowed to place deliberate cheaters in "isolated cheater pools" and talked of bans.

And yet the hacking attempt was merely the latest battle in gaming's long-running war against those who refuse to play fair. Days after GTA Online was reinstated, new ways to earn unlimited dollars were posted online by monetary mischief-makers. For the online-games business – as well as the players, of whom more later – this kind of thing matters. The gaming industry is expected to be worth $83bn (£50bn) by 2016 with online and mobile alone set to grow to $48bn, some 55 per cent of the total worth. Cheating can seriously affect revenue. If some players can move through walls, float and be impervious to bullets and others cannot, then it produces an uneven playing field, leaving the non-cheating gamers at a distinct disadvantage. The danger is that they walk away.

Ryan Butt, former editor of PowerStation, a now-defunct gaming magazine devoted to cheats, believes that "cheats are harmless bits of fun if used by an individual to affect only their game. But when cheats affect the gaming world at large, then it becomes an issue. Unscrupulous gamers hack into games and run riot at other people's expense on multiplayer titles."

Cheating takes on different forms. Code can be used to control characters – or "bots" – within a game to give the advantage to a particular player, perhaps by getting them to automatically shoot at a rival player whenever they come into range. Players can hack maps within a game to see more of them than their rivals and find their way around them quicker. League-table rankings can be boosted and bugs exploited.

There are so many ways to manipulate online games that the mighty games publisher Activision admitted two years ago that it struggled to combat cheating players. More than 1,600 cheaters were banned from playing Modern Warfare 3 online and a petition was started at change.org urging Activision and the game's developer, Infinity Ward, to "come up with a better anti-cheat/ban program".

"Keeping an even playing field is integral," says Neil McClarty, brand director for the online game RuneScape. "But it's an arms race between a developer and a cheating community." As well as relying on players for tip-offs, developers look for unusual activity and use software to keep potential problems at bay. Since its release in 2002, Valve Anti-Cheat software has been used in more than 60 online games on the Steam gaming platform, picking up on computers with identifiable cheats installed on them. It has led to more than 1.5 million accounts being banned.

"We, as developers, have to be cutting-edge," says McClarty about RuneScape's own system. "We have led the way for years against malicious cheating. We will take random samples of 1,000 accounts and check for legitimacy to see whether it is a real person based on their behaviour. We have a very sophisticated system called Botwatch, which watches in-game avatars in real time. [Our] anti-cheating software can detect cheating within minutes."

Grand Theft Auto V lets gamers skip missions after a few failed attempts
Yet cheating in games is nothing new. For years, large sections in computer magazines would detail various cheats – from simple key presses to lengthy code. Sneaky hardware devices such as the Multiface for the ZX Spectrum or the Game Genie for Nintendo and Sega consoles allowed gaming code to be manipulated. It was rare for a game not to have some kind of cheat associated with it. But online cheating is different. "If enough players feel that cheating is endemic in a game, they won't want to play it. The playing community – and therefore the paying community – will disappear," says Mia Consalvo, research chair in game studies and design at Concordia University in Montreal. "Developers have to show publicly that they are taking steps to end cheating."

The motivation to cheat differs depending on whether the game is single or multiplayer. Gamers may simply be stuck and need a helping hand. They may want to open up parts of a game otherwise closed to them because they have not reached the stage of unlocking them. They may be curious to see what they could do or they may be fiercely competitive. Others cheat just because they can and they love to cause disruption doing so. "Some players believe that others are cheating, so they need to cheat to level the playing field," says Consalvo, the author of Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames. "They attach status to leaderboards and want to dominate competitions. For those types of players, achieving status is more important than being 'fair'."

But increasingly, developers set challenges that accumulate into points: the more points people get, the better a gamer they appear to be. They can be amassed, depending on a player's console of choice, as Xbox Achievements and PlayStation Trophies. Added competition means cheaters look for glitches to sweep up achievements and trophies in the fastest possible time. "These could involve unspotted bugs being used to prevent multiple playthroughs or farming for specific cumulative accolades in a certain place in the game," says Butt.

Yet developers don't always rally against cheating. Some have run premium-rate help- lines in the past; others offer cheats as in-app purchases (such as The Mighty Eagle in Angry Birds that allows levels to be skipped… for a one-off fee of 69p). "There's a prevalence of free-to-play games, where publishers let anyone advance slowly for free but will offer the player various ways to quickly progress – in exchange for legitimate payment," says Consalvo.

Then there are games which have given players an either/or choice. The classic GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64 in 1997 allowed players to select invisibility, invulnerability and powerful weapons before playing a game. "But we called them 'cheats' and added the rule that if you played with a cheat enabled you would not unlock further levels," says the game's developer Martin Hollis. This forced players to question whether cheating was worthwhile.

This approach is less prevalent today and developers are aware that gamers want to feel a sense of progression. Last year's PlayStation3 game The Last of Us reminds struggling players that they can temporarily drop the difficulty level, while Grand Theft Auto V lets gamers skip missions after a few failed attempts (effectively letting people cheat in single-player mode). Handholding to prevent players from becoming bored or giving up is rife.

"Not everyone likes a challenge," says Tim Jones, head of creative at Rebellion, creator of the Sniper Elite games. "Some people just want to follow a story or quest through to the end, see everything in it and say they've beaten it. Games can be about freedom, not about testing yourself. It's just a healthy form of play."

Or is it? "A serious line is crossed when a person claims to have achieved something that they have not," says Hollis. "That is a lie and a fraud. If you cheat in online high-scores, use modifications to win in online play, or say to your friend you unlocked the super-ultra-banana and you are lying, you are stepping outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour, and as a consequence you will die alone. Unless you are very charming, of course."

Entry code: A cheating classic

If you entered Up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-b-a-Start on a joypad in the 1980s, chances are you would have received some juicy power-ups. Created by game developer Kazuhisa Hashimoto to help him finish playing a title he had spent ages working on, this was called the Konami Code and it was used in more than 100 games.

News
people And here is why...
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
Voices
voicesBy the man who has
Sport
Arsene Wenger tried to sign Eden Hazard
footballAfter 18 years with Arsenal, here are 18 things he has still never done as the Gunners' manager
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
News
Floyd
newsFloyd 'Creeky' Creekmore still performed regularly to raise money for local hospitals
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson star in The Twilight Saga but will not be starring in the new Facebook mini-movies
tvKristen Stewart and Stephenie Meyer will choose female directrs
News
William Hague
people... when he called Hague the county's greatest
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Arts and Entertainment
Twerking girls: Miley Cyrus's video for 'Wrecking Ball'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
Extras
indybestKeep extra warm this year with our 10 best bedspreads
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    QA/BA - Agile

    £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

    Senior Infrastructure Engineer - Server, Networks

    £40000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Infrastructure En...

    Application Support Analyst - Service Desk - Central London

    £30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analy...

    Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?