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.

Sport
Mourinho lost his temper as well as the match
sportLiverpool handed title boost as Sunderland smash manager’s 77-game home league run
Voices
Sweet tweet: Victoria Beckham’s selfie, taken on her 40th birthday on Thursday
voices... and her career-long attack on the absurd criteria by which we define our 'betters', by Ellen E Jones
Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
VIDEO
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Voices
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
Arts & Entertainment
Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin has been working on the novels since the mid-Nineties
books
News
Easter a dangerous time for dogs
these are the new ones. Old ones are below them... news
News
Brand said he
people
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Sport
Roger Federer celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Masters
sport
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
film
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Apprentice C# .NET Developer

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We provide business administration softw...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit