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Cheaters are everywhere, but the game isn’t over

What can a gamer do when multiplayer titles are full of cheaters?

Imagine darting around a corner for a brief moment of respite before heading into a firefight, only to notice that someone on the other team is constantly one step ahead of you, like they can see through walls. Or maybe their bullet curves through space and lands headshots over and over again, no matter how far away they are. Nothing makes a gamer rage quit from a match as quickly as encounters with cheaters.

Facing repeated defeat at the hands of people who break the rules of a game is a frustrating experience. With the proliferation of hacks, this is happening frequently—at a time when e-sports and casual gaming are more popular than ever.

Cheating isn’t a new phenomenon. There have been players bending the rules to give themselves an edge since the early days of gaming, when cheat codes were programmed into games for players to unlock. But nowadays, when multiplayer games are all the rage, cheating takes on a new meaning. It represents a nullified social contract within the gaming community.

“When you realize there is a cheater in the game, one of the fastest ways is to inform everyone in the chat room, and usually they will vote to kick out the player in the next round,” said Allan Phang, an e-sports evangelist who is also regional head of marketing and public relations of EVOS Esports.

According to a Irdeto Global Gaming survey in 2018, gamers in Asia Pacific are most likely to have their multiplayer gaming experience negatively impacted when other players cheat. The survey showed that 77% of players in China said that this happens frequently, followed by South Korea at 68%, well above the global average of 59%. And a survey in April by marketing analytics firm Adjust showed that more than 40% of mobile gamers in the United States have paid for bots to help them win in games.

Even though security in video games is constantly improving, hacks are becoming more sophisticated, and it is difficult to keep track of all cheaters due to their sheer number. “Hackers seem to always be one step ahead of the game companies, they always find a way to hack into the system, resulting in new methods of cheating, making it more challenging for game publishers to keep up,” Phang said.

Brushes with the law

Player ethics aside, cheating in casual video games falls in a legal gray area. It is easy to find free game cheats and mods on the internet. Players who cheat at a non-professional level may think that it is an innocent thing to do since there is nothing at stake—except for robbing the fun out of a game for other players.

“It is not easy to prevent cheats because many cheaters or hackers are kids and young people who are not aware or educated about the consequences. Some do it only for fun as they want to show who’s more powerful when playing a game,” Phang said.

In first-person shooters, spotting your opponents early could make all the difference. In-game screenshot from the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive blog.

Nonetheless, the ubiquity of these exploits makes game developers feel uneasy. If video games are meant to provide a fun, engaging experience, but cheating removes that for many players, then the consequence is that casual gamers might abandon this hobby. The concern is so severe that one company has even brought a case to court. In 2018, Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite, sued a 14-year-old player in the United States for copyright infringement as well as for promoting and selling Fortnite cheats.

Epic Games eventually settled the lawsuit one year later. The terms of the settlement remain confidential, but the website run by the defendant, where he sold cheat codes, has been taken offline.

Although most nations have not passed legislation related to cheating in video games, punishments in some countries are hard and fast. In 2018, a 28-year-old man in South Korea faced a one-year prison sentence for hacking Overwatch after reportedly earning nearly USD 180,000 from exploits he sold to other players. The court ruled that the man had violated two Korean laws—the Game Industry Promotion Act as well as the Information and Communication Technology Protection Law. In the same year, Chinese authorities arrested and fined 15 PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds hackers for selling game cheats and extracting data from users’ computers.

Reflecting on these cases, cheating in casual games may not give you any legal trouble. But if you’re the one who hacks the system and profits from it, the consequences could be severe.

Cheating in e-sports: Rare, but it happens

According to Ian Smith, commissioner of the Esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC), cheating is the biggest threat to e-sports from an integrity point of view.

With that said, it is definitely no easy feat to break the rules on the sly at an e-sports tournament. “Cheating in video games is enormous and every publisher possibly bans hundreds of players a week for that. But it is far less common to be found at the professional level,” Smith told KrASIA. “It is very difficult [for cheaters] to get away as tournament organizers have tight control. Your opponents are very good players too, so they will know if they’re being cheated.”

Even so, as long as there’s a will, there’s also a way. One of the most notable cases is Nikhil “forsaken” Kumawat from India, a member of OpTic Gaming’s Counter Strike: Global Offensive team. He was caught cheating at the eXTREMELAND Asia Finals in October 2018 and has been banned for life from e-sports tournaments.

Further afield, Cameron Jeffers, who won British Cycling’s eRacing Championships, was stripped from his title last year after being found guilty of cheating by using an upgraded virtual bike in the competition. Jeffers utilized a hacking device inside a thumb drive to make it look like he was cycling faster than in reality. More recently, a Formula E driver was fired from the Audi Sport racing team after hiring a professional gamer to take his place in an online race.

In order to determine and mete out punishments, e-sport tournament organizers often work with ESIC, which is a not-for-profit association that deals with issues and challenges related to integrity in e-sports. “We provide a set of standards to our members for tournament and league organizers. We have the Anti Corruption Code for match-fixing, Anti-Doping Policy, and Code of Conduct that deals with offenses like cheating,” Smith said.

Through these regulations, ESIC has jurisdiction to investigate, prosecute, and sanction players and participants who breach the rules. Some of ESIC’s members are the world’s largest e-sports company ESL, Swedish e-sports tournament organizer DreamHack, and international Counter-Strike: Global Offensive live tournament Blast Pro Series.

For now, the e-sports industry does not have an international governing body that is equivalent to FIFA, meaning there is no global standard for tournament organizers, Smith said.

In order to prevent and detect cheating, major tournaments use anti-cheat software to flag suspicious behavior during e-sports events. Whistleblowers also play a part, and people can report suspicious activities anonymously.

“There are many methods to prevent cheating, especially when there’s a lot of money at stake. For online tournaments that are held remotely, organizers should make sure that gamers play through a platform where you can see them, for example by using a webcam so that you know it’s that player, not some other people playing on someone’s account,” Smith said.

“The best environment to stop cheating altogether is live e-sports events, where organizers control all the hardware, so players have no opportunity to install hack software, but this type of event requires a lot of equipment and the players have to physically play in the same location,” Smith added.

The communal element of video games brings together people who are after competition and camaraderie. Photo by Stem List on Unsplash.

What’s the endgame?

Rampant cheating isn’t just a problem for players who are on the receiving end of unfair gameplay, it also impacts publishers that depend on people to repeatedly play their games. If players give up on a game, then plummeting traffic will rapidly shrink revenues, not only from in-game purchases but also merch. In 2018, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds reportedly lost many players after its developer, Bluehole, failed to address many bugs and problems in the game, including the prevalence of hacks that skewed the game’s dynamics.

“Publishers rely on ordinary players for their income. If you look at Riot and League of Legends, let’s say they have 100 million regular players, and each of those players spends on average USD 3 a month. That means Riot earns USD 300 million monthly in cash for small transactions from those hundred million users. But when somebody is cheated against constantly in a game, they will get annoyed and switch to other games where they have a chance to win. If publishers lost 10% of their users because of cheats and hacks, that would be around USD 30 million loss per month—and that’s a lot of money,” Smith explained.

As an avid gamer, Allan Phang offers a different view. He believes that it is the ethical players who suffer the roughest consequences of other gamers’ cheating. “Players spend a lot of time playing the game to get better, some do it to be professionals. But when they encounter cheaters, they eventually get frustrated and quit. Publishers will still make money, but we [the players] can’t buy back the time and all the energy invested in the games,” he said.

In any case, gaming companies put a lot of resources into stopping cheating. They will spend money on sophisticated anti-cheating technology or form specialized teams to deal with this matter.

The objective in battle royale games is to be the last player (or team) standing. In-game screenshot from Call of Duty: WarZone official website.

Take, as an example, Indonesian game publisher Indofun, which works with a third-party software developer that provides machine learning solutions to differentiate real players from bots. “Bots are malicious tools being used by millions of people from around the world in order to cheat to win, and also to profit.The better a game is, the more players would want to use bots, so we need to ensure this behavior will not ruin the system,” Indofun VP of game publishing Jeason Wu told KrASIA.

Meanwhile, Garena, the creator of popular games like Free Fire firmly stated that it does not tolerate behavior that undermines the fairness and integrity that are fundamental to players’ experience.

“We apply a range of screening technologies to spot suspicious behavior, and are constantly enhancing our ability to detect the most sophisticated cheaters. And our community knows that we take action when we identify cheating—we permanently ban anyone, amateur or pro, who is found to be cheating, and we block both their accounts and their devices from ever playing our game again,” a Garena spokesperson said to KrASIA.

Losing an account is like a death sentence for gamers, because they put a lot of effort into building their status, like leveling up their characters, Phang said. There is a financial aspect too, since some gamers spend a significant amount of cash on in-game purchases. “When your account gets banned for life, it is like you died inside a game. You have to start from zero again when creating a new account,” he said.

Garena did not go into detail on how they detect cheaters, but the company seems to be staying true to its commitment. It has permanently banned 89,600 accounts from Free Fire for using modified clients or third-party programs to play the game.

The company behind battle royale video game Call of Duty: WarZone also takes cheating seriously. Activision said that it has issued more than 70,000 permanent bans worldwide as of April 2020, and claims that its security team monitors all potential infractions 24/7.

“The gaming companies aim for profit, not to be the moral guardians of the gaming world. Preventing or stopping cheating costs a lot of money, so I think they are doing what they can within reason to address this issue so they won’t lose players and money. But of course, they could always do better to keep the game’s integrity and the community can play its part too. It is a long journey,” said Smith.

With no doubt, cheating destroys the integrity of games. Players rely on publishers to deal with this issue, but, unfortunately, the risk of encountering a dishonest opponent is always there. Although publishers may not be able to eliminate cheating completely, their ongoing efforts and commitment to keep exploits out of video games are necessary to maintain fun arenas for honest players to log on to whenever they want.