Gaming Culture at the Boundaries of Playby Frans Mäyrä
As the field of game studies and research has matured, multiple valid, yet somewhat differently oriented approaches to games, play and players have emerged. One of them is the cultural study of games and play related phenomena. Both the British and American traditions of cultural studies have been particularly interested in advancing our understanding of popular culture by tracing its position and significance from perspectives opened up by politics, economics, sociology, as well as by literary or textual studies, to mention just a few elements from this highly interdisciplinary field. Where the hallmark of British cultural studies used to be reliance on some version of Marxism or left-wing critique of capitalist society and its cultural industries, and the American approach to cultural studies was more likely to develop liberalist analyses of empowered audiences, or fandom activities, this divide does not stand out so clearly these days. While approaching Cheating by Mia Consalvo, it is nevertheless useful to be keep in mind such intellectual traditions and debates.
Mia Consalvo, an Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the School of Telecommunications at the Ohio University, reports in her book the results from six years of work on the theme of cheating, so the reader can expect a well-informed account of the topic, and in this respect Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Video Games (2007) does not fail the expectations. The study is nevertheless more than just an introduction to the forms and practices of cheating in games. It is also a useful example of what cultural game studies could mean and how this line of research can be carried out. In this review my aim is to address these both dimensions of the book: what does it teach about games and cheating, and what does it tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of a cultural approach.
The starting point of Consalvo in her book comes from two directions: both the personal memory of ‘cheating’ by secretly searching out a Christmas present (an Atari 2600) before its due time as a child, and the later observations about the widespread distribution and use of walkthroughs, cheat codes, and other means in contemporary gaming culture contribute to the initial sense of paradox, which book then proceeds to examine further. Cheating by looking up the solution (or a Christmas present) beforehand, will spoil the surprise and joy of finding things out in their proper way later, yet the practices of cheating are something that many of us will tolerate in ourselves, but not necessary in others. There is a particular dual logic or double moral at play while we cheat in games and Consalvo’s book makes a valuable contribution both by mapping out the many forms of cheating, as well as by carefully unravelling the underlying logic of cheating.
The cultural history of cheating is long, as this phenomenon has perhaps existed longer than the entire human history, and even the most ancient artistic and literary sources carry evidence about its widespread use and role in the society. Consalvo makes reference to the work of J. Barton Bowyer (actually a joint pseudonym of J. Bowyer Bell and Barton Whaley, a historian and a military-political deception theorist) to point out the role cheating had in the Iliad, where the Greeks gained victory through the famous ruse of Trojan Horse (see Bowyer 1982). Generally a forbidden and scorned practice, cheating has the propensity to suddenly become clever and admirable behaviour when used by a party we identify with, particularly to ‘even out the odds’ when faced with a vastly superior opponent. Rather than breaking the game, cheating can be read as an act that redefines the rules, ‘turns the tables’, and makes it possible to continue with the game. From the perspective of Consalvo’s study, this openness to interpretation in cheating behaviour is a particularly interesting theme to focus on.
The two key concepts that Consalvo introduces early on in her book point towards the central theoretical directions for influences in her research, textual and sociological. The first is ‘gaming capital’, which is an extension and reworking of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘cultural capital’ - originally conceived as a concept to describe the intangible benefits growing up in a well-educated family, for example, can provide to a person (see Bourdieu 1984). As proposed by Consalvo, gaming capital has a slightly different scope and function:
- Thus, one of the themes running through this book is the development of gaming capital as a central element to serious gameplay. [...] I believe that the concept of gaming capital provides a key way to understand how individuals interact with games, information about games and the game industry, and other game players. The term is useful because it suggests a currency that is by necessity dynamic - changing over time, and across types of players or games. (Consalvo 2007, 4.)
Gaming capital is for Consalvo a way to discuss the role knowledge, experience and skill have both for an individual, but also for the larger cultural and economical system that surrounds digital games. She particularly frames it as a response to the shortcomings of another key concept of cultural studies, ‘subculture’. If a group of players would constitute a subculture, that would mean that they share some ways of thinking, behaving and speaking that would identify them as members of a particular, cultural and social formation. Consalvo refers to role-playing gamers and fans of MMORPGs like EverQuest in particular as potentially constituting a subculture of their own, but she wonders whether an avid Counter-Strike player could be fruitfully described as a member of a gaming subculture. “A subculture, to be identified as such, must share common symbols, through such things as fashion, music or aesthetics” (p. 3). Thus, for Consalvo, a subculture needs to be externally visible e.g. in clothing, or integrate with an overall lifestyle in order to make sense. In my own view, I would be interested in studies that explore also the more invisible aspects of cultural bonds, including language, ritual and thought patterns, and thereby could rather easily imagine that the first-person-shooter fans, for example, could reveal interesting subcultural formations for a committed researcher. But I also respect Consalvo’s basic argument about the need to distinguish and discuss those aspects of value and significance in gaming practices that link the micro level of individual players to a more macro level of Western, industrialised society.
The second key concept that Consalvo introduces early on is ‘paratext’ by Gérard Genette, a French literary theorist. For a literary work, paratext can mean the book covers, blurb, table of contents or other similar elements that are not parts of the ‘authorial text’, but nevertheless frame it and influence how readers will approach and interpret it (Genette 1997). It can be argued that hypertextuality and the fluid (re)mixing of various media elements that is typical for the era of Internet and digital publishing makes it increasingly difficult to separate paratext from ‘originary’ texts. Consalvo makes reference to Peter Lunenfeld (p. 9) to argue that in digital media the paratexts are also often more interesting than the originary texts. Following this line of thought, one could claim that the main focal point in Cheating does not lie within games themselves (there are no extensive game analyses, for example), but at the various activities and elements that surround them. Should the book then be considered as off-topic, if taken as a work of game studies? Not to my mind; in the end Consalvo manages to construct a rich and detailed picture of what games are and mean for their players, by looking at various borderline phenomena. Culture is based on meaning, and meaning-making activities are based on an ability to make distinctions. Cheating is a revealing topic, since it makes visible what players actually consider as ‘proper gaming’ and what they attempt to exclude from it.
The book is divided into three main parts: the first part carries the ambitious title “A Cultural History of Cheating in Games”, the second is titled “Game Players” and the final, short part “Capital and Game Ethics”. There is a clear emphasis in the book on the various ‘cheating industries’, which is something that could also be interpreted as a tilt - an issue that is openly addressed at the end of the book, where Consalvo admits largely omitting discussion of player-created content (p. 176). A short discussion of free walkthroughs, online guides and Internet forum discussions and free help software follows, but it is fair to say that Cheating is more a book on the organised and commoditised forms of gaming culture, than about its informal and immaterial aspects. This is no doubt partly a consequence of methodological feasibility: elements like cheat guides are more immediately open for analytical approach than the spontaneous acts of cheating that would require extensive observations for a long duration of time. While the emphasis of the book lies on industrialised and commoditised forms of cheating, it is important to note that Consalvo is aiming towards a dialectical understanding of industry and player activities that relate to cheating. Her most substantial field work consists of more than five hundred hours of gameplay, or participant observation, carried out in one of the servers of Final Fantasy XI (Square, 2002), a moderately popular MMORPG that is part of the Japanese Final Fantasy franchise (p. 150). In addition, twenty-four in-depth interviews were carried out to gain a better understanding about the practices and attitudes towards cheating in its various forms; Consalvo also reports having carried out an open-ended survey of fifty game players as a part of an undergraduate course (p. 86). All this information is used in the book to construct an analysis about the dialectic of gaming culture with game-related industries, particularly in order to situate and understand cheating as it is concretised in various paratexts of gaming.
The particularly central paratext of games journalism is the topic of the first chapter, where Consalvo has chosen to focus mostly on Nintendo Power magazine (established in 1988). As the official magazine of Nintendo in North America, Consalvo discusses its role as a promotional tool from an industry perspective, but puts most emphasis on the educational and cultural roles the magazine served for the American players growing up with Nintendo’s games. Famous for its insider information into Nintendo games and for publishing detailed strategy guides, Nintendo Power was according to Consalvo a major factor in educating American gaming audience about what was good and bad in a video game, and for articulating and cultivating sense of value in gaming capital. The tricks and secret codes published in the “Classified Information” section were one element of that special currency gaming capital was built of. The magazine let it up to players themselves to choose whether to use the cheats in their actual gameplay or not - the insider information held some special value and status in itself. Nintendo Power also included tips and input from their readers, thereby cultivating a sense of participation in game culture, as gamers were able to gain and display their own growing capital. The dialectic between gamer culture and the needs of industry is taken into focus by Consalvo:
- Such early elements as its [Nintendo Power’s] game guides, “Classified Information,” and “Counsellor’s Corner” (among many others) worked together to help create a game player who possessed critical pieces of gaming capital: the player knew about the newest soon-to-be-released games and their general content; what advantages were coming in game hardware; how high a high score should be in order to be impressive; what secret codes and tricks could be used in the latest games; why such elements as controls and graphics were important; and how to play and finish specific games. That power gamer would become the ideal consumer of games and game magazines, and has shaped how the game industry has responded. (p. 32-33.)
Consalvo discusses also the issue of ‘easter eggs’, the secret items or elements in games that most often an individual programmer has secretly hidden inside game’s code to make a joke or some personal statement. As these sometimes constitute the makers of game ‘cheating’ on their employer (or the game publisher), the field of cheats expands even further. Consalvo does not delve on this point, but the multiple instances and levels of cheating actually highlight the complex fraction lines within such, often rather homogeneously understood concepts as ‘games industry’, ‘players’, or ‘customers’. There are clearly several differently positioned parties within games industry, sometimes with conflicting interests. And similar holds also true regarding game players: another player’s fun might be another one’s spoiled game - as is often the case in so-called ‘grief play’ (intentional harm, abuse or harassment of other players for one’s own enjoyment), which will be discussed more below.
The paratextual field of strategy guides for video games is the second key area Cheating discusses. Prima Publishing (currently named Prima Games) is a division of Random House, Inc., and calls itself at “the world’s leading publisher of strategy content for PC and console video games”. Another major guide publisher Consalvo discusses is BradyGames, which is currently part of Dorling Kindersley, or DK Publishing, itself a division of Penguin Group. Consalvo follows out the evolution of strategy book business, and concludes that unofficial guides have largely vanished from the market, as guides have become an officially sanctioned and licensed part of game publishing. The format and content of guides generally follows proven formulas of combining lavish illustrations with the gameplay basics, character class, weapon, armor and other item information, plus the actual walkthrough parts. Consalvo pays attention to how the secret or ‘spoiler’ elements are typically separated from the main walkthroughs, and also how the official guides do not generally publish the actual cheat codes. This part of her analysis is particularly enlightening, as it points out how the ‘proper way to play’ is carefully constructed even in the guidebooks: the most powerful cheats such as those codes (immortality, ‘god mode’) which the game developers and guidebook authors themselves often resort to while quickly playtesting certain parts of the game, are not included in the guides directed to the consumers. Consalvo describes such codes as specific commodities that hold value within the deals that game producers commonly make with the guide writers and game magazines. At the end of the lifespan of a game the cheat codes might be published to “breathe continued life into aging games” (p. 62); both the guidebooks and cheat codes might be used to encourage players to revisit the games, and explore them in order to find all the hidden bonus materials like side quests, secret areas and minigames which today’s complex games are designed to hold.
The third major area of ‘paratextual industries’ which are introduced in Cheating are producing the add-on devices that are used and marketed for gaining advantage in games. Game Genie cheat cartridges, which were designed by CodeMasters and sold by Galoob Toys in the USA and by Camerica in Canada and the UK, provide an interesting case study. Advertised as “game enhancement” devices that provide “extra power” to the gamer, Game Genie for Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) made possible for a console video gamer to gain infinite lives for her Mario, or allow level skipping or some other cheat. Consalvo highlights the legal battles between Nintendo and Game Genie producers: Nintendo claimed that the device created “derivative works” which infringed its copyrights (p. 67). Dispute was ultimately one about control over gaming experience. A device that allowed the modification of ‘authorial text/gameplay’ might shorten the life span of games the way Nintendo claimed (by making play ‘too easy’), but ultimately the issue revolved about control over gaming content. Galoob won the court case and Nintendo was ordered to pay compensation for lost sales to game enhancer makers. This can be interpreted to strengthen the position that game, once legally acquired, is customer’s property and she can use whatever means available to modify her gaming experience. However, in the later case of ‘mod chips’ the legal cases have generally turned against the modders; mod chips have been developed to circumvent built-in restrictions in gaming consoles at least from original Sony PlayStation onwards, but rather than enabling new functionalities in (legal) game copies, mod chips are generally used to run games and media intended for other markets (region code hack) or circumvent copy protection (running pirated or non-commercial, homebrewed games). Consalvo does not take sides in the disputes she documents, but she notes that her interview data points towards relative unpopularity of enhancement devices among game players (p. 75). She also points out that it is in the interests of console and game manufacturers like Sony to make gaming technology opaque - the proper technology use involves “not cracking open machines, playing only properly purchases [sic] disks, and buying a new generation of machine every five or so years” (p. 78). The overreliance to enhancement technologies has also the ambiguous role of potentially reducing one’s gaming capital, while some proficiency in this area could be expected from a competent and knowledgeable gamer.
The legal debates on cheating have been driven by commercial interests, either of those who would profit from closed and restricted gaming technologies, or of those companies who would profit if “enhancement” of games is freely allowed. The approaches and stances of gamers themselves towards cheating in games have been somewhat differently motivated. Looking at her evidence, Consalvo separates groups of attitudes that actually constitute two different moral economies in cheating: the first is applied to single-player, the second to multiplayer games. In single player games the situation is more one of player negotiating with her own conscience, and is based on an understanding of what constitutes ‘proper gameplay’. Consalvo divides the attitudes towards single-player game cheating in three groups: firstly, the ‘purist’ considers as cheating anything other than getting through the game all on your own. Even asking for advice from a friend would be considered as cheating within this moral system. The second group considers as ‘unfair advantage’ any exploit, hack or cheat code that would somehow alter the challenge, as originally designed into the game. But consulting a walkthrough or guide would be allowed, since it does not ‘break the game’ itself. Thirdly, the most liberal group thinks that cheating is only possible when it is directed towards another player - in a single-player situation the norms are created by the player herself, so even radical alterations of game code are not cheating. They just constitute alternative ways of playing that are sometimes more fun, sometimes less, than the designer- or manufacturer-imposed intended style of gameplay. (p. 88-92.) A typical way to negotiate cheating involves setting up boundaries which dictate when cheating is allowed and when it is not. When one has tried hard, and yet cannot get ahead in a game, would grant a ‘license to cheat’ for many gamers. For some, the fact that they are in a hurry and cannot afford to use tens or hundreds of hours of their time, in order to get and see the end of game they have purchased would be reason enough for resorting to a cheat. Some use a cheat just because it is fun: a modified game provides a different kind of game experience.
In a multiplayer space the nature of cheating changes. Consalvo has decided to separate grief play from other forms of cheating: the primary goal of griefer is not to gain advantage within the game, but rather to derive pleasure by spoiling the game for others. The griefers ‘game the players’, rather than ‘play the game’, and thus the fundamental nature of their actions is different from other players (even while it still might be ludic, and playfully motivated). The range of cheating and motivations for those behaviours is great particularly in the largely anonymous field of Internet gaming. Consalvo points out that in traditional offline situations there are mechanisms that are used, for example, to negotiate handicaps that allow players with different abilities to compete more evenly with each other. In the online space typically no such elements exist, and thereby some players rationalise the use of cheats in multiplayer shooters or the use of real money trading in MMORPGs as fair practice, since they perceive it as a technique to even up the different potentials for success. As a prevalent practice, cheating in online games may nevertheless lead to increasingly demoralised players who will stop and move elsewhere; the online game operators are thus continuously playing cat and mouse with the cheaters. The forms of multiplayer game cheating all the same continue to thrive and gain new innovations. In Cheating the main forms of these practices are divided in four categories: taking advantage of game glitches, taking advantage of people, taking advantage of code, and taking advantage of third-party systems (p. 113).
There are plenty of interesting historical and contemporary examples about the human ingenuity in the case studies that are reported in Mia Consalvo’s book. Gaming obviously has the potential to bring multiple sides of human nature into light, and in a manner that makes the research of games and playing interesting also to those working in other fields of science and scholarship. Yet, perhaps the most interesting discussions are those, which Consalvo does not provide definitive answers for. Is cheating a particular kind activity that some players sometimes decide to perform, or is cheating producing cheater identity? (p. 127-128.) How ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are being produced in game culture - and in culture and society more generally? (p. 188.) There are several discussions Cheating implicitly or explicitly links to in this regard; for example, the debates about ‘magic circle’ or the role of ‘negotiable consequences’ in games and play, on one hand, and the discussions about the ‘ethics of game design’ or the ethical relationships between online and offline actions and identities. The academic interest on cheating, grief play and related themes also continues strong. Mia Consalvo’s book appears as a recurrent reference in these and other discussions, giving already some proof of the lasting value this contribution has provided to the research field.
ReferencesBourdieu, Pierre (1984) “The Forms of Capital.” In: John G. Richardson (ed.) Handbook of Theory of Research for the Sociology of Education. (Trans. Richard Nice.) New York: Greenwood Press. p. 241-58.
Bowyer, J. Barton [Pseudo. J. Bowyer Bell and Barton Whaley.] (1982) Cheating: Deception in War & Magic, Games & Sport, Sex & Religion, Business & Con Games, Politics & Espionage, Art & Science. New York (NY): St Martin’s Press.
Consalvo, Mia (2007) Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Video Games. Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press.
Genette, Gérard (1997) Paratexts. Thresholds of Interpretation. (Orig. Seuils, 1987.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.