When it comes to video games, when is cheating really cheating?
Super Nintendo Game Genie By Evan-Amos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s a lovely fall evening, and you settle in to play Grand Theft Auto V as the quiet pitter-patter of rain beats against the window. The atmosphere is quiet and contented, and though you know that calm is about to be shattered by a hailstorm of bullets and car tire screeches, you’re ready for the madness. You’re in the right place at the right time and you know you’re going to progress!

About an hour into your trance, as you meander your way up a sidewalk to your next checkpoint, you stop in a moment of confusion. Which building were you supposed to go to? Oh right, there’s a blip on the map showing where you’re supposed to be, but…going to it does nothing. You look closer, seeing that your destination is up, like up a few floors in a building. But you can’t find a way to get up. The building’s doors don’t open and there’s no discernible climbing apparatus in a suitable location. So you start jumping up to whatever platforms you can, hoping that you’ll end up where you need to be so the scene can start. But you soon reach a point where you can climb no further. In frustration, you climb back down and step out to survey the situation. It doesn’t seem like the game glitched, but you know you’re missing or not seeing something, yet you just can’t figure out what it is. You sure don’t want to start over, even if the last autosave occurred recently, and you’ve been in such a groove with the game up to this point that it seems a shame to simply give up. After flinging forth a few choice expletives, you resign yourself to the Internet. You hate to do it, but a walkthrough may be your only hope.

After perusing a few sites, you stupidly stumble upon that perfect piece of advice you need to progress. You head back to the game with that knowledge and progress with ease through that seemingly insurmountable checkpoint.

Did you just cheat?

Some might say no, that’s not cheating! That’s looking for a way out of a confusing situation. Besides, getting a snippet of help is better than rage quitting a game over a silly checkpoint.

Others might say yes, you cheater-cheater-pumpkin-eater! You totally cheated! You went out and looked for information that you couldn’t figure out on your own in order to succeed. That’s cheating.

What does it mean to cheat at games these days?

Some of you might remember the Game Genie (pictured above) and later the Game Shark peripherals for systems such as the NES, SNES, Gameboy, Sega Genesis, and others. These cheat systems (billed as “game enhancers,” but who were they kidding?) allowed players to enter codes for things that made games easier and more fun: unlimited lives, unlimited ammo, special moves; and harder and less fun: starting with 1 life or less energy.  We had a Game Genie for our SNES. I don’t recall off-hand if the thing came with a code book, but my brother and I found codes in magazines like Nintendo Power, which regularly published them.  It didn’t take long for us to amass a variety of codes — I remember using the infinite lives codes in Super Mario World and Mega Man X pretty frequently.  And yes, that was considered cheating at the time.  Having infinite lives (or infinite anything/invincibility) at a time when most games only allowed a set number of lives gave the players the upper hand.  And frankly, it made some games more enjoyable.  Not having that fear of starting all over again meant that playthroughs, even on difficult levels, didn’t feel like maddening grindfests.

But these days, most games have infinite lives. With the exception of survivalist games, ammo and health is generally plentiful.  Easy settings allow for more casual play.  The old-school idea of “cheating” seems to be built into modern games.  And yet real cheating, giving oneself an unfair advantage over other players, is a big deal today — much bigger than it was back in the SNES days. Sure, there are still cheat codes and game guides that offer up some of the answers, but players with the technological know-how are finding new ways to hack into games and invent new mods.  (And not all mods are cheats.) Identified cheaters are regularly kicked off networks and banned from play.  Real cheating is much more of an issue with online multiplayer while cheating at a game in the privacy of one’s own home is only “cheating” if the player considers it so.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I guess today there’s cheating and there’s cheating, and the distinction between the two boils down to advantages and affects on other players. But it’s far from a black and white issue.  Personally, I’d rather get a little extra help than give up on a game entirely because I can’t progress. Or break a controller in frustration…which, of course, has never happened.

15 thoughts on “When it comes to video games, when is cheating really cheating?”

  1. if that were cheating then I would be the biggest cheater of them all! I feel that getting stuck in a situation like what you described above is not cheating. That’s the same as asking a friend for help. If it were cheating then they wouldn’t include that kind of feature in PS4 :-)
    Cheating I think would apply to when you gain the upper hand over another player giving you an UNFAIR advantage. Or something like that..I think I may have confused myself :-\

    1. No, I think you’re right — having an unfair advantage over another player is Cheating with a capital “C.” But I know people who have argued that walkthroughs do this too, but I’m not sure I agree. Then again, since I regularly use walkthroughs, I guess I’m a pretty big cheater to them anyway, lol. :)

  2. Another thing to note was that Gamesharks sometimes gave you access to weirder things than simple cheats, like Final Fantasy VII’s Debug Room. Probably more examples too, but that’s the one I remember best.

    1. Hmmm… I never used a “cheat device” for FFVII, so I’m going to have to look up that debug room…sounds interesting! But you’re right, there was more to those things than just cheat codes giving infinite lives and ammo. We had one for our SNES, and I seem to remember gaining access to something special in one of the Mega Man games…maybe…

  3. Even though I call it cheating when I look up how to get through part of a game, it’s certainly not a bad kind of cheating, and it’s up to the player if they want to do it. For me, a game is more satisfying to beat without cheating, but at the same time, I’m not about to leave a game unfinished because I wouldn’t cheat. Games are not fun if I only get halfway through, so if I really must cheat, then so be it.

    Just a few minutes ago, actually, I had to cheat to find out how the heck to beat Ursula in “Kingdom Hearts” (Final Mix) (I’ve done it twice before, but now I don’t remember how I did it). I seriously was fighting her for 45 minutes, screaming more and more as my frustration really got to me (oh my gosh, I was so darn mad, and you can barely ever hurt her because she keeps spinning around like a lunatic and those eels keep getting in the way, GRAH!), before I realized my current method was just not working (I should have realized that a half hour ago), so I looked for the correct way to do it. I found out that I needed more magic than I currently had left, so I let her kill me so I could start over with full magic and tried again. Sometimes you just have to cheat, and while I feel naughty for doing it, at least I actually can enjoy the game. There’s no way I’m not beating “Kingdom Hearts”. No way.

    1. Oh man, if I was in your situation, I’d cheat too! You’re right that it’s much more satisfying to complete a game solely on wit and skill, but why get crazily frustrated when cheats, er…help is available? Cheating with as small “c” is better than giving up on a game entirely. Unless the game is simply awful, then all the cheating in the world probably won’t help.

  4. I don’t really think it’s cheating if you’re looking up something your stuck in a game. Yeah, it’d be better if you tried to figure it out on your own, but spending hours in the same spot is frustrating. If you’re at a lost, it’s time to consult a guide. Like you said, it’s better to progress further than rage quit!

    1. Yes! Though the rage might happen before seeking help, better to take a few breaths and then find a solution rather than quit a game entirely, especially if it’s a game you really like.

  5. “But these days, most games have infinite lives. With the exception of survivalist games, ammo and health is generally plentiful. Easy settings allow for more casual play. The old-school idea of “cheating” seems to be built into modern games.”

    This is an excellent point. So many of the limits and difficulties of older game design have been removed for various reasons (stronger narrative, better immersion, open access to all skill levels), and it certainly could seem like cheating to our younger selves.

    I think an interesting result of this trend is the demand/love for roguelikes and super difficult games that has shown up over the last few years. Games like Spelunky and Dark Souls have reinstated the old game design method of insane challenge, and people seem to be eating it up. Even better, with Youtube providing a platform for people to share their victory over these hardcore challenges, gamers seems to revel in these handicapped/no cheats accomplishmnets.

    What a fascinating time to be living in as a gamer who grew up during the 80s/90s.

    1. Isn’t it? It’s fascinating how much video games have changed in such a short amount of time, especially when compared to other pastimes. They’ve evolved in ways that both meet and defy consumer expectations. And you’re right, with so many different sharing and connection tools, any one can find their own gaming niche to which to belong.

      I got a little off topic there, but as games evolve so too will the notion of cheating. I’m sure it’ll always be a thing that some will favor and some will decry; but just how people institute cheats will surely change with time. The question of “why cheat?” probably won’t.

    1. Quite true! Game guides are kind of like enabled “cheating.” Acceptable but still frowned upon by some. But it’s kind of funny that game guides are still produced with so much free info available online. It’s been years since I bought one.

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