Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames I give it 3 stars

As a lawyer who studies games and gaming, I’m very interested in the analogy between the rules of a game and a system of laws. It’s a wonderful analogy because it’s both clearly useful and obviously flawed. On the one hand, we speak casually about using law to “level the playing field” and Justice Roberts famously compared judges to umpires. On the other, people who say that the legal system is a game usually mean something quite cynical by it.

Sometimes, both kinds of rules apply to the same conduct. A baseball player who clubs another player with the bat to avoid being tagged out is violating both the rules of baseball and the law. Especially in these situations, it’s important to figure out exactly how binding the rules of a game are. Are they so sacrosanct that breaking the rules should be against the law, too? Are they so flimsy that the formal “rules” of a game never matter? Something in between? Or something else entirely?

But perhaps focusing on the logical system of rules as such is unhelpful. We really care about the dual concept: the set of behaviors that are permissible moves within a given system. From the rules, one can derive the behaviors, and vice versa. That’s a recognizably Realist point about law; what matters is not the law on the books, but what legal actors will do. Mia Consalvo’s Cheating makes a similar move on the game side. She asks what players mean when they say that given behavior is or isn’t cheating and thus builds up an extensional profile of cheating in videogames.

I’m not giving away too much of the punch line to say that she pretty thoroughly demonstrates that cheating is a flexible and contested concept. It has real force: players will refuse to read strategy guides or use bots because “that would be cheating.” But at the same time, its meaning is unfixed. One man’s cheating is another’s expert play. Through a mixture of ethnographic interviews and historical survey, Consalvo pretty much destroys any hope of deriving a meaningful notion of cheating behavior by looking at a computer game in isolation from its player community. But since “cheating” (i.e. “impermissible behavior”) is the dual concept to “rules,” that means that a game’s ruleset is also fundamentally a construction of its player community. We can’t say what the rules are without looking at the game’s “paratext”: the strategy guides, discussion boards, marketing materials, reviews, and word-of-mouth buzz that surround the “text” of the game itself.

Consalvo deploys the idea of “gaming capital” (by analogy to cultural capital) to explain what gamers are doing as they share information about how to play games better. You have gaming capital when you are recognized as a skillful, knowledgeable player. Magazine, strategy guides, and FAQs create hierarchies of specialized expertise in which the circulation of game-specific knowledge helps define who is recognized as a good gamer and who is not. Those patterns of circulation are central to defining what is and is not cheating in the context of a particular game, its paratext, its players, and their communities.

I think this is all exactly right, and while I’m no expert in the sociology, it seems to me a very helpful use of the theory. Still, I regret two things. The first is that the book is slight, not just in its size but also in its ambitions. T.L. Taylor’s Play Between Worlds has substantially fewer words but is much richer in its understandings of player communities. Almost every page of Play Between Worlds has some sharp observation or a well-chosen detail about what particular players have done. Cheating manages to stay abstract most of the time, and I think it could have benefited from being more specific here and there. The occasional close readings—e.g. of Nintendo Power’s tips—are some of the most satisfying parts of the book, because they really make the theory pay off. They never, however, go into as much depth as I’d have liked, nor are there enough.

An example: The Konami Code isn’t just “one of the best-known secrets in gaming”; it’s one of the great bits of video game culture. Consalvo mentions it to make a point about the layout of Nintendo Power, but it’s actually a great example by itself of the paratextual construction of cheating. Konami put the code in game after game, which created a piece of gaming capital that linked its games and created a kind of shared cheat across all of them. Its very fame—and the clear intentionality of its appearance in multiple games—legitimized it as something less cheat-y than other cheat codes. And that dialog between Konami and players has spawned a piece of enduring folklore that plays with the relationship between gaming and cheating. Consalvo’s theoretical apparatus would suffice to make wonderful hay here, but she doesn’t.

My other concern is that her narrative leaves out a lot of significant history. Game companies played a much bigger role in constructing the paratext of cheats and hints than she acknowledges. Major adventure games, from Infocom through Sierra and beyond, often had official hint books, which used invisible ink or multi-color printing to allow gamers who bought the books to read only the hints appropriate to their situation. That era largely predated the era of third-party strategy guides she describes, but she says nothing about it. (Significantly, even noncommercial adventure games often had similarly official hints; text adventures to this day often come with built-in hint systems.)

The transition to third-party guides not only eliminated these direct hints, it also largely killed off what had been a thriving tradition of extensive game manuals. (Or perhaps that tradition did itself in, to save a few dollars in manufacturing costs, and third-party guides filled the void it left behind.) A shift from having a detailed manual at your fingertips to needing to look to external sources for the same information seems like the sort of shift in gaming capital that Consalvo ought to be all over. For example, an official manual provides implicit guidance about what is innocent information (anything in the manual) and what is illicit (anything else). If you get your detailed bestiary from a strategy guide, the line is less clear, and suddenly buying a guide and flipping to the cheat codes is a more ambiguous act than it used to be. And so on.

Again, it’s not that Consalvo’s theory is wrong or unhelpful. It’s just that the book could do so much more with the theory than it does. It is, perhaps, its bad fortune to dwell in the shadow of the profound book that it could have been.