The Psychology of Cheating: Why do People Cheat in Multiplayer Games?

Have you ever cheated in a game? Any game at all? I think it’s safe to say that most of us have used cheats in at least one game. Game cheats are a part of gaming culture. The Konami Code is famous in its own right. Who of us that played the original Doom hasn’t typed in “IDDQD” to activate “god mode”? Anyone?

Game Genies and Game Sharks are a cherished part of our gaming history, when it comes to single player games practically everyone is a cheater at some point. My personal rule with game cheats has always been to only mess around with them once I’d finished the game legitimately at least once. In the days before you could change difficulty levels mid-game or easily acquire walkthroughs, game cheats were also a way to get past a seemingly impossible section of the game. In both cases using cheats is about having fun. Either you’d exhausted the legitimate fun you could have or the game had stopped being fun for some reason and you wanted to generate some more. These days, single player cheats have largely been replaced with custom mods, which are even better. Long before your first “pure” playthrough is finished, some genius will release a mod that does exactly what you need to get many more miles from your favorite game.

Virtually no one has a problem with this, since cheating and modding in a single player game doesn’t hurt anyone. Your increase in personal enjoyment doesn’t come at the expense of someone else’s. At worst, you are simply cheating yourself, but since the point of a game is to have fun, it shouldn’t matter as long as that’s your experience. Cheating in a multiplayer game, on the other hand, is a different monster altogether.


It’s Fun Until Someone Loses an Eye

The Cacodemon you vaporize with your cheating ways doesn’t care one way or another, but when you use an aimbot in Rainbow Six or Overwatch the avatar you just wasted was under the control of another person. Your fun was gained at the direct loss of someone else’s.

Human beings and, believe it or not, animals such as our close primate cousins, have an intuitive understanding of fairness. A fair competition is considered fun, but if it turns out you never had a chance and the cards were stacked against you that sense of fun goes out the window. When someone cheats in a multiplayer game it ruins the experience for other non-cheating players. Those people stop having fun and then leave the game, which obviously the developers want to avoid because it loses them money.

Generally the ethics of cheating in multiplayer as opposed to single player games is pretty clear cut. The former is unethical since it does harm to others and the latter is not, because the only person involved consents to it.  Still, even though most people would agree that cheating in multiplayer is wrong, that doesn’t stop it from being pretty common. As an overall percentage of players cheaters are in the minority, but in absolute terms there are enough of them around that most players will encounter them from time to time.


So that leaves us with the question: Why?

Why do people cheat? What possible reason could they have to do it?


The Truth About Dishonesty

To get some answers we don’t have to look much further than the amazing work done by  Dan Ariely. Dan does research into decision making, rationality, dishonesty and cheating behavior. He’s got a few fantastic books out that are well worth reading.

Dan’s experiments have shown us a lot of interesting things about the rules and causes of cheating behavior. From his work we know that small forms of cheating are very common and large forms of cheating are pretty rare. The way he puts it is that everyone cheats some of the time, but very few people cheat all of the time. The issue is that, in absolute terms, the damage done cumulatively by all the small cheaters adds up to much more than that of the small number of big cheaters.

People all have a small bit of cheating leeway that they can do and not feel bad about themselves. Sometimes however, this leads down a slippery slope. Someone tries a small form of cheating, gets away with it and slowly but surely their dishonesty ratchets up to the point where it becomes a real problem with serious consequences. Although the total length of the journey to being a big cheater may be long, the hops in between are very small. That makes it easy to rationalize each one within what Ariely calls the “fudge factor”. Once you have reached a certain level of dishonesty, your baseline also shifts. Once you are comfortable with where you are, you can just fudge along again.

That lines up nicely with some of the interviews and comments I’ve seen with people who buy hacks for online multiplayer games. It starts off with them just trying out a cheat for fun or because they are bored. Sometimes they’re frustrated simply because they aren’t very good. Why they first try cheating isn’t all that important, but what matters is that when they do try it and like it. Especially since there aren’t usually any immediate negative consequences to their actions. Getting banned for cheating, if you get caught at all, usually runs up a slope of escalation. You might get a warning, a temporary ban and eventually a permanent ban that can be defeated by buying another copy.

How far people are willing to go also depends on the perceived risk of cheating and how badly they want the feeling that cheating can give them. For example, if both the stakes and the risk is low you should see more cheating. If they both are high, it would depend on how high the perceived reward was relative to the risk. For the potential cheater, the juice must be worth the squeeze.


The Banhammer

Game developers are getting wise to some of the psychology behind cheaters of late. They have realized that there have to be severe consequences and that they have to happen fast. Blizzard has actually been doing a very effective job with Overwatch. A permanent ban in Overwatch is really, really permanent. Buying a new copy of the game won’t help. Once you’re out, you’re out.

That promises to seriously reduce the level of cheating, since the risk/reward ratio is tipped drastically the other way. I’ve seen videos of Overwatch players getting banned mid-game while cheating with no warning at all. Blizzard is not playing around and that’s probably the best strategy to follow against a group of people whose dishonesty is also bolstered by being anonymous and unable to see the people they are cheating.

On the other hand for the past couple of months, games like Rainbow Six Siege were biding their time, collecting data on cheaters and then banning them in waves. Since there was no immediate feedback on the bad behavior, this is much less likely to actually dissuade anyone from cheating in the long run.  However, now with Battleye being added into the anti-cheat system for Rainbow, we have seen a huge wave of people being banned.  The cherry on the top about this is Ubisoft is not afraid to even post these people’s names into a global chat room that everyone can see, as a way of publicly humiliating them for cheating. While sometimes that notification may be annoying when you are in a game, its a grim reminder to the players of the game that cheating will not be tolerated and that its never worth the high risk for the reward.
So what do you think? Have you ever cheated in single- or multiplayer- games? What were your reasons? Let me know in the comments what your take on cheating in games is.

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