GTA Online: The end of the cheater war


So I have a confession, of sorts: For the last few months, the one game I’ve really, really enjoyed playing – to the point of developing doctrines and how-to’s and teaching others to do it – has been hunting down and repeatedly killing the characters of video game cheaters. The majority of this activity has been with the game’s scoped anti-materiel rifle; in the past month or so, most of it has been with more or less effectiveness with the jet. It takes patience, empathy and a not inconsiderable dose of skill to do this, and it’s a sufficiently novel human activity (virtual vigilantism is not a well-studied area) that I think it deserves exploration.

Essentially this is organized, elective prosocial violence. In contrast to the activities of a state-sponsored, state-equipped and -authorized agent of violence like a police officer or soldier, this is an activity of nearly completely meaningless, unauthorized agent of notional violence. There is no incentive in-game or without to do this; in fact, it’s often highly maladaptive as it usually results in extremely violent and emotionally unpleasant reprisal. There is an argument to be made that there is a prosocial value to punishing cheaters, but this is a tryhard argument – it pre-supposes that every highly intentional act of violence has an equally clear communicative intent in a virtual setting. In point of fact, most of the people whom I’ve repeatedly killed (often to the point of being unable to play the game) might not have learned anything at all, or even seen it as punishment. If there’s any real moral lesson being learned, it’s ambiguous and easily misread (after all, this is a game that constantly creates opportunities for random violence).

Similarly, it’s stupidly seductive to cast this practice as some kind of battle against monster superplayers. In reality, most of the people whose characters I’ve hunted and essentially repeatedly murdered using my own character are children or young adults unable to synthesize the kind of endogenous doctrine that lets people flourish at adult games. Most cheaters are poor players, and this makes them easy to hunt. Indeed, this kind of narrative is actually, in these terms, a tryhard tragedy of repeated symbolic exclusory violence against children; games of adult self-actualization will always be cruel, and the children and unprepared will always want to play them.

It is too easy in these contexts to attribute too much of character behavior to player trait instead of player state – a kind of fundamental attribution error of character behavior. Consider the story of my friend – oh, let’s call him Kevlar.

Back during 2007 – 2008, the “lingua franca” of the shiny new FPS community was pretty much Modern Warfare 2. MW2 termed consecutive kills without dying “kill streaks”, and rewarded players for kill streaks with powerful triggerable events like a television-guided Predator missile, AI-controlled attack chopper that would fly around and kill everyone, or even the opportunity to kill other players using a highly mobile, extremely powerful weapon with a simplified overhead view representing an AH-64 Apache gunner’s view. The most powerful of these kill streaks was the nuke, requiring 25 consecutive kills to attain. The nuke ended the game instance and took everyone to the scoreboard; in a competitive game mode like Capture the Flag, attaining a nuke, even with one’s team losing 0-2, ended the game in a win. Having a nuke in MW2 is a badge of skill in the FPS community; it is common for players even today to claim that attaining just one nuke over the course of their MW2 play careers was a significant achievement.

A lot of people in fact played MW2 and never saw this.

A lot of people in fact played MW2 and never saw this.

Attaining a nuke was a significant achievement because in the vast majority of competitive video games where players shoot at each other, the average player lifespan is less than a minute. There are slower-paced stalking games where players may actually “live” considerably longer, but for the popular, fast-paced “AAA” shooter titles, a minute in a multiplayer context, especially on the smaller, faster-paced maps that are popular in that community, is a very long time. An average player might expect to live about 60 seconds, kill one player, then die themselves; in rarer, but statistically determinate instances (it has to happen some time to someone), players will however live longer than 60 seconds and kill more than one player. I used MW2 to develop early ideas about defilade, enfilade, plunging fire, indirect fire and pre-emptive strategy, and so I ended up playing it a lot. By the time everyone stopped playing, I had attained 7 nukes.

Near the end of my time playing MW2 I started to notice a curious phenomenon; I’d see a friendly teammate on the player-tracker (the “radar”) stationary, dying over and over again. The news feed of kill and death events would note that one player would be killing the other over and over, repeatedly; after a few minutes of this, the game would end in a victory or a nuke. Curious, I walked over once and saw two players lying prone with their characters face to face. One shot the other; when the dead player respawned, he’d run back and lie down in the same position, over and over. What I was witnessing is termed “boosting” – players manipulating an adversarial scoring system by collusion. It made me angry – these people were cheating. They were ruining the game for others and undercutting the value of the achievement they were stealing. Instead of attaining success through skill, this was something different – almost criminal. I began to hunt for “boosters”, noting the most popular positions on the map they went to, and whenever possible, I would disrupt the boosting activity then usually roundly curse them out.

Fast forward five years later. I have the privilege of knowing a few men who are actually state-sponsored agents of violence whom I consider good friends – in some respects brothers, particularly in the sense of being American. So consider my surprise when I found out that one of these brothers – the one I call Kevlar – used to boost in MW2. In fact, it’s not entirely unlikely that I hunted him down and killed him at one point (I played a lot back then).

What this forced me to acknowledge – something I already knew intellectually, though not perhaps realizing in any kind of personal or social sense – is that I have to admit that cheating at a game is also far from the worst thing a person can do. In fact, it might not even really matter. Being socially inoffensive is not the finest and best thing a man can attain to; it’s nice, but there have been a lot of very good, very useful and very rude men throughout history. Not being a racist is not the greatest thing a person can be. Consider – if you knew someone who saved a stranger’s life and that person then went on to express to you their intense hatred for inner-city black people would that opinion make you hate them as much as that same statement absent that context? What if there were people out there serving the national interest who held racist or nationalist views that we might find offensive or consider wrong – do those views really invalidate the virtue of their service? A lot of systems-oriented, reformist liberals would answer yes to both those questions. This, and a string of similar decisions, form the basis for why today I no longer consider myself a systems-oriented reformist liberal. It’s also why hunting cheaters is a moral game, instead of a moral crusade.

We’ve considered emotional harm as a basis for morality in virtual representational social situations (e.g. social video games). This gives us the phenomenological concept of “griefing” (and its opposite, an activity I haven’t come up with a word for yet besides “joying”) as well as the ontological construct of the tryhard. To this one-dimensional view of virtual morality then we should add another – skill, the status attached to skill and the virtue of developing skill.

Fundamentally, the basic equation goes something like this:

Developing skill, any skill, requires the types of traits that we should encourage in people like diligence, the ability to listen, the humility to listen to another person tell you what to do, and the intelligence to integrate what you’re learning into what you do. Cheating bypasses the virtuous development of skill that accompanies play. To the extent that it is possible to shape the decision architecture of play such that players not only do not cheat but also self-police and punish cheaters, it is possible to build a “good” game, or at least to have “good” play.

Or at least this is what I’m telling myself when I’m listening to the high pitched squeals of children who cheat to attain illusory status in an adult game they’re plainly not skilled or intelligent enough for.

I start the hunt by looking at players. There are six numbers I can see: a player’s level, their kill to death ratio, and their “stats” – their levels of the core character statistics of driving, flying, shooting and stealth skill, in addition to what hardware they have access to (plane, helicopter, boat, car). Over time I’ve developed a numerical profile for cheaters: very high level, very low or very high kill to death ratio, and at least one deficient stat – usually stealth or flying. By the time that a player reaches maximum level in GTAO – level 120 – over 200 hours will have been spent playing this game. Over the course of that period of time it is nearly impossible not to develop all maxed-out stats. Thus, any player over maximum level with at least one deficient stat can be safely assumed to be a cheater. High-level players with high kill to death ratios and maxed out skills tend to be griefers; these players make a game out of repeatedly, sadistically killing other players whenever the opportunity presents itself (which, in a game called “Grand Theft Auto”, is frequently). Any cheater or griefer gets highlighted on the map. And then the hunt begins.

The most significant advantage I have going into the practice of cheater hunting is surprise. Although random violence is common in GTA, repeated, targeted, highly personal violence is not. A drive-by is fairly typical; having someone follow you around for five minutes and then finally shoot you from extremely long range is not. No one expects the first shot; it is as personal as a punch in the face. Further, since range for the anti-materiel rifle is essentially infinite, it can be inordinately difficult to figure out where your vehicle is getting shot from when there is a several mile radius of potential locations containing a constantly changing number of potential shooters.

A secondary advantage, though not one that I always have, is skill. Aligning a small, sub-minute-of-angle target with a dot and then initiating a trigger pull, even with a video game gun with no ballistic drop, is extremely hard. The nearest real life analog I can think of is shooting a heavy rifle off-hand on a hot day through oven mitts – it requires the patience to sit through what seems like an eternity of clumsy fumbling for one perfect moment that is at best a risk of hitting your target. Complicating matters, there is no trigger break on a video game gun – no point where the trigger stops moving and an event happens. Rather, the trigger simply bottoms out. The trigger does not reset as with a real gun either, so that the player is forced to consciously let out the finger initiate another trigger pull, instead of being assisted out with a positive clicking or locking sensation as with a high-quality semi-automatic trigger that indicates by means of a perceptible increase in pull weight that the weapon is ready to fire.

Trigger feel and the effect of trigger pull weights and trigger dynamics is something that it is plainly apparent that no one in video games has ever bothered to figure out. Along with the absurd, fetishistic oversimplification of firearms for the purposes of representation in video games, it is one of the prime reasons why video games are such terrible training for real world violence. As I discovered my first time shooting a .45 ACP weapon, a recoil-free, mushy trigger with no real consequence at any stage of its travel is actually excellent training for developing involuntary flinch when shooting real firearms. It is not merely a matter of not learning how to shoot from video games – video games teach players to shoot completely wrong. Simply knowing to minimize hand movement or to locate the point of “creep” past which the trigger will actuate a video game gun’s firing is beyond a naive player.

This is FAR CLOSER than I would normally shoot at but I posted it to show the reticle. See all those fancy lines? Decorate. There is no ballistic drop or wind in this game.

This is FAR CLOSER than I would normally shoot at but I posted it to show the reticle. See all those fancy lines? Decorative. There is no ballistic drop or wind in this game.

The last advantage that I have is ruthlessness. I never offer a fair fight, I never offer a chance for reprisal, and I keep killing and killing until the game is nearly unplayable for my targets. I’ve favored scoped rifles from extreme heights because it is easy to stay uncommitted at the edge of contact, able to withdraw or involve further as the situation warrants instead of as the situation dictates. Repeatedly, I find myself thinking the same thought: This is what happens when you cheat. Eventually, skilled, violent people hunt you down and make your life hell.

As I rationalize it, there are two levels of consent at play for my targets – first, they are playing a game that offers them the ability to kill other characters in exchange for being liable to being killed themselves, and thus they essentially consent to being my repeated victims; second; they decided to cheat at the medium of play in which we participate, which invalidates their right to the presumption of fair play.

As I’ve advanced higher and higher in level, I’ve gotten more and more people assuming that I’m a cheater. Some of them even bother to send messages accusing me of such. This has always somewhat surprised me; as unlikely as any of my targets are to change their behavior given my purposefully cruel interventions, I don’t think trying to reason with them will do any better. My answer has always been the same: Don’t bother taking to cheaters, just kill them, followed by a block on further communications (since I probably don’t want to talk to them either).

As was perhaps eventual, the makers of the video game have announced an upcoming crackdown on cheaters, particularly focusing on the types of cheaters that I hunt – players who cheated to gain level. I’ve already seen a marked decrease in cheaters that I come across. Gradually, cheaters are being kicked off the game or simply leaving, and with them, my game (in more senses than one). And so for the time being, at least, the practice of character hunting that I’ve termed the hacking war is over.

It’s sad, in a way. I’m going to miss hunting cheaters.

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