Vague Patch Notes: It’s never cheating in MMOs when you do it

Mumor has looked better.

My friend from Final Fantasy XI was, understandably, upset. He had just been suspended for a week, and he had been warned that continued violations would result in longer suspensions and perhaps even culminate in a ban. And it was because he had been using FleeTool.

FleeTool, back in the day, was a popular hack because it basically tricked the game into letting you use the Thief ability Flee even when you should not have been able to do so. Since Flee was the most obvious way to increase your movement speed basically anywhere, you can see immediately why it would have been popular. And he did not contest in any way that he had been using it; he told me that in so many words.

“I was only using it in the cities,” he explained to me with an at least implied huff and a stomp of his foot on the ground. “I wasn’t using it to grab NMs or evade aggro or something. It wasn’t really cheating.”

Here is one of the weirdest things that I have had to force myself to learn over the course of nearly 41 years upon this planet: No matter what awful thing someone is doing, there is a reason behind it. And the reason never, ever includes “I am the bad guy and this is something the bad guy does.”

The fact of the matter is that my friend was, demonstrably, wrong. He was cheating. The actions he was performing were cheating, and he knew it. What he was doing wasn’t actually avoiding cheating but trying to set boundaries so that in his mind it didn’t really count. Yes, he was breaking the rules and he knew it, but he was trying to break the rules so at least one of the parts of the game that he thought didn’t matter were all that was breaking.

And don’t get me wrong – I do not think that the speed you move through cities in FFXI was some divine commandment handed down from on high that determined, in truth, whether or not you deserved to be recognized in the eyes of the Almighty. These are not sins or something. It’s just… cheating. You knew the rules of the game; you violated them.

I'm playing by A rule.

What strikes me as interesting is that so often in these discussions, people devote a huge amount of time and effort to trying to figure out what counts as cheating. In Final Fantasy XIV, there are purely visual mods that don’t affect gameplay in any way, which is pretty clearly not cheating, and then there’s stuff that does affect gameplay. Some of it is decidedly cheating, but some of it always gets trotted out as “not really cheating” – like things that mess with inputs and cheat parts of the game’s server architecture, or violate the limits of zooming out, or allow markers to be put down when they otherwise would be impossible.

And you can absolutely argue some of the corner cases. Messing with server inputs? Yeah, that strikes me as pretty substantial cheating. Zooming out further? That doesn’t really strike me as all that problematic. But the fact of the matter is that both are cheats. This is cheating. And the people who use this always have a reason and an explanation, a pre-baked explanation for why their behavior is acceptable and necessary in some fashion.

There is this thinking that if you can defend what you’re doing with a sufficiently reasoned point, your cheating doesn’t really count. And my point here is that this is simply not true. Cheating is cheating. And you know that because you came up with a sufficiently reasoned point and want to argue your case. (We’re using the general you here.)

Everyone who is cheating has arguments and reasons. And the point isn’t figuring out the line where those reasons are right or wrong. The point is understanding that the reasons aren’t really the issue. My friend wasn’t lying when he said that he used FleeTool only for something specific and benign. I believe him. It’s just that he also knew that he shouldn’t be using it, and he did it anyway because he wanted what he was getting from breaking those rules. And as we talked about it, he even admitted that at the end of the day, he really shouldn’t have been breaking the rules as he was.

Also, he was a teenager. This doesn’t absolve him, but does certainly place his choices in a slightly different light.

Do I think he was a bad person? Of course not. I just described him like a dozen times as my friend. I liked him quite a bit. Do I think he was wrong? Yes, but I don’t honestly think it was a huge deal, and I also understand that his promising to cheat only in ways that don’t matter doesn’t hold a heck of a lot of water.

And it wasn’t my call anyway. I didn’t report him, I didn’t work for Square-Enix, I didn’t do anything other than be a friend after things had gone wrong so he could have someone to talk with. I felt bad for him and I liked him, but I also told him that he shouldn’t do it again. And he didn’t, to my knowledge.

He's as wide as he is tall.

That’s the other thing that comes up a lot: the assumption that if you’re pointing out “you cheated,” there’s some kind of moral component that comes along with it beyond a statement of fact. It’s as if you’re saying that you are standing in judgment of someone, which is also not really accurate. The whole point of recognizing that these are value-neutral statements of fact is to remove judgment from the equation. Maybe you did something bad, or maybe you did something neutral, but at the end of the day, you did something you were not supposed to do. You knew that.

Does that make you a bad person? Not really. Other circumstances could push you to that point, like if you cheated to gain advantage in a race against people who weren’t cheating. That’s not fair to them. But the fact on its own is just an observation of how things are.

I don’t personally care much if people cheat, and I don’t put my effort into finding people who are doing things I consider cheating and trying to demonize them. If that’s the message you take away from this column, you are incorrect. I’m not judging what your reasons are against any kind of standard.

I’m just saying that for a lot of people, they think the fact they have reasons is a meaningful movement of the needle. They believe there are people who just cheat and break the rules with gleeful, unthinking abandon, but other hypothetical players are cheating for good reasons, so it doesn’t count. And that’s not true. Everyone has reasons. Everyone has justifications. From the top to the bottom. Nobody who cheats does so without a justification of why they should be allowed to do so.

And the more you think of yourself as being separated by having a reason, the easier it is to actually sit in judgment of others because they don’t live up to your reasons.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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