Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Book Review: Cheating by Mia Consalvo

"Playing the game is almost superfluous"--(Consalvo 179)

I have a confession to make. I use the built-in dictionary feature in the Scrabble Facebook app. I use it, and I don't intend to stop.

As far as confessions go, this is hardly earth-shattering. At best, it could muster the energy to stir a bit of mud, but only if that mud was especially viscous. This is because, in large part, for the Scrabble app, the dictionary is built in. You actually can't enter a word that doesn't appear in its built-in dictionary, so using the app to look up a word or two seems less like a crime and more like a time-saving device. Of course, if anyone attempted to go to a word-generating site, that would clearly be wrong. And you could never play a word that you got from that site. It would be immoral. Unconscionable. Unthinkable. Unless it was a really, really good word.

My point here is not that I am a huge cheater (if I was, I'd have a much higher Scrabble rating) but that breaking the rules, cheating, isn't always a black-and-white thing. It is, however, an issue of social convention, and a process of constant negotiation. At least, that's the argument Mia Consalvo presents in her 2007 book Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames.

In the book, Consalvo investigates cheating in video games, taking an ethnographic approach that involves in-depth interviews, a perusal of the archives of the Nintendo Power magazine, and a whopping 500 hours of personal experience in Final Fantasy XI. The book is decidedly not theory-heavy, but there are two concepts in particular that Consalvo borrows heavily for her argument. First, she uses Gerard Gennette's definition of the term "paratext," which loosely refers to everything about a text that influences the reading of that text but isn't actually a part of it. A preview is part of the paratext of a movie, a review is part of the paratext of a book, and the gift shop is paratext for a trip through a museum--although as that last example shows, the line between text and paratext is blurry. The other concept she uses is Pierre Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital, the way participation in culture defines a particular class or group of people. In particular, she argues that it is by participating in the paratext of videogames that gamers accumulate "gaming" capital, and esteem in that particular group. For example, if Player X joins forum discussions on the preview for a game, writes a lengthy walkthrough on a website, and eventually creates a mod that allows players to instantly kill other players in the game, she has accumulated a great deal to her personal gaming capital regarding that game, even if it's largely in a way that its designers wouldn't approve of. There's also repeated reference to Huizinga's conception of the magic circle (that players of a game agree to dwell within a "magic circle" where the rules of the game apply), but Consalvo is not so much using this idea as challenging it. Finally, there's an occasional reference to Foucault's discussion of the diffusion of power flow, as it regards to the power between game companies and game players.

The book is divided into three parts, and eight chapters. The first part is a more historical view of videogames and cheating, tacitly endorsed or otherwise. Chapter One looks at the history of game cheating in terms of the paratext of the early Nintendo console games--ie.) Nintendo Power. Derided at times for being a propaganda tool for the larger game company, Nintendo Power also played a decisive role in determining what constituted proper game play behavior. For example, it published strategy guide articles and walkthroughs in its main coverage of a game, but relegated codes and secrets to other sections, implying there was a difference between consulting these walkthroughs and using the cheats. At the same time, it implied that the truly savvy gameplayer was aware of all the game's secrets, cheating or otherwise. Nintendo cultivated a generation of game players, and other magazines followed suit.

Chapter Two looks at the strategy guide market, and how it fulfilled its own version of what a "proper" game experience should look like. Its evolution, from cheap paperbacks promising thousands of secrets to glossy productions sold with the game itself, marks how cheating--in the form of consulting a walkthrough--can become part of the official paratext of a game and welcomed into the larger corporate market.

Finally, the third chapter starts to push some boundaries, with a discussion of game enhancers such as Game Genie and Game Shark, and game mod chips that allow the play of pirated or ported games. Clearly, there's a limit as to what third party products a console company is going to allow, or at least challenge. (The original Game Genie manufacturers, for example, were sued by Nintendo for creating "derivative works" and experiences that dampened Nintendo's own profits--and Nintendo not only lost, but were ordered to pay the company $13 million to compensate for suspending sales during the trial.)

The second half of the book looks at player experiences, both Consalvo's own and those of the people she interviewed. Chapter 4 examines player-defined determinations of cheating, as presented by the people Consalvo interviews. Cheating can be conceived of as occurring on a subjective scale: there's the purist, who regards any sort of outside help as cheating--no hints, no walkthroughs. There's those who allow walkthroughs, but refuse codes. And there's those who believe that it's not cheating and can't be cheating, as long as no other person is involved. As to why people cheat, the most common reasons include getting stuck, ludic pleasure in stomping around with godlike power, or the desire to see the game through when time demands don't allow a full play.

Chapter 5 shifts the focus from cheating in single-person games to cheating in multiplayer contexts. She identifies four main types: exploiting glitches, exploiting other players, exploiting codes, and using third party programs. The first is often seen not so much as cheating but manipulating the environment of the game--unless you push the limits and exploit something such as an item duplication system. The second is your basic manipulation or phishing schemes. The third is the use of aimbots or wallhacks, to improve your play artificially. And the last refers to going further than hacks and using fully developed programs to automate your characters.

Chapter 6 looks at the means through which companies contest these cheaters, and how these approaches define different versions of cheating. One company prevents any form of cheating, and thus treats it as an anonymous force. One counters the effects of cheating, and thus sees it as an action, rather than a group of people. And one collects and bans any who cheat, regarding cheating as a permanent identity.

Chapter 7 is on Consalvo's play of FFXI Online, and an investigation into cheating and the grey areas of rules as the come up in that game. Specifically, she looks at power leveling, bot farming, and gil-selling (that is, selling in-game money for real money), and how each creates challenges, both in player discourse and in the way the designers attempt to eliminate the problem. In general, Consalvo argues for a punishment system that incorporates player input. The final chapter and section is a bit of a round-up of what's been discussed, and a quick discussion of things that didn't fit earlier. Namely, she briefly discusses user-generated walkthroughs, such as Alakhazam and GameFAQs and their contributions to game capital. The book ends with a repeat of Consalvo's main argument: that cheating should not be regarded as a form of identity, but as a practice, a behavior that many people indulge in while playing in some form or other, and a practice that allows us to fully examine what it means to play by the rules.

It's a pretty good book, and it manages to say a lot without being overly pedantic or technical. I'll admit that it took me a while to figure out why Consalvo was emphasizing industry in a book on what seemed like a type of player practice, but as I read on, it became increasingly difficult to refute that the game industry does its best to manage the concept of the ideal, capital-laden gamer to their own advantage, up to and including what forms of cheating are permissible or not. It's especially interesting in a case such as mod chips where cheating goes as far as real-world legality. Consalvo never quite goes this far in her discussion, but it seems like you could fairly extend many parts of her discussion on negotiating the meaning of cheating to negotiating the meaning of breaking the law in general, and where grey areas do or do not exist.

If there is a flaw in the book, it's in the history of the early stages of cheating, in that it's entirely console-heavy and ignores the similar histories and movements going on at the same time on the PC side of things. Considering that Consalvo's argument later delves into hacks for online games, I think a discussion of such early hacking mentalities and how they constitute their own form of gaming capital is an essential missing piece in her historic approach. I think she does address this omission at some point, but it still seems like a large missing piece.

But it's still a great book. I was worried that Consalvo would focus on paratext to the exclusivity of the actual games, but the chapter on FFXI alleviated that concern. (And in passing, Consalvo has definitely gotten a lot of mileage out of that game--", Language, and Lingo: Theorizing Noise in Online Game Spaces" in the Video Game Theory Reader 2 also focuses heavily on the game, but utilizes an entirely different set of elements in it) And I tend to distrust ethnographic approaches; after reading a few books on stat-balancing and survey design, I realized how easy it is to skew the results in your favor. But Consalvo supports her findings through other means, and relies on them more for context for her argument than as set-in-stone supporting points.

If anyone finds the issues Consalvo's raised interesting (I know I did), I can recommend some further reading. On the player behavior side of things, this link goes to an account by a user named Nightfreeze, on how he got even with some dirty dealers in Eve Online. And if you want something a little more scholarly, I'd recommend Steven Downing's "Online Gaming and the Social Construction of Virtual Victimization" in Eludamos 4.2. While it's not about cheating per se, it does cover players' responses to various forms of victimization, including responses to being cheated. As for me, I'm going to pursue the corporate business angle that Consalvo raised, first by reading Digital Play by Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig De Peuter. And then I'll follow Dyer-Witheford and De Peuter to Games of Empire. Well, that's going to take the rest of my summer, then.
Later Days.

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