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A Philosophy of Cheat Codes


Cheating in video games is a time-honored tradition. As a kid, I would scour the early internet for websites that would list cheat codes I could use on my collection on PS1 games. Some games had no cheat codes and others allowed you to unlock secret characters, get unlimited extra lives, and get other cool perks just by entering the right sequence of buttons at the start up screen.

Of course, cheating isn’t limited to codes that are built into the game by the developers. A variety of 3rd party cheat software exists to help enable cheating in ways the game developers never intended. “Game Shark” and other similar brands of cheat cartridges were whole pieces of hardware that people would pay for just to allow them to cheat in games.

Nowadays, the world of cheating in video games looks very different than it did when I was a kid. The advent of high speed internet means that many of the most popular games are played competitively online and there is a constant arms race between game developers who are trying to keep their online games fair and cheat developers who are trying to make sure that enterprising players can have advantages over their opponents. This has gotten to the point where providing cheats for online games has in fact become quite the lucrative business.

But leaving aside the online aspect for now, what exactly is the point of cheating? I faced this question recently when I used my hacked Nintendo Switch to do some save editing on a Pokemon game. I had basically full control over the save file. I could edit Pokemon, add new Pokemon, even adjust the flags in the save file to trick the game into thinking I had already beaten it. With a few clicks, I could have a save file where I had beaten the game and had a full Pokedex, including all shiny Pokemon. But what would be the point of tricking a computer into thinking I had beaten the game? Beating a video game is not inherently valuable, it’s only as valuable as it makes you feel good about yourself or perhaps for the social clout of being able to tell your friends that you beat the game.

So perhaps this is obvious to some, but only after thinking it over did I realize: the point of cheating in video games is to have fun. If it’s fun for you to use a save editor to fill your PC in a Pokemon game with every shiny Pokemon, then go for it! If that sounds pointless to you, then don’t bother. For me, I decided that I still wanted the experience of beating the game myself, but I allowed myself a few shortcuts. Basically, I decided that while searching for and catching Pokemon, as well as battling the tough enemies was fun, grinding to get my Pokemon to higher levels or to get more money was not. So I gave myself unlimited money and enough rare candies to level up my Pokemon to a point where I felt the final boss would pose a good challenge. I could have spent hours grinding to reach the same point instead, but I decided that cheating would be more fun. The same principle applies to other games as well. If you think playing a Mario game would be more fun while invincible, then use that cheat code! If that sounds less fun to you, give it a pass. But maybe you would find the game more fun and less tedious if you had infinite lives? In that case, use a cheat code for that instead!

A game developer’s job is to make a game balanced between hard enough that it’s challenging but easy enough that it isn’t frustrating. Sometimes, developers miss the mark. Other times, variance among individual gamers means that what’s fun for one person is too hard or too easy for another. This is where cheat codes can be used to make a game more fun. There’s no reason why the developer’s idea of fun should trump the player’s. Even if you feel that third party cheats are never justified, what about the glitches such as those that speed runners rely on to finish the game faster than the developers intended? Some would call those unfair since they aren’t an intended part of the game, while others would insist it is part of the game as it was released and therefore perfectly fine to use. In fact, one of the most popular competitive techniques in Super Smash Bros. Melee, wavedashing, was technically a glitch. At the end of the day, the only universal principle is what each individual gamer feels will make the game more fun for them.

Even in multiplayer games, the same basic principles apply. The difference is that all players have to agree. This is why, as a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t cheat in online games. Everyone playing the game has agreed to the rules that the developers have set. Without the consent of everyone playing with you online, it would be unfair to use cheats to change these rules. If you can get a private game going where everyone has agreed that use of certain cheats is acceptable, then the story would be different. Absent that, perhaps an argument can be made that cheat codes could be used to give yourself advantages that other rule-abiding players have, such as special items that are locked behind a paywall. Of course, this leads to a whole mess of other ethical and practical questions about stealing, modifying software in ways that violate the terms of use, and other thorny issues, but let’s stick to the issue of cheating here.

Going back to Pokemon, an interesting example of community consensus deciding what cheats are acceptable is the rules regarding “hacked” Pokemon on various Pokemon trading forums. The PokemonTrades subreddit has a very in-depth policy of what Pokemon can and cannot be traded. Some of these rules are not very intuitive. For instance, clones of legally obtained Pokemon may not be traded, but Pokemon hatched from eggs where one of the parents is an illegal Pokemon may be traded. There is a logic to each of these rules, but ultimately, they are the product of community consensus about what will make trading Pokemon more fun for the community as a whole.

So if you ever engage with the time-honored gaming tradition that is cheating, I hope you will remember this: Cheating is about making the game more fun, not just for you, but for anyone else you may be playing with. That said, cheat responsibly, and have fun!