Exploits Aren’t Cheating, Are They? – Neutralizing Attitudes in the Gaming Industry
ABSTRACT: Exploits in gaming is not a new phenomenon, but the consequences have been growing in recent years. Games have become unbalanced, players have staged boycotts, and in some cases, games have not been able to recover. This article examines one possible rationale behind why players use exploits in the form of Neutralizing Attitudes, or patterns of thought that justify immoral behavior. By shifting the responsibility from themselves, players are able to assuage the guilt that comes with an immoral action without any cognitive dissonance. The key to fighting these attitudes is putting the responsibility back in the hands of the players, and setting out clear lines of what is right and wrong in a given game.
Recently, stories about XP farming (using exploits to level up, or gain loot) in online games have been circulating. Overwatch, For Honor, and Ghost Recon: Wildlands were in the news for banning players for using in-game exploits to farm loot. While banning players does induce fear that farming can cause players to lose their account, it does not treat the source problem: Players often don’t think exploits are wrong, until a developer explicitly tells them they are.
Now this may seem obvious, but it speaks to a larger problem that is growing in the gaming industry. Exploits can lead to dissatisfied players leaving the game, poor reviews online, and in worst case scenarios, the death of the game itself, but, as with every problem, there is a solution. Let’s start by looking at one of the most famous (or infamous) exploits in recent gaming history as an example: Destiny 1’s loot cave (Note: no loot caves have been found in Destiny 2 yet). Bungie spent years developing a first person MMO with a rich world to explore, and tons of side-content to help players level through the game. Imagine their surprise when shortly after launch, they noticed a large segment of players, standing in one place, firing repeatedly at enemies coming out of a cave for hours on end.
Why would players who have this vast world to explore stay in one place engaging in such a mundane and repetitive action? It’s simple: they wanted more loot. Gamers felt that it took too long to get the items they needed to complete Destiny’s higher level events, and found a way to shorten the path. This path led players to the loot cave exploit, in which they stood outside of a cave and shot the same enemies repeatedly as they respawned, periodically running in to grab the loot enemies dropped.
The loot cave exploit led to a snowball effect, where there was too much high level loot in the system. Other players began to feel under-geared (in comparison to the exploiters), and saw that their only avenue to keep up was to use the exploit as well. Eventually, Bungie fixed the code that allowed for the loot cave exploit, but it took a while, and by the time they had, the game’s economy of rare items had been significantly altered, and many players had left. Destiny eventually recovered its player base (with the Taken King expansion), but what’s interesting is why players engaged in this exploit in the first place.
What is it that drives players to exploits, even when it hurts the ecosystem of the game they’re trying to play? One solution, is the psychological concept of neutralizing attitudes. A neutralizing attitude is considered any thought process that serves as a justification, or moralization of unethical behavior. This theory was initially developed surrounding the study of delinquents in the 1950s (Sykes & Matza, 1957), but has more recently been applied to dishonesty in academic settings, and prevention of cheating (Curasi 2013). Moving back to the loot cave example, there are a few neutralizing attitudes at work here. The first, is Denial of Responsibility, or simply “If they didn’t want me to cheat, they’d fix the bug.” Players feel justified in using the loot cave simply because it’s there. Never mind the fact that development cycles take time, if the exploit is there, it is a part of the game, and players will continue using it.
Second, Appealing to Higher Loyalties, “It’s impossible to gear up without using the loot cave.” In my opinion, the root of this attitude comes from the fact that in many modern games, players do not feel like unlockable items can be obtained fairly. In Destiny, players would have to go up against people with high levels weapons that had been obtained from the exploit, and in some cases would be outmatched. Dynamics like this can cause backlash in the community, and cause players to leave a game, sometimes never to return.
In another, more recent example, players have been exploiting For Honor, a game that has come under fire for having content that is too difficult to unlock. When players feel that they are being treated unfairly, they look for ways to even the scales, and once more feel justified in doing so, all the while not realizing that their actions may be destroying what made the game fun in the first place. Which leads me to the next attitude: Denial of a Victim, “No one’s experience gets hurt from using this loot cave.” Here we see a very self-centered model of the game, where players may not understand (or just don’t care) that being over-geared can ruin the game for others. People who aren’t using the exploit begin to feel under-geared, or like they have less, even if they are where the developers intended them to be. This creates the snowball effect seen with Destiny’s loot cave, where more players continue using it until it gets fixed. Eventually, for many players, Destiny’s loot cave replaced daily quests and strikes (the equivalent of dungeons) as they were able to earn more and better loot. For the most part, players do not feel they are not responsible for the health of the game. That burden falls on developers, and if the actions of exploiters ruin the game for others, it is on the developers to fix them (once more, a denial of responsibility).
Finally, fitting in with poor player sentiment toward developers is Condemning the Condemners, “The developers are trying to cheat us, it’s only fair that we cheat them.” This, in my opinion is one of the most damaging sentiments. With the unprecedented rise of microtransactions in games (I can’t name a title without them), players are beginning to feel like developers are “out to get them”. Moving back to the For Honor example, players recently did the math and found that in order to obtain all the items in the game, they would have to play for a total time of 2.5 years.
Players were understandably angry by this discovery, but unlike Destiny, two distinct groups of players formed from this outcry: exploiters, and activists. The exploiters, found a way to game the system and earn in-game currency without playing. In order to do this, players would have to get in a match, and then tie a rubber band around their controller stick to induce continuous movement (preventing them from getting kicked due to inactivity), and then would stop playing. This allowed players to earn all the rewards for playing without putting in any effort. Eventually Ubisoft found a way to ban them, but not before the experiences of other players (teammates who got left with an inactive exploiter) were damaged. The other group of players, who we’ll call the activists, decided to oppose what they saw as unfair game mechanics through action, and scheduled a boycott of the game.
Ubisoft did two things in response to this backlash, both of which I think helped their community a great deal. First, they came out and explained their rationale behind the current monetization system, attempting to break down the barrier that allowed for players to condemn them. In this same statement, they also announced that they would be banning exploiters, letting players know that the unfair aspect of over-geared opponents and inactive teammates would soon be gone. Finally, and arguably most importantly, one day before the boycott, Ubisoft put out a patch enabling a higher drop rate for in-game currency to help make things feel more fair. While some users still felt the game was stacked against them, the majority called off the boycott, and continued playing. Ubisoft was able to target what players felt like was unfair about their game, change it, and enable a new path for players to continue.
One of the primary reasons neutralizing attitudes are so effective at assuaging guilt is because they prevent the user from seeing the end outcome of their behavior. Previous research has demonstrated that an effective way to combat this lack of guilt is to have clear communication about what is considered unethical, and inspiring greater morality in the group by shifting responsibility back to them (Curasi, 2013). What Ubisoft did with For Honor is a perfect example of minimizing the grey area for unethical behavior, and reducing opportunities for players to feel justified in exploiting. Another great example of breaking down the barrier between developer and player, was Overwatch’s response to a similar exploit problem. In a post on Blizzard’s website, Overwatch’s Jeff Kaplan spoke out about how much exploits hurt the game, and prevent innovation on the development team, as well as saying how it affected him personally. This statement, while short, shows the players that exploits have outcomes, and they can hurt the community as a whole by causing developers to be more cautious with features they release, and ruining the experience for others.
Exploiting may seem like a benign issue that’s going to happen in all games, and to some extent, it is. There are always going to be players who want to break the system for their own gain, but this group does not have to be as large as it is now. By designing games so that they feel fair, players may be less inclined to spend hours shooting into a cave, and more time actually playing. That’s a good thing for the industry as a whole, because players who are engaging for enjoyment, are more likely to keep coming back, and support games in the future.
Ashton Macaulay – Data Scientist
NBI’s mission is to provide game developers with feedback based on statistical analysis of in-game player behavior, and the meaning behind it. We are a diverse team of data scientists with backgrounds ranging from social psychology to anthropology, and aim to use these varying skill sets to move beyond basic number crunching, and to actionable insight.