Everyone loves getting in on a good secret. The same feeling of invulnerability and anonymity that makes email flaming such a big part of the internet encourages the trading in verboten information. It’s been going on for a long time, as least as long as the BBS scene in the ’80s.
I recently came across an old, battered green duotang with a collection of “Phun Philes” from that era. I had my dot-matrix working overtime, printing out dozens of my favourites into different sections: Smoke and Explosives, Fone Phun, and Tricks and Chuckles. There were instructions on how to make a shit bomb, LSD, or napalm; ASCII diagrams on how to build a Black Box for free long-distance calls; tips on lock-picking, credit card fraud and how to make bugs breakdance.
As I wrote in my forward to the compilation, “Why should the hacker’s archives be restricted to [Commodore] 64 users? Perhaps an obliging soul would print them out so that others may delve through them with similar intensity.” The pleasure I derived from having this information and sharing it with others had little to do with actually using the information — just knowing that I could make a shit bomb at any time I wanted was a dizzying enough proposition. In most cases, the information is not used so much as delighted in, although I do recall a late-night failure of mission with a crowbar and a Bell manhole (turns out they’re full of water).
There was a specific genre of text files that were used more often, however, and these were the walkthroughs. Walkthroughs give a step-by-step description of how to beat a game. They’re usually pretty brief and to the point, written by fans, and stretch back at least to the ’70s text game, Adventure. According to the excellent textfiles.com, in introducing the walkthrough authored by The Rom Raider and Doctor Digital, “there was a constant one-upmanship with walkthroughs, where whoever could come out with the ‘solve’ for a game the soonest after it was released (or even before) was the King of the Hill.”
Walkthroughs serve the dual purpose of helping other people get through a game as well as providing proof of one’s utter mastery of a game. Reading between the lines, they’re pretty interesting documents of obsession and devotion. They exist not only for the puzzle-based games but also for action games like Tekken 3, where they’re most often called FAQs. They can get pretty specific, such as Professor Catlord’s “Tekken Psychology 101,” which has a whole section on trash-talking.
They can also be a way for those who aren’t nerve-deadened twitch gamers to get into games. At tombraiders.net, FAQ writer Stella posts her effusive fan mail for her detailed walkthroughs from a “50+ year-old with lousy reflexes” and a teenage girl who writes “I get really paranoid of things jumping out at me or sneaking up behind me when I’m playing Tomb Raider. (I’m jumpy!).”
While walkthroughs and FAQs may seem like secret information, they’re not all that closely guarded. In fact, game developers leak cheat codes — a succession of button pushes that unlock levels, give you extra weapons or invulnerability, or the ability to fly — to game sites in order to keep the buzz going for their products. When big-time game sites like gamespot.com have a whole subsite dedicated to cheats — cheats.gamespot.com — the naughty thrill is gone. The fake-hacker look of the site just comes off as cheesy, and it’s about as illicit as reading the manual.
A more controversial form of cheating that goes on in the gaming world are the hacks that give you an unfair advantage in the online battlefields of games like Counter-Strike and Urban Terror. You can get “aimbot” programs that give you 100 per cent accuracy, and other ones that let you see through walls. Players who’ve honed their skills over years of playing are easily taken out by newbies on steroids, and they’re outraged. Although gaming servers are equipped with anti-cheat filters like PunkBuster and Cheating Death, these only catch the known cheats and consequently paranoia runs high. It’s common for skilled players to be accused of having cheating programs.
The meritocracy of the online world may degenerate into an arms race, and in some respects this would more closely mirror the real military scenarios they simulate. At one point, people complained that guerrilla warfare was cheating. The geek satire site, bbspot.com, brings this to the fore with a satirical article that has Donald Rumsfeld saying, “This is all just a smoke and mirrors act. Saddam is the real cheater here. We have definitive proof that he used aimbot tons and tons of times, we just can’t find it.”
Regardless, it ruins the fun for a lot of people who find meaning in playing by the rules. An interview with one of the creators of the first aimbot/wallhack cheats is quite revealing. He said that while he was a big fan of Counter-Strike, playing with the cheat “felt like a whole new game.” Requiring a similar level of creative thinking and obsession, there is the sense that cheat and walkthrough writers are rising to the challenge of another kind of game.