Cheating, play, trangression and art

Other players: narrative subversion 
Originally uploaded by salvital.

Joystiq reports that people who introduce "3rd party programs" hack and ‘cheat’ in World of Warcraft (which I’ve not played yet, but peer pressure is building…) will be "permanently removed".

This made me think back to some of the people I met during my work on Play I did last year, and some ‘grief-play’ fun I had with them at a games theory conference…

At the Other Players conference last December in Copenhagen, there was
quite a focus on griefing/cheating; with one perspective being that,
under some cicrumstances, the cheat could be seen as an act of artistic
or political merit

Eric Zimmerman and Jesper Juul had created a
very entertaining social game for the conference, which involved
trading word / action cards and team-building in order to win – the
winning being possible by a ‘ludological’ victory (amassing as many
prize card points as possible) or a ‘narratological’ victory (creating
the best, most meaningful sentence with your word cards as judged by

Our team, "The Monsters", attemped an all-or-nothing
subversion of the game rules by ‘entering the meta-game’ and amassing
as many powerful cards as we could, then trading them all for candy in
the ‘in-game store'(v. cute!)

The theory here was that we were
playing  to role ("Monsters do not understand puny humans’
‘naarrraaatologickaal victory’… MONSTERS WAAANT CAAANDY!!!") and the
best way to be rewarded for this was a retelling through pictures… a
kind of alternative ‘narratological’ victory showing that we had a
really good time just being in the game, as players enjoying the play.

had the advantage of a insider – a member of ITU staff (thanks Tascha!) also being a
Monster, so we were able to extend what was available to us in-game to
support this meta-game i.e. take pictures with our camerephones and
email them to her to print out on a colour printer.

The final
meta-game moment of truth was that we cajolled the academic who had
posited that griefing could be art, Julian Kuecklich into making a signed statement that
our subversion of the game could be said to have artistic merit, and
should be considered in that spirit by the group…

Well – after
a lot of puzzlement and good-humoured consternation by the organisers
we were allowed to submit our teams’ efforts and after the subsequent,
necessary retelling of our ‘game play’, to our jubilation we ended up
winning the narratological vote as we hoped.

Why am I telling this long-winded story?

– first I wanted to record it somewhere as it was so much fun (Hi
Monsters, wherever you are!) and also try and transpose some of that to
the MMORPG setting and see if there are any parallels with the WoW
ruling by Blizzard.

We definitely broke the game.

We definitely introduced technologies which others did not have to our advantage (camphones, printers, email accounts).

However we didn’t take away from others play experience in doing so.

fact, the intrigue in what we were doing which was so obviously
building to something subversive from the other teams I think was part
of the fun. We definitely made people laugh, and I think that’s why we
got the vote in the end (as well as the candy…)

retelling and the entertaining retelling of the hack was crucial.
Twisting the rules in good spirits and making sure that everyone saw us
‘wink’ was essential.

In the social play of MMOs, what
constitutes a good hack that adds to the enjoyment of all, or a bad
hack that detracts? Is all griefing grief?

Well, here are the
rambles of a dilettante (at best) but this place hasn’t been used for a
half-formed thought for a while, so here goes.

Trangression and
art are often closely bound, but Pareto’s principle is observed – most
trangression is just plain nasty with no artistic result. But the
alternative, – no trangression – is like one of those bad sci-fi shows
where the heroes land on a perfect planet with a perfect, orderly
society to find there is no art, no passion, no voice in the fire.

Play is often trangression – safe trangression that is, where people can say ‘uncle’ once it’s hurting.

back to my experience, RPGs of old with great GMing’ were like this –
rules would be bent but with permission – with ‘the wink’ between all,
and the sensitivity of the GM to know how to keep the play alive and
tranformed through the transgressions – or if you like –

M’Colleague Janne has reported back that a highly
improvisational style is the frontier of LARP/tabel-top RPG thinking at
the moment.

I guess the challenge is how this scales – there’s a reason they are called MASSIVELY multi-player games.

Robin Hunicke’s thoughts on flow and adaptive challenge in FPS could
extend to flow, optimal experience and adaptive rules in RPGs…

I know that MMOs are still an evolving field of social play, with lots of problems to guard against; and that I’m more prone, sometimes foolishly, to freedom-to than freedom-from sort of thoughts. But should we describe all hacks as hacks, cheats as cheats, grief as grief – all trangression to be forbidden?

As Church and Costikyan are fond of saying of play; we need more verbs, more agency.

0 thoughts on “Cheating, play, trangression and art

  1. There are two things going on in your story of the Monsters that make it very different from the typical MMORPG, though: closeness and respect. The Monsters’ “hack” happened within a community that was orders of magnitude smaller than that of a large online role playing game. As well, the transgression seems to have been intended as an amplification of existing modes of play, not as harassment or grief. That’s partially why it was “safe.” On the other hand, I don’t have as much invested in the game as your fellow players had. For the same reason, I think the following cheat in UO was hilarious and totally “safe” — but reluctantly have to empathize with its victim: .

  2. Besides it hardly seems fair to use Blizzard as an example here. They do allow for a number of “hacks” like Cosmos and ctmod that alter the interface (give my action bars for example). They realize the distinction between hacks that help and hacks that hurt (some of the gold farming apps).

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