lördag 22 mars 2014

Cheating and creative play in EVE Online

Back i august, I wrote a blog post about a proposed book chapter that I and and Per Nygren submitted to an edited book about research on a specific online (MMO) game: EVE Online. The book was/is to be called "Internet Spaceships are Serious Business: An EVE Online Reader". There is a website ("EVE Online Scholarship"), but the site hasn't been updated in the last seven months - perhaps the editors are busy putting the book together? Our proposed chapter was based on Per's (excellent) master's thesis, but the editors "received significantly more submissions than was expected" and our proposed chapter was (gently) rejected as it for some reason "fell out of the scope".

I have reshaped the proposed book chapter into an extended abstract and I just sent it to a conference called MULTI.PLAYER 2: Compete - Cooperate - Communicate that will be held in Germany (Münster) in mid-August. This is the second MULTI.PLAYER conference and the first conference (held in 2011) apparently resulted in an edited book that was published by Routledge, "Multiplayer: The Social Aspects of Digital Gaming". That sounds promising. The conference is jointly organized with The European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA) and the ECREA "temporary working group" Digital Games Research, as well as the European Research Council (ERC) research group/research project "The social fabric of virtual life".

The conference does not seem to primarily compete with other "digital games conferences", but is instead more geared towards social scientists: "The aim of this conference is to take a deeper look at the various forms of human interaction in digital games. Researchers from a variety of disciplines interested in social interaction in games are welcome, including (but not limited to) the fields of communication research, media studies, sociology, psychology, education studies, and economics". In case you didn't know, I have a Ph.D. in communication studies (with a specialization in human-machine interaction), so I pass! There is in fact a pretty great match between our paper and the topic of the conference - they welcome papers about (among other things):

- Game communities and cultures, social interaction in and around games
- Development of interaction rules and social norms, including questions of ethics, morality, economy & justice in digital games
- Social functionality of online games
- Violent interactions, griefing, and sexual harassement in digital games
- Theoretical and empirical approaches to social interaction in digital games
- Methodology of research on social interaction in games

I submitted the extended abstract Monday - six days in advance of the deadline. That might be a personal record, but I didn't want to have it lying around because that would only tempt me to spend (waste) more time on the abstract when I believe it's "good enough" and I urgently need to spend my time this week doing other things.

When I submit papers to conferences, I usually publish just the abstract and perhaps one more paragraph here on the blog, but this time around I'll publish the whole extended abstract. Enjoy!


Cheating and creative play in EVE Online


In Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs), many thousands of players interact simultaneously in a single virtual game world. "Cheating" is a fluid concept in online games and the conception of what exactly constitutes cheating can differ markedly from person to person. What is cheating in online games and what is instead “creative play”? How do you differ between them? Cheating can, despite the inherent fuzziness of the concept, have significant consequences for both MMO players and developers.

In this paper, we present the results of a qualitative investigation of experienced players' subjective opinions about what constitutes cheating in the massively multiplayer online game “EVE Online” in terms of five different categories of cheating; 1) bugs & exploits, 2) bots & macros, 3) player-created programs, 4) real-money trade of virtual objects and 5) meta-gaming. 

Background, theory

Our theoretical framework is based on research in psychology (Rosch 1975, Rosch & Mervis 1975) and linguistics (Labov 1973) concerning human categorization as applied to the concept of cheating. Following Rosch and Labov, we propose that complicated phenomena (like “community” or “cheating”) are hard to unequivocally delimit, demarcate and categorize. In practice we instead often base our reasoning on “category membership” and “prototypical examples”. Practical experiments show that a robin has a higher degree of “birdness” than an ostrich or a penguin, and that team sports like football (soccer) and basketball has a higher degree of “sportness” than fencing or biathlon. When put on the spot, respondents primarily think of prototypical, core examples of different categories (robin, football) rather than “equally valid” (to, say, a biologist or the Olympic committee) but less prototypical examples. It is, in the same way possible to determine that certain kinds of behaviours are more or less (proto)typical of what players consider to be cheating, without resorting to Manichean black-or-white dichotomies (e.g. cheating - not cheating).

Some games researchers have previously studied cheating (Consalvo 2005, 2007, Kücklich 2007, 2008), and in our article we furthermore also make use of Salen & Zimmerman's (2004) "player types" and Yee's (2006) model of player motivations to analyze cheating in relationship to online games. Theories of “frames” and on the motivations of players are also of interest in order to elucidate the complex relationship between transgressive behaviour and perceived appropriateness of said behaviour in different contexts (e.g. Huizinga 1949, Goffman 1974, Fine 1983/2002).

What then is “cheating” and how does it differ from creative play? In our study we first differ between 1) “only” exhibiting anti-social behaviour within a game (for example griefing), 2) delicts (for example hacking someone’s account) and 3) that space in-between these examples that we here term cheating. Cheating is here defined as either violating the prospective functionality of the computer code (either because the computer code is “correct” (in a narrow sense) but badly designed or because it contains bugs), or, as a violation of explicit rules as stated by the game operator. Rules (explicit or otherwise) are not embodied and enforced through the computer code, but are rather enforced through social means (for example with the help of an in-game “police force” - game masters - or with the help of systems that makes it possible to report transgressions of fellow players etc.). Implicit rules (etiquette etc.) are on the other hand neither unambiguously formulated nor possible to enforce through computer code or by social means, and they thus fall outside the scope of our study. While these kinds of behaviours can be considered problematic, we still do not consider them to constitute “cheating” in this context.

In our study of EVE online, we have in the end divided “cheating” into five different specific categories:
  Bugs and exploits (EVE-relevant example: Loggofski)
  Bots and macros (EVE-relevant example: ISK farming)
  Player-created programs (EVE-relevant example: BACON)
  Real-money trade of virtual objects (ex. ISK, accounts)
  Meta-gaming (acquiring in-game advantages through utilizing out-of-game means, e.g. spying, deception etc.)

[Figure 1. The relationship between different kinds of cheating in online games - relatively complicated Venn diagram]


Our results are based on a survey with open-ended questions that was sent to very experienced EVE players - members of the Council of Stellar Management (CSM). CSM was created by the game developer/operator CCP in 2007 to mediated between the player base and the CCP developers in order to further “the implementation of social ideas” and for “the strengthening of the social structure” in the game. Our invitation was sent to 25 current or previous CSM player-representatives through the in-game message system. Around 45% (11 persons) answered our survey and two thirds of these (7 persons) answered a follow-up survey that was based on the answers we received on the first survey.

We have furthermore searched for, and analyzed relevant discussion threads (about cheating) on two discussion forums, the official EVE Online forum and the “Scrapheap Challenge” (a forum which since then has migrating to the “Failheap Challenge” forum).


By asking open-ended questions, we found that certain behaviours can be considered to be “prototypical” examples of cheating (e.g. “Say you found a way - an exploit of some sort perhaps - which enables you, through some in-game mechanics, to somehow basically generate ISK [the EVE online currency]. Would it be cheating to take advantage of this? Why? Why not?”). Other behaviours were less morally unequivocal (e.g. “When is logging off to escape enemies cheating?”).

Our questions unveiled a fascinating variety of viewpoints as to what constitutes cheating, about the relationship between players and the developer, about the relationship between the players themselves and about what EVE “really is about”. Despite this diversity of opinions, there are still clear tendencies and an emerging consensus about what to a higher and a lesser degree is considered to constitute cheating to this group of (very) experienced players. We present and analyze the results both in terms of what they consider to be cheating as well as their reasoning concerning these issues and we conclude that their reasoning around these issues is both varied and nuanced.


Our conclusion is that cheating is a relatively subjective and ill-defined phenomenon; what one person perceives to be cheating can by another person be perceived as an opportunity, and a smart way to “get ahead” in the game. There are also subtle differences between what the EVE game developer (CCP) considers to be cheating and what the players consider to be cheating in the game. It is, despite this, possible to discern patterns and draw conclusions regarding the perceived “degree” of cheating of different kinds of “problematic” behaviors in online games.

We conclude the paper with a discussion about who suffers from cheating, and what could be done to decrease or prevent players from cheating in online games in general and in EVE online in particular. 


  Consalvo, M. (2005). Gaining Advantage: How Videogame Players Define and Negotiate Cheating. In DIGRA Conf..
  Consalvo, M. (2007). Cheating: Gaining advantage in videogames. Mit Press.
  Fine, G. A. (1983/2002). Shared fantasy: Role playing games as social worlds. University of Chicago Press.
  Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Harvard University Press.
  Huizinga, J. (1949). Homo ludens (Vol. 3). Taylor & Francis.
  Kücklich, J. (2007). Homo Deludens Cheating as a Methodological Tool in Digital Games Research. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 13(4), 355-367.
  Küchlich, J. (2008). Forbidden pleasures: Cheating in computer games. In M. Swalwell & J. Wilson (Eds.), The pleasures of computer gaming (pp. 52–71). Jefferson, NC: McFarland
  Labov, W. (1973). The boundaries of words and their meanings. New ways of analyzing variation in English, 1, 340-73.
  Rosch, E. (1975). Human categorization. In N. Warren (Ed.), Advances in cross-cultural psychology. (Vol. 1) London: Academic Press
  Rosch, E., & Mervis, C. B. (1975). Family resemblances: Studies in the internal structure of categories. Cognitive psychology, 7(4), 573-605.
  Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of play: Game design fundamentals. MIT press.
  Yee, N. (2006). Motivations for play in online games. CyberPsychology & behavior, 9(6), 772-775.


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