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Ever hear the phrase “common sense isn’t very common”? It’s true. Arguments from common sense are logical fallacies because there’s really no such thing. We’re all terribly susceptible to the idea that the things we find obvious are obvious to our peers. After all, what sort of horrible person wouldn’t agree with me on something so basic and simple?

If common sense were common, cultures all over the world wouldn’t still be debating such basic “common sense” rights as life and liberty. Common sense is worse than uncommon — it’s non-existent. And if we can’t agree on important things like capital punishment and narcotics and equality, we’ve no expectation that we’ll all agree on something relatively petty like cheating at computer games.

I noticed this fallacy again and again in a recent comment thread on Massively, where interesting points are often subsumed beneath the roar. I asked: When does a clever loophole become a bannable exploit? Many posters believe that common sense tells them the difference, but common sense must be telling them different things because good-faith commenters couldn’t come to an agreement on what constitutes an exploit, whether players should know they’re exploiting, whether the first exploiter or only copycats ought to be punished, whether bans are too harsh, whether players are obligated to report bugs in a live game, whether some exploits are worse than others, and whether the developer bears any responsibility. The “common sense” theme is repeated over and over; the more confident the poster of his own moral compass, the more self-righteous, insulting, infantilizing, and personal the dig:

  • “Do you really need someone to tell you what you are doing is wrong? Are you that clueless as to basic rules and fair play? Maybe you need to go back to kindergarten and go watch kids play at a playground. It really is that basic.”
  • “You’re ridiculous and so is the article, if it can be called that, if you want the blame to be on the developer because people don’t have common sense.”
  • “Or you can be a normal human being, not cheat, and not try to say it isn’t your fault you cheat.”
  • “A lot of MMO players are children who were never taught to discern right and wrong.”
  • “I do not for one minute believe that people can’t tell when what they’re doing is an exploit. The fact you even take this position, Brianna, makes me wonder from what game you were banned.”
  • “Nonsense. People know the difference between right and wrong, they make free choices and should take responsibility for their actions accordingly.”
  • “Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out when you are exploiting. None of what we are discussing are unknown consequences. These are people who KNOW they are breaking the game mechanics. Ban em.”
  • “So at no point should common sense kick in and say, ‘Oh I probably shouldn’t [exploit a bug]’? […] Goddamn this world is fully of children latched at the teat.”

I flinch away from the “I’ll know it when I see it” definition of exploit. Initially, I wrote the post with a slight allusion to bugs/exploits in both WoW and SWTOR. The SWTOR Ilum bug incentivized not-PvPing in PvP warzones and allowed lower-level characters to participate where they should not have. Before the post ran, the SWTOR /getdown bug went viral; it allowed players to pacify aggressive NPCs using a simple emote. Most players had one or both of these TOR exploits in mind when answering, but the question was and is broader than that.

While I’ve never been banned from any games, I have certainly done things the holier-than-thou types would consider exploits. For example, way back 1997, there was a bug in Ultima Online that allowed players to resurrect each other’s ghosts inside of locked houses. Because EA was slow to fix the exploit, many victims, including teenage me, used it in turn to get back at the thieves and recoup lost property. Is exploiting for vigilante justice acceptable in a game that allows murder and has a stealing skill? Grown-up me says no, and I’d not do it again, but I won’t say it’s not a grey area in such an anything-goes gameplay environment. The sense of lawlessness of that game affected everyone’s perception of right and wrong. Hacking and betrayals and impersonations were all part of the metagame, and we had zero recourse with EA. Moreover, vigilantism is a grey area in the real world too; even the fifty states have different policies on such questions as whether we have the right to use lethal force to protect our own person or property.

And really that’s the trouble with any sort of a real-world analogy. Exploiting a game bug isn’t akin to yoinking a little old lady’s purse, as my commenters tried to argue. For a start, stealing from a little old lady’s purse is legal and legitimate gameplay in a lot of games. Everyone in Ultima Online knew that if a bag hit the floor at the bank, it was fair game for grabbing, even if we’d not behave that way in the real world. Players insist that everyone ought to know that stealing is unacceptable, but we know that’s not true, don’t we? That’s why different types of theft crimes have different punishments and mitigating effects. Peoples and societies and cultures don’t agree. “Common sense” and all such appeals to tradition are meaningless.

Let’s suppose, however, that our thief does dip his paw into granny’s purse. Whether or not we agree with them, this country has laws forbidding petty larceny. A robber will be arrested and punished. The law, not common sense, is the set of formal rules that govern real life, and we can only arrest people for crimes that are formally outlawed. The sports-analogy comments fit well here. Said one poster, “There is nothing like ‘behavior that is not in the spirit of the game’ in the NFL rulebook. You will never see a referee call a foul and then say the player did something against the spirit of the game. The foul has to be spelled out in the rulebook or there is no basis to call it.”

Within a game, the game mechanics are the law, those bits of code that define and limit gameplay. Everything else is ephemera. A game developer might overlay additional behavioral proscriptions; this is why players should read the EULA/TOS for any game they buy, but we know they don’t. It would be easy to put a quick end to this debate by saying, “BioWare can ban anyone it wants.” Obviously it can. The question is whether it should do so, whether it’s right to do so, not whether it’s legal. Most players skip past legalese and forums and social media, where these extra rules are posted. If the developer isn’t taking overt action to make players aware of additional limitations on play (e.g., popups on login about punishments for specific exploits), then players aren’t getting that information, which means that a developer that takes action against “exploiters” is knowingly lumping the clueless in with the malicious. Baby with the bathwater and all that.

Ultima Online's SA Client: Unfair?

But Bree, you say, /getdown and Ilum were cut-and-dried exploits. Everyone says! So let’s look at an example that isn’t cut-and-dried. Let’s look at something that is flat-out illegal in one game and totally legal in another.

In Ultima Online, AFK-macroing was and is considered illegal. During the first few years of the game, people didn’t really care. They’d do it anyway, using third-party programs or ye olde paperweight (you remember paper, don’t you?) to press a key down and spam their skills repeatedly. Eventually, EA approved UO Assist, a third-party macroing program (believed by many players to violate the spirit of the game, in spite of its being legal). And to this day, idling within the game is against the rules: AFKing or failing to respond to a GM query is grounds for your transportation to jail for further investigation. I don’t think it’s “common sense” that going AFK is against the rules, but there you have it.

But in Star Wars Galaxies, before its demise, anyway, AFK-macroing was completely legal. The game launched with an unparalleled scripting system that allowed players to design elaborate macros for looting, killing, dancing, music-making, buffing, talking, and so on. Critically, recursive macros were permitted, so it was possible to keep a character logged in for days while you were AFK. This is how players were able to level up entertainers (“macrotaining”), combatants, and pets quickly while AFK post-NGE. SOE took a few measures to make some AFK actions difficult (nerfing loot drops and adding confirmation screens to buffing), but to its credit, the company never made AFK-botting illegal — I’d like to believe SOE was unwilling to sacrifice all the good uses of the macro system at the altar of repairing a few bad ones.

So, Common Sensers — is AFK play evil? Can you understand that a perfectly ethical person might go from SWG, where a gameplay element is legal, to UO, where it is not, and run into trouble? Such a person might not even realize that he is exploiting or cheating or breaking any rules. It wouldn’t even occur to him.

SWG Aide: Cheating?

What about goldselling? It’s not illegal in every game; for example, it’s been legal in Ultima Online for years, just not on the official forums (nor on eBay, which eventually banned all such sales in all MMOs). I’ve personally sold accounts and purchased gold in that game. In fact, EA actually maintains an insurance program to help players sell their accounts to other players legally, with EA acting as a protective broker in the process. True, UO is the exception, not the rule. But that’s the point, isn’t it? In UO, it’s “common sense” that if you’re broke, you can buy cash from other players for less than $1/mil. But if you try it in most other MMOs, you’ll be tarred and feathered for “cheating.”

Scamming’s another good example. CCP takes great pride in allowing players to scam each other in EVE Online through trickery and lotteries and so forth (as I chronicled in Caveat emptor is lazy game design). Most MMOs, however, have strict rules about scams and lotteries. World of Warcraft placed a game-wide ban on player lotteries; Star Wars Galaxies was very strict about lottery scams and frequently and publicly banned offenders.

How about multiboxing? It’s legal in many games, like WoW, Camelot, and SWG. It’s not completely legal in other games, like Glitch. I once asked readers whether alts and mules were cheats. A surprising number said yes. The fact that some players will argue you shouldn’t multibox or AFK-macro or buy gold in games where it’s legal makes me suspect that this argument isn’t really about fair play or rules or common sense at all — it’s about individual consciences and our being deluded into thinking everyone else shares in our “common sense.” But we cannot be expected to guess or apply common sense about whether the devs really meant for some advantage, loophole, bug, or exploit to exist when people — and games — can’t even agree on what common sense is.

Remember, an achievement-oriented player’s goal is to figure out the best and most efficient way to win in a game — to make the most money, to beat the dungeon first, to level up the quickest, however winning is defined. At the top tiers of gameplay, the slightest edge makes all the difference, and every edge skirts the boundaries of cheating or poor sportsmanship. Slicing your way to millions of credits a week into the game. Mailing CoH inspirations to yourself to free up inventory. Stacking exactly the right character classes to beat a raid boss. Using mods to coordinate debuffs. Voice chat. Gamepads. Macros. Ganking. Farming. Auction house parsers. Fast-travel. Potions in PvP. Heck, even certain character builds (UO’s Sampires, CoH’s Ill/Rads, WoW Pallies) make you sit up and wonder, wow this is so ridiculously overpowered — did the devs really mean for this to be in the game? Will I be banned for discovering this SHORTCUT TO AWESOME?

All of these things give someone an advantage. All of these things are considered hateful cheats in some games/communities and perfectly acceptable gameplay in others. Placing the burden on the players to guess what’s an exploit and what’s a clever manipulation of possible game mechanics starts to sound ludicrous in this context. We might think the /getdown bug is obvious to most players, but that’s just one exploit in a sea of others not remotely obvious, so why would we support a one-size-fits-all exploit policy?

The Utilitarian in me would rather see nine guilty men go free than convict one innocent because the conviction of the innocent creates more harm to more people than the freedom of the nine. I can’t get behind the “Ban ‘em first, let CS sort ‘em out” sentiment in the thread, not in real life and not in-game. I might hope that players will play nice, but I would never expect such in a setting where the rules and mechanics and bugs and exploits are nebulous, subjective, and entirely the fault and responsibility of the developer. Developers should accept that their code allows for unintended consequences. Patch it. Fix it. Roll back the servers if you must. But don’t channel your embarrassment into vindictiveness for those who discovered and used or even abused it. Give them the benefit of the doubt and don’t rely on the argumentum ad populum “common sense” fallacy to adjudicate your game. If you really want to create a fair game, you have to code it that way from the start and test it brutally, and here’s why: If there’s one thing MMO designers have learned over the last 15 years, it’s that players never play the way you planned.

5 Comments

  1. ArcherAvatar says:

    An extremely well written and thoughtful article on a controversial and devisive topic. I enjoyed reading that, and wish it had been the article that was posted on Massively.

    This will likely sound contradictory but, I both feel like the players in a given community have every right to express their concerns about what they view as “cheating” and demand it’s censure by the DEVs, AND also feel that it is completely inappropriate for the DEVs to ban (even temporarily) accounts for taking advantage of in-game exploits that are only present due to the DEVs failure on some level of programming. (I’m not referring here to malicious, third party programmers such as the hacks in APB – hit those with the ban-stick like you’re trying for a homerun! I’m referrencing just the already existing / in-game exploits created by the DEVs own code.)

    Basically, if it’s an exploit because the DEVs simply didn’t catch an error on their part, then the players should not be punished for taking advantage of what was put in the game by the DEVs. Simply correct the oversight, and move forward. IF, on the other hand, it is something that originates externally to the game code (hacks, gold sellers, etc.) then I feel the DEVs are completely justified in banning those accounts, and those who get banned don’t have a leg to stand on in arguing against it imo.

    I’m not sure if that viewpoint lumps me in with the “just use common sense” crowd or not but, it seems like a very clearly defined line to me, which applies equally to all games.

    • Bree says:

      I think I’d agree with that — hacking seems like another tier altogether of malicious activity. I can’t think of any MMO where it’s allowed or not expressly forbidden in the EULA/TOS. (Of course, as soon as I’ve said that, someone will probably come up with one to show me wrong hehe. :D) I guess to me that’s not just a player doing something shady within the mechanics/rules; that’s a player changing the mechanics/rules without permission.

      This post is about two times too long for Massively, and wouldn’t have gotten to run until March — I didn’t want to crop it or wait. Most of my posts here are here for similar reasons hehe. :D

      Thanks, as always, for the comment, AA!

  2. Zax19 says:

    As far as I know if something isn’t specified by the law it’s not punishable. If you find a loophole in the rules it’s the responsibility of the ruler to fix them. As such I wouldn’t talk about common sense but about what’s illegal vs. what’s immoral. In the context of games I don’t think it’s legal to punish anyone for an exploit which is not specifically forbidden by the rules. And since in most cases exploits are not discovered by the developer but by the player you won’t see a specific exploit forbidden before the players even know about it.

    I’d draw a parallel to competitive games like Starcraft 2 and the mindset of “play to win”. Players will seek out balance issues, i.e. strategies which put them in advantage so that they can win. For me a lot of those are just unresolved game design flaws and should be taken care of as fast as possible but I’m not Blizzard and they seem to care/know very little. So again, it’s a question of morality if you decide to take advantage of a faulty system, even more so because Blizzard is very slow at denouncing, let alone fixing these flaws.

    Going back to the MMORPG context, I don’t think you can apply a general rule about in game exploits to any of them. The more general the rule is the more difficult should it be to actually connect it to a specific offence. You could, however, forbidden a specific exploit the moment it’s discovered by an addition to the EULA (confirmed in the game launcher) before the developers implement an actual fix. All in all, I see it as an issue of morality on the player’s part and an issue of vague EULA on the developer’s part. I think it’s immoral but that doesn’t make it illegal unless it’s specified.

  3. Demuse says:

    Is it fair for developers to acknowledge an exploit, and tell players not to use it while they go about fixing it? It might take days or weeks to close the loophole. Of course they face the horns of dilemma: to admit the exploit is to teach it to every player, as you can’t tell players exactly what not to do without explaining just how to do it. But I think it’s a fair desperate solution, for the greater good: admit the problem, get to work on solving it, and ban exploiters in the meantime.

    Can exploits be divided between PVP and PVE? It seems to me like PVE exploits are like cheating at solitaire. PVP exploits are a different animal, if one player can cheat and ruin the fun of another.

    • Bree says:

      I think it’s better to announce it and clear the air and then ban people than to try to keep it a secret and possibly ban clueless people, definitely. There are ways of describing most exploitative activities without completely giving them away, too.

      I don’t know that I’d advocate being harsher on PvP exploits than PvE, but that’s primarily because I don’t see PvE as being wholly detached from PvP. WoW players who cheat at getting PvE raid gear can still use it in PvP, for example. People who cheat their way into mass riches can use it against other players in the market (which itself is just another form of PvP).

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