All’s Fair in Games of War

1Up recently posted an editorial on cheating in games. While the article primarily serves as an overview of the different kinds of cheating that are possible in games, it doesn’t really take a much of a look into any of the philosophy behind it (for instance, no Huizinga or unspoken rules). Then again, given the audience, you can’t really be surprised at the lack of any kind of material like that.

One interesting anecdote in the article though is the use of pornographic spray tags in Counter-Strike. While Counter-Strike has its own share of subversive play from Anne-Marie Schleiner’s Velvet-Strike, which uses anti-war spray tags as commentary, this is certainly an interesting tactic:

“There are personal markings in Counter-Strike called ‘sprays.’ As long as it’s a still image, you can make it whatever you want. Sometimes you see lolcats, and sometimes you see porn. So when someone stops to look at the naked lady painted on the wall, someone else comes up and knifes them.”

Actually, this seems like a very valid tactic. A pornographic tag seems like the perfect strategy for distracting male would-be soldiers, so I don’t see how it can be classified as cheating – it’s simply a non-standard tactic, and one which Snake employs in Metal Gear Solid to distract guards. Our country wouldn’t exist today if we hadn’t relied on non-standard guerrilla tactics to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War instead of lining up in Napoleonic rows like the British wanted for a ‘fair fight’. You can’t even complain too much that kids are viewing the tags because the game is M-rated and thus wasn’t designed for kids anyway (this and online disclaimers abound).

Another strategy that some will call cheating is the suicide bomber (or kamikaze) strategy in Halo. Wired journalist Clive Thompson loves to play Halo, but he’s nowhere near as good as many online players, who quickly trounce him. He doesn’t have the time or the skill to play Halo dozens of hours a week in order to master the game. Instead, he runs up to the other player, throws a sticky bomb at them which can’t be dislodged once it’s hit, and earns a kill. His character will inevitably die, but will just be respawned later. Thompson writes:

“This changes the relative meaning of death for the two of us. For me, dying will not penalize me in the way it penalizes them, because I have almost no chance of improving my state. I might as well take people down with me.”

So kamikaze tactics in Halo aren’t exactly ‘playing fair.’ Thompson isn’t using his skills with a weapon and with maneuvering through the terrain like the other players: he’s using a ‘cheap tactic’ of using a cheap weapon – the sticky bomb – to score a kill. Because death in the game is not death in real life, this is a logical tactic. Granted, it isn’t one that is going to make Thompson rise in the ranks, but it’s going to give him the ability to fight back in an otherwise lopsided fight.

Another tactic that’s often regarded as cheating is camping. Camping is used in games where players respawn after their characters have died in a limited number of predictable places. As a result, a player who has knowledge of the spawn locations can stay in a well-defended spot for long periods (or ‘camp’), and amass a large number of kills. This is a clearly frustrating tactic as it means other players often get very little reaction time before they can begin playing. As a result, designers often try to lessen the opportunity for camping and create rules which penalize players for doing so. Camping is an undesired strategy because in many respects it is a ‘broken’ strategy – it is one that works every single time it is used simply because it is much too difficult to remove the camper before he can make a dozen kills.

And here’s the difference between war and play. In a war, anything goes, so long as you can defend your actions afterward, something that is incredibly easier to do if you win (was Curtis LeMay ever charged as a war criminal for the firebombing of Tokyo, even though the Japanese were deplored for bombing civilians in Nanking?). In play though, there is a difference in playing to win and playing for enjoyment. A player who plays to win will not shy from using non-standard tactics to defeat his or her opponent, whether it is guerrilla tactics of spraying pictures of naked women to distract the enemy or utilizing game loopholes like camping. A person who plays for enjoyment (and here, I must add not only the enjoyment of himself but of others) will be more likely to play ‘fair’ by only using agreed-upon rules, often unspoken rules of culture and etiquette that determine what is a viable strategy. In such a game, relying heavily on broken strategies will usually not result in an ejoyable experience – but so will pairing a very experienced player with a novice.

What kind of game is war most closely related to? Cultural ideas of ‘chivalric war’ aside, war is like a game in which the players play to win. However, it is also a game in which the victor and, in the global world, the ‘uninvolved’ spectators, play the role of referee. The victor declares violations to the ‘rules of war’ as often as he ignores his own violations, dismissing them as necessary strategies for the sake of winning. The spectator declares violations when he witnesses actions which seem deplorable to his tastes. These violations are usually based on rules that the victor has agreed through the coopreration of other nations, such as the Geneva Convention or the United Nations as well as cultural beliefs of ‘common sense’. As a result, each side must walk a careful line between respecting the spoken and unspoken rules of warfare with bending or breaking them as little or as much in order to achieve victory.

War is thus unlike a game because its rules and enforcement are performed by the victors rather than by a neutral referee or clear-cut rules of play. The rules governing the actions of people in society are declared as much as they are agreed upon by the people as they are by the lawmakers, something which war transcends out of its operation and may only gain again through reflection, though usually only after hostilities have ended.

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One Response to “All’s Fair in Games of War”

  1. LinkoGRAfia (30) « Altergranie Says:

    […] All’s Fair in Games of War (Desert Hat). Ciekawy wpis z niedawno odkrytego przeze mnie bloga Desert Hat: Critical Game Theory and Antiwar Gaming: o oszukiwaniu w grach i oszukiwaniu na wojnie – jakie są różnice, a jakie podobieństwa? […]

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