04 October 2009

Hackers, Steroids and Other Cheats

For the past few years, we baseball fans have been inundated with implications of players using performance-enhancing substances.  The most commonly expressed reaction is that cheating is inexcusable and that it stains the integrity of the game.  I happen to agree with that doctrine, but there's more to it.  Many players, we have been told, have resorted to using these controversial substances simply to keep up with the rest of the league.  And the typical response to those hypothetical players so far has generally been that their participation has been tantamount to capitulation.  Had the majority of players stayed honest, we say, the handful of abusers would have stayed in the minority.

Cut to about a month ago, when my wife and I were playing yet another round of races on Mario Kart Wii online.  All of a sudden, we're surrounded by other racers with seemingly unlimited power-ups; the ability to use items right off the starting line; players who drive off the track and reappear farther ahead of us as though they simply teleported; other such intimidating, game-changing enhancements.  These aren't even simply cheats; these are outright hacks.  For the non-inclined, the difference is something like this: a cheat is something the game designers tuck into the game for the very determined to find--and be rewarded for their efforts.  A hack is something that someone very determined does by breaking into the data of the game itself and manipulating things to their own advantage.

We encountered a pair of Canadian hackers who had infinite star power (making them invulnerable to any other attack) for whom even competing to win was no longer sufficient.  These two, instead, got their jollies by simply ambushing other drivers--repeatedly.  They simply set up at one part of the track and kept driving back and forth to run over other drivers.

Frustrated, we went online to see what other players were saying about this obnoxious trend.  It appears that, despite player protests, Nintendo had largely ignored such actions.  Their laissez-faire approach called to mind Major League Baseball's willful dismissal of complaints from players such as Rick Helling, who had bravely stood alone at annual meetings of the Major League Baseball Players' Association alarmed by the trend of steroid use tilting the balance of the playing field.

When players are not just bested by cheaters, but surrounded by them--and the authorities over their game refuse to act--what choices are left?  There are but three.  Firstly, a player can opt to leave the game.  But that seems the least fair option.  We paid our money to enjoy Mario Kart Wii and I don't think we should be run off by these cheaters out to flaunt their hacking abilities.  Professional ballplayers have far more at stake; they've invested the bulk of their young life to the game of baseball.  And that's not counting the at-times ridiculous sums of money they could earn by succeeding at it.  Besides which, the honest player resents the cheater's infiltration of the game he loves.  It seems wrong to abandon it to them.

So if you don't walk away from the game, then you are left with either continuing to be bested unfairly, or play unfairly yourself to stay competitive.  It's one thing to lose honestly; that's the nature of any competitive activity.  I'm no good at driving manually on Mario Kart, which costs me the ability to generate jolts of speed taking sharp turns.  If I happen to lose to someone who has mastered that skill, and the race is decided by their advantage resulting from it, then that's just the way it is.  However, to have someone generate destructive items at will--or, worse, to be repeatedly run off the track by someone who isn't even trying to actually win--that's something else.  There's only so much you can do, honestly, to remain competitive against an unfair playing field.

Would I hack the game to make myself similarly powerful?  No.  But the truth is, like Chris Rock once remarked about O.J. Simpson, "I understand" those who feel they had little recourse.  The most disappointing aspect remains that Nintendo and Major League Baseball each have the authority to have been more active in discouraging--and penalizing--such activity, and they instead threw the players to the wolves.

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