Ethical implications of cheating in online games

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

Nowadays, online gaming has become a multi-billion pounds industry in which a large portion of the global population engages daily. There are various reasons for why people play games, such as being a relaxed experience, being immersed in a virtual place, where the number of activities is endless; activities that do not require real-life effort. Considering its importance and the immense market, game developers attract more players by combing new technologies, improving games’ interfaces, experimenting with new or old themes to captivate millions of people worldwide.


“Online gaming is poised to become the largest revenue-generating segment of the entertainment industry, with millions of geographically dispersed players engaging each other within the confines of virtual worlds.” – Blackburn et. al, 2014, p. 9:22.

However, there is one unfortunate aspect in online gaming that “poisons the competition and spoils the fun: cheating” (ibid., p. 9:1). Because each game has its own community, the developers have created rules, so that the virtual communities experience an ambient atmosphere.

“An ethical system is created along with the rules that govern the games. Just like in the real world, some players make the decision to circumvent the established rules to gain an unfair advantage, a practice actively discouraged by the industry and frowned upon by gamers themselves.” – ibid., 9:22.

Just imagine downloading a game and doing the training. You start feeling confident that you can win a fight because of the effort that you put into learning how to play the game.

However, when you fight with an opponent and you lose in a matter of milliseconds, you ask yourself “why did I lose?”.

Well, in some cases, it is possible that the other player was better, while in other cases the opponent uses cheats.


“’Cheats’ are software components that implement game rule violations, such as seeing through walls or automatically targeting a moving character.” – ibid., 9:2.

According to Blackburn et. al (2014, p. 9:2), for some cheaters, the motivation lays in making the account more valuable to sell it for money, while others “simply want to have fun and advance to a higher level in a game without investing tedious effort” (ibid.) or they are doing it for the simple desire of winning or just annoying other players.


In his book “Fighting cheaters in games after Blizzard V Bossland: The history and future of anti-cheats litigation” (2019), Zhang categorizes the large variety of cheats into three types: free public cheats, public commercial cheats, and high-end cheats or exclusive cheats.


As described by Zhang (2019, pp. 243-244), the public cheats are developed by amateur computer programmers, have poor functionalities, although they are available for almost every game. Secondly, the public commercial cheats “are developed, marketed, and maintained by registered software companies with legitimate businesses” (ibid.), while the exclusive cheats provide “custom functionalities and personalized customer support” (ibid.).


“Cheating programs, or cheats, are third-party programs unauthorized by the game developer, with the purpose of aiding a player’s gameplay in otherwise impossible manners.” – ibid., p. 242.

When there are so many types of cheats, what are the chances of an honest player winning?


Well, they are minimal. After understanding how the cheats industry is an industry itself that generates substantial profit at the expense of poisoning the game for the honest players, it is mandatory to understand the ethical implications of cheating in online gaming. Providing this evidence, and considering how many types of cheats exist, it is certain that the gaming industry is flooded by cheaters who have a great advantage in winning against honest players who follow the rules.


“Some common functions of cheats include allowing a player to see through walls to identify other players, and aiming a gun automatically at others’ head.” – ibid.

“In a first-person shooter game, several state information will certainly influence the aiming accuracy of a player directly (…). Also, it is easier to aim at a static target than a high-speed moving target. Likewise, a player should have a higher aiming accuracy when that player is stationary, as compare to a player who is aiming while moving at the same time. Certainly, the use of an aimbot will affect the aiming accuracy of a player.” – Yeung et. al, 2005, p. 1179.

Having such advantages in a game, no matter of its difficulty means a higher chance at winning than the chances of an honest player, who may miss a shot or be surprised by the opponent’s location.


Cheating is an issue not only for honest players because “playing against other cheaters may not be particularly attractive as any advantage gained from cheating would be canceled out” (Blackburn et. al, 2014, p. 9:8) but also for game developers because they do not want to have this “unpleasant experience” (Yeung et. al, 2005, p. 1178) associated with their work. Also, cheating will destroy the fun of the game, making honest players “eventually abandon the game” (ibid.), which translates to financial loss to the game developers.


For these reasons, in recent years, many companies have hired people to implement anti-cheating software into the games. Some of them apply a “social penalty” (Blackburn et. al, 2014, p. 9:1) to the cheater that can have as a consequence losing “friends immediately after the cheating label is publicly applied” (ibid.). In this way, if the social penalty appears on the cheater’s profile, then the reason for losing would be obvious for the honest players or the cheater may not cheat anymore. However, cheating is still not prevented by using this method.


This solution does not work every time, therefore other companies employ people to “monitor the game constantly so as to discover potential cheaters” (Yeung et. al, 2005, p. 1178), which is labor-intensive work that might have many flaws.


“For example, some online game servers have administrators and if they discover some suspicious players, or receive sufficient number of complaints from other players of accusing another player for foul play, then the administrator has the right to kick out a suspicious player from participating in the online game.” – ibid.

Another strategy implemented by other game developers is the ban of an account, which means that the cheater cannot use his/her account anymore for a certain amount of time or permanently.


“This is not only important for maintaining a healthy in-game environment, but also cuts down the revenue of cheats developers because the banned cheaters will no longer subscribe to the cheats.” - Zhang, 2019, pp. 245-246.

However, even if more companies implement some of these strategies into their games, cheating is still a problem, which annoys a large portion of the global gamers. This dishonest behavior is confusing for some players because of the level of satisfaction of winning a game when you know you did not win it by playing fairly, by using your own skills and experience.


Reference List:

Blackburn, J., Kourtellis, N., Skvoretz, J., Ripeanu, M., Iamnitchi, A. (2014) "Cheating in Online Games: A Social Network Perspective". ACM Transactions on Internet Technology. 13(3). Available at: Cheating in Online Games: A Social Network Perspective: ACM Transactions on Internet Technology: Vol 13, No 3. (Accessed 13 November 2021).

Yeung, S.F., Lui, J.C.S., Liu, J., Yan J. (2005) "Detecting cheaters for multiplayer games: Theory, design and implementation". Available at: CiteSeerX — Detecting cheaters for multiplayer games: Theory, design and implementation (psu.edu) (Accessed 13 November 2021).

Zhang, T. (2019) "Fighting Cheaters in Games after Blizzard v. Bossland: The History

and Future of Anti-Cheats Litigation". University of Illinois Journal of Law,

Technology & Policy. 1(1). HeinOnline, Available at: CiteSeerX — Detecting cheaters for multiplayer games: Theory, design and implementation (psu.edu). (Accessed 13 November 2021).


This article is written as part of an assignment for the Digital Activism class in the MA Media and Creative Cultures program at the University of Greenwich.

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