Are cheat codes really cheating?

Are cheat codes cheating? The history and purpose of cheat codes in video games makes this question not so cut-and-dried.
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For most nongamers, the question of whether cheat codes equal cheating seems pretty simple. "Cheating" means gaining an unfair advantage, after all, usually by breaking some kind of rule. So, yeah, a cheat code is cheating, because you're breaking a rule that others have to adhere to, right? Follows logic. But let's keep in mind that semantics might make a big difference here. What if we called them "shortcuts" or even — as we might see — "bugs"? Suddenly, we're not necessarily cheating — we're just taking advantage, instead of stealing an unfair advantage. So before we bang the gavel and declare cheat codes either cheating or fair play, let's discuss what a cheat code really is.

The traditional cheat code is one that you can enter while playing the game. To accomplish this, you either enter the code manually or execute a series of actions during gameplay. Either way, doing so will unlock something previously hidden in the game. This is where the "cheat" part of cheat codes really comes into question.


The cheat itself could be lots of different things. Maybe the code gives you a shortcut around the playing field, or maybe it helps you get your hands on a useful tool without having to stumble upon it. It might just be a weird skill — maybe your character is suddenly able to digest gluten! (This idea comes from my most boring video game pitch, the "Baking for Large Crowds Challenge.")

Now, it's important to note that not all of these cheats are accidental. Developers might build them in for a multitude of reasons. Some cheat codes actually make a game harder, which sounds crazy but is great for game developers looking to keep gamers involved by ramping up the challenge or competition. (In the "Baking for Large Crowds Challenge," that would probably mean giving half the people nut allergies and half the people high-protein diets.) But beyond simply doing it for fun, developers also sometimes design cheats to help them with testing. If they're working on a complicated, intricate game, they might need some quick ways to get to other levels or test for bugs in certain places. And, of course, there could just be a mistake in the code that allows a person to jump levels — but that would be pretty unusual with the quality-assurance processes these days.

In other words, a cheat isn't really the same as a hack, for instance, where a savvy developer (or just someone with programming knowledge) can edit or modify the code of the game to create shortcuts or automate tasks. And that might represent a big difference between what we think of as "cheating" and what we think of as a competitive way to play the game.

So when we ask if cheat codes are cheating, the answer is a pretty strong maybe. Sure, gamers could be finding an advantage that the game makers didn't intend to include. But they might also be finding a more unique — or even challenging — way to play the game that's been built into the system. Or they might be doing a vague amalgamation of both — which means it's up to the player to decide if they're a cheater or a champion.


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  • McFerran, Damien. "Code Red: The History of the Cheat." June 24, 2014. (May 13, 2015)