Designing for Cheating

If a designer lets you cheat and designs systems that allow it, is it really cheating? A case study of The Sims.

The other day, as I was playing The Sims, I was typing in “motherlode” to the Cheat Console and I had a thought that I had had many times before: “Is this cheating?” I would normally ask this in the context of “Am I breaking the rules?” or “Is this fair?”. After all, The Oxford Dictionary defines cheating as:

Act[ing] dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage, especially in a game or examination.

And when I’d ask this question of myself in times past the answer would always be yes. But then I’d shrug and add 50,000 more simoleons to my account because I was playing the game I wanted to play and I needed the cash to tell the story I was creating in my head.

But this most recent time, when I asked myself “Is this cheating?” my answer was no, because I thought about it in the context of the game’s design. The difference this time was that I considered the designers’ intents and came to the realization that I didn’t think it was cheating if designers let me do it. Take a look at this screen grab of the official Sims 4 page on “How to Cheat”:

TEXT: “Cheating is a big part of the game. Not only is it easy to access, but it’s even something we kinda, sorta, actually encourage. […]” – The Sims 4 Team

They literally say that they encourage cheating and then give you the cheat codes. This begs the question, is it even cheating then at this point? I mean, the devs give you the ability, their permission, and their encouragement. To me, it just seems part of the game at this point.

In fact, cheating just seems like another totally valid tool to create the kind of gameplay you want, and if it’s a tool, is it really cheating? After all, it seems like it’s just allowing for more expansive gameplay that functionally still acts in accordance to the rules of the game (for the most part). How is cheating different than modding? It’s actually closer to the original source material than modding is which makes it feel as much a part of the game as anything that is specifically “allowed” at the beginning. Is it cheating then because we’re not given this ability right away or the game designers didn’t design for it to be used like this? Okay, maybe, but with the Sims, we’re given this ability from the get-go (it wouldn’t be Sims without “rosebud” or “motherlode” AND the designers themselves designed it and gave us this ability.

So with all this in mind, am I still acting “dishonestly” and “unfairly” to gain an advantage? I would argue no. Yes, I’m still doing something to gain an advantage but how is this different than replaying a game with prior knowledge so that I can seek out a legendary weapon right at the start of a large open-world RPG? I don’t think it is. It’s not dishonest, and it’s not unfair. And a large reason for that is the designated system and permission given to us by the designers.

I’d be really curious to hear other people’s thoughts though because I know I only covered a specific case. But I think this argument can be stretched to other games where designers have included systems for cheating.

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