Game Design Basics: Gaming the system, cheating and exploits

Games are systems of rules.  Many games have a goal or object that is not a single event, but rather a continuum or score.  In other words, in many games the player is attempting to maximize some score or value.  Looked at this way, the players have this goal in mind as they play: “My job is to perform actions within the game rules that give me the highest score possible“.

However, game designers intend games to be played in certain ways.  They usually expect players to perform a certain series of actions—but players can discover otheractions that provide higher scores.  This might be an example of an exploit.

An “exploit” is a strategy that is permitted by the rules but has some sort of “unfair” advantage.  By contrast, cheating is a strategy that goes outside the rules.

What makes an exploit unfair?

This is the real difficulty.  The things I’ve been talking about are vague and subjective: “designer intent”, “unfair advantage”.  As I mentioned, designers intend games to be played in certain ways—but players don’t necessarily know what the intent is.  The game itself is the medium by which designers convey their intent.  It’s entirely possible for players to disagree about what strategies are exploitative vs. fair.  We could be cynical and say that players benefiting from strategies are less likely to consider them exploits…and other players, feeling slighted, would be more likely to call them unfair.

Is it a player’s job to figure out what strategies are unfair and avoid them?  Strictly speaking, the answer is no.  A player’s “job” is only to take actions that are within the rules of the game—whatever actions they see fit.  On the other hand, some people are willing and able to make judgements about the unfairness of strategies.  I think of antitrust law as an example of this; At one point companies hit upon strategies that made them a great deal of money, but the strategies were considered unfair by society at large.  (An economic system is not a game, but it does share some characteristics with games—namely, it’s a system of rules with a score system.)

I believe that games are becoming a larger part of society as time goes on.  With that in mind, more people have experience playing and designing games.  Perhaps society will develop a greater awareness of rules systems and a greater willingness to judge strategies on the grounds of fairness.

Responses are currently closed.