Tobold's Blog
Friday, February 18, 2005
Cheating in MMORPG

Mentioning IGE predictably started a debate on cheating, and whose fault that is. Here is my position: IGE isn't cheating, because they aren't even playing. They might have some mule characters in the game, but those are just to hold their stock. The farmers aren't cheating either, as long as they aren't using bots to farm. They are playing the game in a particular way, but inside the rules of the game. They don't comply with the social rules of the game, they aren't playing nice, which makes them a nuisance. But they aren't breaking any game rules, unless they are really harrassing other players. In cases where selling virtual items is against the EULA, they are in infringement of the EULA, and thus "illegal", and could rightfully get banned. But that is a breach of contract between them and Blizzard, not an issue of "cheating" in the game and ethics.

Buyers of virtual items and currency from IGE, or EBay, or whereever, are cheating. As Zonk said, it is like using a Gameshark to cheat in a console game. Or a cheat code. Now I don't own a Gameshark, but I have used cheat codes in single player console games, or single player PC games. And there is nothing wrong with that, because whether I cheat in GTA:Vice City or not isn't hurting anybody. If a mission in the game is too hard for me, I have the choice of either being stuck, or cheating to make it easier. I prefer cheating.

Now comes the tricky part: If you were playing a two-player game on the console against an opponent, using a cheat would obviously be unethical, unless your opponent agreed to that handicap. So is cheating in a MMORPG unethical? Is it unethical to buy gold from IGE because I get an unfair advantage over an opponent? Or is buying gold just like cheating in a single-player game a decent alternative to getting stuck and quitting?

In spite of WoW having PvP, I tend to consider it as a single-player game. Especially when you are playing on a PvE server like me. A MMORPG is not a race, where who advances fastest is the winner. The "race for level 60" is inherently unfair, as it mainly depends on how many hours per week you are able to play. People are often complaining that buying virtual goods with real world money is "bringing real world, out-of-game advantages into the game". But being able to play 100 hours per week is also a real world, out-of-game advantage, which gets you even further in the game than 100 gold from IGE.

So in the end the trade in virtual property is kind of balancing out inherent unfairness in the game, selling time for money. The people that are buying from IGE are cheating to compensate for their lack of playing time. Blizzard does have the right to ban the buyers, as well as the sellers, as both aren't complying with the EULA. But first they would need to be able to catch them, which is pretty much impossible. IGE claims that none of their clients has ever been banned. And that might well be the truth. Because sending a friend, or your spouse, or a guild mate 100 gold by mail is obviously legal in the game. So as long as you can't control whether a sum of real world money changed hands in the other direction, how are you determining whether the gold transfer was legal or illegal? IGE isn't going to tell Blizzard.

If Blizzard would want to stop IGE, they would need to sue them. And I don't think they are going to do that. The experts aren't really sure who would win such a case. There has been a widely published case in China where a player successfully won against a game company in a virtual property case. But in the US all game companies still claim that all the virtual items in the game belong to them, not the players, thus IGE can't sell what they don't own. But if IGE is "taking a fee" for facilitating the transfer of gold from one player to another, and that transfer would be legal if there was no money involved, the legal issue starts getting complicated. Armchair lawyers can argue the case on message boards for days, but nobody really knows how it would work out in a real court. Plus it would be bad marketing to insist on the message that all the items in the game belong to Blizzard, not the players, because the players have a strong attachment to these items, and a strong belief in them owning these items.

So in summary: Farmers not playing nice are bad, but legal. Farmers selling gold are against the EULA in many games, thus could be banned, but they aren't easy to catch. Buyers are cheating, and could be banned as well, but cheating isn't necessarily unethical, because you can't win a MMORPG. IGE is on shifty legal ground. But ethically they are just the middleman between the buyer and the seller. You can't blame them for the existance of farmers and buyers, just as you can't blame EBay for matching sellers and buyers. The only way to stop the trade in virtual property is to make the transfer of virtual property in game impossible, which would be hugely unpopular. The best approach is thus making the acquiring of virtual property so much fun, that nobody would want to "outsource" that activity. And World of Warcraft is at least half way there.
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