Hacking: Unfair or an upgrade?

Guest writers Ryan Rogers, Shawn Stormo, Brett McDowell, and Jesse Hacker discuss the fairness of hacking:

Ryan Rogers: Hacking. We all heard about it in some way, shape, or form. We’ve heard stories, I’m sure, and chances are many of us gamers look down on the concept entirely. Apparently, hacking really has developed a bad reputation, but it seems to me that this is only because of the amount of power that the hacker achieves through the knowledge of coding.

Many consider it cheap, of course–depending on the situation.  It’s understandable that someone would get really ticked off if he were in an online Halo death match, only to find that he was fighting a losing battle because his opponent’s shields just wouldn’t go down. I can’t say how often this happens, however, since I’m not a hardcore Halo fan to start with, but given the right tools, I’m sure that there would be one persistent programmer out there willing to make his opponent’s online life a living hell.

Some even consider it unethical. It’s easy to see why–depending on the situation. Would you really want to go to a small Pokémon tournament and fight someone with a pesky Charizard with IVs and EVs upped past defined game limits? With money on the line, that would just suck.

But what about hacking for the sake of making the experience even more enjoyable, maybe even making the game itself better? It’s not that hard to see that uninformed people would think of it as cheap and unethical, too, given the bad rep that the word hacking has developed for years. I myself have seen debates about it in the Smash community over talks about Brawl+, a community hack project that I’m proud to support and share. I’ve often heard people say, “People want to hack Brawl because they’re just scrubs who can’t get good at the game, so they want to hack it to make themselves better,” and, “Why don’t you just play Melee?” Some people have asserted that it’s simply unethical to hack it because “that’s just not how the game was meant to be played” or whatever nonsense.

But what is hacking? From a programming standpoint, it’s merely the amendment of variables and algorithms in a game’s logic that the original creator didn’t intend.  That’s it: manipulating data. Sure, it may not have been what a game’s director, who likely toiled endless hours on the game, had wanted exactly, but it’s your copy. You can do whatever the heck you want with it. After all, you spent the $50 or whatever. If you want to get Mew on  your game without having to trade a ridiculously-rare critter or go to Japan for a Nintendo event that isn’t covered anywhere else.

Yeah, I know that you can do a lot of bad things with hacking, but come on, it’s only bad if you use it to do bad things. People can say that guns are bad, too, but why? Because of what you can do with them? Are they still bad if you’re only using it for leisurely target practice?

So what’s evil here? Hacking someone’s console and bricking it? Or altering the game so that you can see Cloud and Link fight to the death on Final Destination–a battle that everyone’s wanted to see for years? I don’t know about you, but I think the choice is obvious.

Jesse Hacker: To be fair, I think both of those options at the end of your post are evil. Granted for completely different reasons, and based on different definitions of evil. Given perception of something as evil relies on what one would perceive as good, I am going to transition to the words “right” and “wrong” and take a morality stance.

I doubt many will argue that using online game services as a medium to transfer malicious code is wrong. The same idea with spoofing data in a game, online or otherwise assuming it effects someone in some way. This is precisely why you will see programs that attempt to detect any form of hacking in any sort of game with a competitive side. To cite your example of Pokémon, many people that hack Pokémon are very novice about it. From what I’ve been told (I’ve not actually rooted around in the data myself), there is a large amount of “junk” data that some programs can use as parity bits to check the legitimacy of a creature. (ie. some people have made programs that can detect a hack 99% of the time, and those that can fool the program don’t really let on how they do it). The same sort of protection exists in most online game services such as Halo, a very notable one is called Punkbuster.

The other issue you’ve raised, modifying a game without the authors consent to achieve a number of ends, is also morally wrong. There are quite a large amount of games that ship with development kits, or instructions on how to create add-ons/mods, the authors of these games welcome the creative communities attempts to better their game. World of Warcraft is a prime example. For those unfamiliar, users can program add-ons to change literally every function of the user interface to whatever they want, Blizzard simply limits the data these add-ons can access as to make it impossible for an add-on to be game-breaking.

However, buying a game, modifying it and distributing your modified version as you see fit when the author has not provided tools or guidelines on doing so is very wrong. It is assumed that in doing this, the modders must bypass some protection on the game itself to obtain access to the code in question. Ignoring numerous laws brought into question by this activity, the morals alone justify not doing this. The best metaphor I can think of would be to buy some newly released book, taking a thesaurus and changing words you don’t like to synonyms, or rewriting sentences without changing their meaning. Then taking your version of the book and passing it out near bookstores with a name akin to “Jurassic-er Park.” While one may think that they have paid for their copy and it is theirs to do with as they wish, in reality the existence of this new version alone will hurt the original and possibly it’s chances at squeals, which is especially depressing if this new version was meant as a slightly tuned homage to the original.

I’m all for creativity, but copyright law exists for a reason, as do developers release modding kits for a reason.

Rogers: Oh, no, I think you misunderstood. I’m not talking about changing the game and distributing it for profit. I, too, agree that that’s morally wrong and violates copyright law.

However, with mods like Brawl+, all that’s really done is changing the value of variables in the RAM to change what the game does regarding physics and loading files–but to do that, you still need an original copy of the game, so really, no one loses any money in the deal. In essence, it’s no different from using a GameShark or an Action Replay. If it’s illegal to do that to your own game, then MadCatz and Datel should’ve been sued by now for distributing hardware that lets you do that.

Have these devices hurt sales for games? Not that I know of. But you’d think someone would’ve said something by now if that’s the case.

Brett McDowell: I may possibly be mistaken, but what you’re describing sounds more like modding than hacking. Modding involves the modification of an existing games source code either taking the existing game and tweaking it, or building a new game from the engine up. Even though it’s really not malicious per se, the morality of it is still questionable. Technically when you buy a game, you are not buying the game itself, but the rights to play the game in your home. Typically when you do buy the game you are not legally given the right to examine the source code, much less modify it. Of course quite a few developers allow and support the modification of game code, typically through the use of developer’s kits released to the public. A great example of this would be Valve, who’s support for Half-life mods has gone so far that they’ve even commercially backed a very sizeable number of mods built off their engine (The Team Fortress and Counter-Strike franchises being perhaps the most successful of these).

Still, if the developer does not support modding of the content they’ve produced, the modder is violating the will of the people who worked very hard to produce a quality piece of software. Is it too much to ask that gamers have a little respect for the people who work their fingers to the bone to bring them entertainment?

Rogers: Yeah, the source code thing is a no-no. The programmers who are hacking the games merely apply codes that modify the game’s RAM after the variables have already been declared and initialized. Your definition of modding makes it sound like a modder needs to read the source code, edit it, and recompile it; but that’s not the case I’m studying here. Amazingly, as it turns out, programmers are given a lot of freedom with Wii homebrew without actually looking at the source code at all. All they need is a buffer overflow, and bam, they have access.

So I guess you’re right about the modding thing, but it can be considered hacking, too, I think.

Shawn Stormo: I don’t find hacking or modding a game to be immoral or unethical until that modified or hacked version comes into contact with an unmodified, vanilla version.

Now I’m not a huge fan of hacking games–I like to play them in the way the developer designed them to be played–but it’s not wrong to do it to your own, personal version.

When you come into contact with other versions, though, then it becomes a problem. Because some people play games for competition, and that competition aspect is a core part of the fun, when a person hacks or mods the game to give himself an unfair advantage, that destroys the fair competition and the fun. When players aren’t having fun, they stop playing, complain, or don’t trust the developer anymore. All those things mean less money. That’s why developers crack down on hackers, and invest in anti-hacking software and tools to detect mods. Hacking breaks the rules of the game, but a game isn’t a game without rules–it’s chaos. If too many rules are broken, there’s no fun to the game, no point to playing it. When hacking reaches this territory, and breaks the rules of play that everybody else agrees on, and makes them null–that’s when hacking becomes cheating, and wrong.

If everyone agrees to change the rules–no problem. Hack as much as you want.

As far as hacking game’s source code–that’s more situational. Some games are meant to be modded–Fallout 3, Morrowind, Oblivion, Neverwinter Nights etc. They come with development kits to allow you to expand your game and share your content. That’s obviously not wrong, because it’s embraced. Similarly, one of my favorite games, Baldur’s Gate, has mods for it because people hacked the engine and source code. However, there aren’t any bad mods for it–all of them improve game play or story, and do so while keeping the spirit of the original game. In that case, even though it wasn’t intended, I would say it’s still not wrong, because it’s enriching the experience.

As far as hacking a game’s source code and then reprogramming it–doing that for money or fame (by claiming it’s your own work) is extremely unethical and immoral, and breaks copyright laws. However, making your own game or mod and then passing it to your friends is fine, as long as you realize exactly what you’ve done. You’ve made something based off of someone else’s work, so don’t take more credit for your achievement than it’s worth.

About our guest writers: Ryan Rogers and Brett McDowell are undergraduates at Michigan State University; they are taking a class on the History of Videogames this semester. Shawn Stormo is an aspiring game designer and ex-English major whom wants to use his imagination for a living, and hopefully get rich enough so he can fund or personally undertake crazy or creative projects. Jesse Hacker is a senior at Michigan State University studying Computer Science, specialized in game design and Japanese.

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