I admit without shame that I often cheat when I play video games: I have skipped missions on Starcraft when loosing repeatedly became too frustrating. I don’t think I have ever played Quake on anything else than Godmode. Cheating allows me to manipulate the game experience, exploit the aspects of it I enjoy the most and free myself from some of the more demanding aspects when I don’t enjoy them.
However, because I cheat to enjoy easy and fun gaming, I would not go out of my way to cheat. Additionally, I would not cheat if the game-play is enjoyable and rewarding. And I have found that cheating can rob you of some of the best rewards games have to offer. When I got stuck on the final stage of Portal 2, I looked up a walk-through and ended up discovering the final step without wanting to: to this day, I wonder what kind of amazement I would have felt had I been able to figure it out for myself.
Thus, when I started reading Mia Consalvo’s Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, I was already knowledgeable in the arts of cheating in video games, but my skills were limited to using cheat codes and exploiting gaps in game design. However, as Consalvo explains, gamers are immensely creative when it comes to cheating. The author explores their motivations for cheating, individual and collective practices and their impacts on the gaming experience, be it theirs or others’.
Consalvo states that her approach is ethnographic, and she presents results obtain in three phases. She first analyses data from various documents, such as Nintendo Power, internet forums or books, to document the evolution of cheating practices, their diversity and the measures put into place by various parties to counteract them. She also administrated questionnaires to groups of students at MIT, where she teaches, and conducted interviews with other gamers. Finally, she documented, over 500 hours of game-play on Final Fantasy XI (FFXI online), cheating practices, and their consequences and the reactions their generate through the community of players.
Quoting some academic work about video games and the social universes they are related to or contain, the author uses two main concepts to build her analysis. She borrows Bourdieu’s «cultural capital» and created the expression «gaming capital», referring to the way participation in gamer culture and gaming creates defined groups and classes of people according to their tastes and expertises. For instance, gamers can be power-gamers, pro-gamers, casual gamers, and can either define themselves as such or be described this way by others according to their talent, knowledge and opinions and video games. The criteria allowing to classify them in such categories are shaped by the video game industry, but especially by forums, magazines and other contents related to games, which Consalvo calls the paratextual system of gaming. Borrowed from Gerard Gennette, this second concept refers to all that accompanies the «text», in this case a game, without being part of it (title, summary, review, index, etc.). It influences the way the reader reads and interprets the text. Consalvo attributes to game the status of «text» and to everything else related to it as «paratext».
This paratext can be shaped by the video games industry (guides, comic books, etc.) or by players who discuss it on forums, create fan-fictions, walk-throughs, or mods, among other things. Participating in the paratext, says Consalvo, allows players to gain gaming capital and win the respect of peers, even if the creators of the game may not always approve of such practices.
The book is accessible and interesting, even for those who know little about the universe of video games. I was delighted to learn more about the history of video games and the evolution of cheating techniques. The presentation of the various contexts in which players cheat, as well as the numerous techniques available to them, highlights the fact that cheating should not only be seen as an illegal or dishonorable practice, but also as a way to push the limits of the game and transform the gaming experience. This contests the notion that gamers are passive while playing a game ans insists on their agency, their capacity for action and creating change. In Consalvo’s opinion, cheating cannot be considered as a gamer’s identity but rather as a practice gamers adopt in one form or another at various times. She also explores matters of ethics and interpersonal relations in-game.
Gamers might be left disappointed with the data provided about cheating, however, while academics will no doubt find that Consalvo’s analysis of both literature and her data are superficial. Consalvo pays too little attention to academic work about video games and regarding the concepts that she uses in her analysis. For instance, she introduces in only 6 lines the concept of cultural capital she borrows from Bourdieu. It is a considerable short-coming of the book and a deeper theoretical discussion would have granted the book more credibility and quality.
In fact, the book reads a little like a patchwork and does not form a coherent whole: although the author’s fieldwork in FFXI online is first announced as a core element of her data collection, only one chapter is dedicated to it and her most interesting conclusions are not drawn from it but rather from surveys. She should have presented her methodology, field of research and data in greater detail, and would have made this the main focus of the book.
To conclude, Consalvo’s book is highly interesting and entertaining, but not a high quality academic publication. Her approach lacks credibility. Perhaps like many before her, she made the mistake to underestimate the complexities of producing high quality ethnographic work. Or perhaps she got swept away with enthusiasm, researching a topic that is dear to her, as she herself is a gamer. But simply because the topic of investigation is entertaining, the work should not be less serious.