Bugs, Easter Eggs, Hacks, Cheats and other Opportunities for Game-Based Learning

You’re not going to debug all of your bugs, and that’s okay – maybe even good. In-game glitches, especially ones with outrageous outcomes (avatars melting through the very pixels of the floor), are the rave of countless online-gaming communities dispersed throughout the web. Numerous virtual sub-cultures filled with enthusiastic gamers surrounding the topics of hacks, cheats, glitches, and bugs are becoming increasingly widespread as digital games have become more prevalent. A considerable portion of the modern-day gamer thrive on discovering holes within the system, and it’s easy to see why: assuming the glitch doesn’t take away from a player’s ability to complete the game as intended, a bug serves as a window to a meta-dimension close to the heart of the software – an exciting quantum world where regular in-game constraints may not necessarily apply. To put Sid Meier’s words into this perspective, if “games are a series of interesting decisions” then a glitch adds a rather unconventional branch to these networks of options. Indeed, the adage of “no such thing as bad-press” has never been more relevant; or chalk it up as a feature and enjoy the spike in user engagement either way.

If “games are a series of interesting decisions” then a glitch adds a rather unconventional branch to these networks of options.

Bugs may be unintentional products of negligent design, but some have evolved into rather novel and permanent mechanics – “happy accidents” as Bob Ross so delightfully puts it. Tomohiro Nishikado’s Space Invaders’ revolutionary level dynamic of increasing difficulty – accelerating aliens with a Jaws-like build-up of suspense – was originally a glitch due to inadequate rendering speed. Since microcomputers weren’t quite as powerful during the game’s inception, the game began slower than intended. However, as players slowly eliminated incoming aliens on-screen, less and less pixels were needed to be rendered, increasing processing speed. Insufficient hardware indirectly gave birth to a novel difficulty curve never seen in previous gameplay.

Nishikado’s Space Invaders

Alright, but what about cheats, hacks, and exploits? Surely, they can’t be good for games and definitely have no place in education. Well, yes and no – to both domains. In a way, these terms and bugs are very much related to one another. Exploits are derived from architectural flaws existing within the game’s codebase, which players then creatively leverage to generate new possibilities. Hacks are optimization methods that players discover through iterative play which allows them to streamline and expedite gameplay. And finally, cheats are intentional features designers implement largely in the form of code sequences or direct player modes; they often serve as crutches for the less relentless or possibility spaces in which players could cosplay God. The nuanced definitions for each of these terms may change depending on who you ask – for example, I would argue that “walkthroughs” would fall into the ‘hacks’ category but some would disagree for semantical reasons. Either way, all of these phenomena exist within the highly judgmental, gamer puritan universe of “that’s-not-how-the-game-should-be-played” or the realm of “might-as-well-spit-into-the-game-designer’s-face-while-you’re-at-it”.

This is a helpful diagram that perfectly encapsulates the gamer puritan sentiment.

Many gamers believe that utilizing these methods is an easy-way out, a sentiment that adheres to the notion that gameplay is binary: there’s right and a wrong way to play. But given the variety and complexity of many games today, it’s clear that gamers play for varied reasons – and with that multiplicity sprouts the emergence of a spectrum of playstyles. Long have we evolved from the 8-bit, neon paradigm of arcade machines into a landscape where games, gameplay, and their relationship with education have become far more intricately defined. Games are magic circles; a conceptual space where boundaries and rules of play are often negotiated. Within these dynamic margins lie multiple opportunities for interaction, meaning-making, and hard-fun, generating an ecosystem rife for learning. Where exactly does cheating fall in this system? Below we will uncover some of the ways cheating, or its conception, could be utilized within education and games.

Cheating as a Mechanic to Maintain Flow and Education

I’ve mentioned above how cheating could directly or indirectly serve as a unique branch in a player’s network of options. An example of a cheat intentionally purported by the designers for interesting outcomes is the Rosebud cheat in Sims 4. Through a sequence of steps, a player could earn an endless amount of income, permitting him/her to amass buildings and conduct architectural experiments. Often, however, cheating can also be considered a necessary mechanic to maintain flow within games and, therefore, allow players to continue learning. Think back and recollect times when you have had to put down a certain game simply because it became too difficult, or because you were stuck at a particular segment and never figured out a way through. Games that once gripped our attention in its early chapters gradually lost its luster as it became tedious and far too demanding to progress. In addition, our capacity to complete those in-game tasks may vary day to day depending on our mood.

Personal Flow Depending on Mood

Que in cheats. Through harmless hints or walkthroughs, players are able to overcome these momentary humps and return to aspects of the game they find most enjoyable. Some cheats may even be utilized as a crutch for the less initiated, providing a more welcoming environment through a lenient learning curve. Konami was acutely aware of this phenomenon and how unforgiving many of its titles could be. Thus, The Konami Code was a cheat intentionally implemented by the company to help gamers overcome the brutality of their games – like giving you 30 additional lives in Contra; which really only made it slightly easier. These implications extend to educational games and the content they wish to impart; games that are dropped due to a lack of flow means that learning stops altogether. Allowing players to accelerate certain portions of the game is essentially equivalent to letting students take greater agency over their learning.

Cheating as a Means for Ethical and Moral Discussion and Youth Development

Games are significantly embedded into the lives of its players in more ways than one. Beyond the frames of direct gameplay, branching networks of enthusiastic gamers engage with the various issues surrounding a game, from challenging in-game roadblocks to the peripheral matters pertaining to cultures of play. A study of online interactions between members of the Whyville community – an expansive virtual world where players create avatars, interact, earn virtual currency, and learn about science – show a large of number of pre-adolescents engrossed not just with the mechanical features of the game but the boundaries that define socially acceptable play as well. Multiple blog posts and articles published on the official Whyville news forum (The Whyville Times) concern the matter of cheating – often described as violations of digital constraints explicitly defined within the game and/or of norms established communally by its players.

Post about Cheating on The Whyville Times

The study reveals that while the majority of players find cheating to be immoral, a number of gamers have written justifications for why they or others might cheat despite potential backlash. Furthermore, multiple players even discuss what practices should or shouldn’t be deemed acceptable. Therefore, the ecosystem surrounding online games facilitate substantial public discourse with the notion of cheating serving as the foundation for players to engage in moral dilemmas and ethical considerations. This digital public is a discursive arena where rhetoric, evidence, and logic are employed by its challengers to determine rigid boundaries of ethical play. Additionally, Whyville simulates an economy involving multiple stakeholders; thus, its players must vicariously consider opposing perspectives before making conclusive judgment. These dialogues have significant implications on their digital reality as each player possesses the ability but also to not just perform in this space transform the boundaries that demarcate it. Cheating lies on the brink of those margins and creates a fertile learning ground where players voluntarily enter into an intellectual discourse for active negotiation.

Cheating as a Transgressive Design for Learning and Knowledge Construction

“Gaming the system” is a phrase often used synonymously with those who cheat. The expression invokes the notion that these cheaters hold a certain disregard for the ethical frontiers of the system and the actors involved by trivializing these instruments as something that could be toyed with. However, Raph Koster famously considered that all games involve learning in some form or manner. If to cheat is to “game the system” then the act of cheating affords its perpetrators opportunities for educational advancement as well. Indeed, the discovery of a cheat requires sophisticated comprehension of the system far beyond the average player. To impart that knowledge into a virtual community requires further technical familiarity and serious consideration of the implications of that information. An analysis of cheat sites generated for Whyville display precocious behaviors among its youth participants. One of the largest cheat site and online community of Whyville players was developed by a 14-year-old player. Besides implementing the architecture and functionality of the website, his task as founder involved moderating forums and carefully considering which statements were appropriate for a conducive environment – many posted comments, or parts of it, were erased. Furthermore, cheat sites allow players to become active contributors of substantial knowledge, shaping the cultures and possibilities of play around them. For example, a post by a Whyville player illuminated a systematic approach to completing a challenging science game in Whyville. The information transformed the way players tackled the sub-game and contributed a methodical framework in which to view the respective problem and, perhaps, other problems as well. Thus, transgressive practices demand far greater participation and understanding from its players as opposed to traditional play – discovering hacks require current knowledge of the limits of play and functionality. Additionally, the advent of social networks permits the dissemination of such information with ease, shifting cheating from a taboo, solo act to a much more collaborative effort for collective knowledge which players can then leverage to explore new avenues and redefine conceptual spaces. This shared collective also allows players to gain social currency by innovating further cheats – much like an academic researcher might do to contribute to his/her field of study. Ultimately, cheating serves as an engine for experimentation and acts as an infrastructure to facilitate knowledge and cultural construction, all of which enhance the player’s overall gaming and learning experience.

Transgressive practices demand far greater participation and understanding from its players as opposed to traditional play.

In an opinion piece posted on The Guardian, Stephanie Munro advocates the use of cheats and discusses the idea that we as players “choose how we play an what we get out of video games.”   Indeed, different games are designed with different types of gamers in mind. For the hardcore gamers, extensive and tumultuous puzzles provide an ecstatic experience – an ironic, virtual escape from the extensive and tumultuous puzzles of real life. For more casual gamers, a little more mindless, candy-crush type brands fare better and is far more likely to induce them into a state of flow. And still, within these subcategories of gamers exist nuances in preference and priority of gameplay – from the fast and action-packed to the slow and methodical; from riddles and rhymes to linear story lines. Through cheats, we are able to expedite portions of the games we find unenjoyable and immerse ourselves in those that we truly enjoy. The controversial nature of cheating spark discussions regarding ethical boundaries of acceptable play, enabling youth participants to engage in moral and philosophical considerations at an early age. Furthermore, cheating functions as a significant groundwork for students to participate in knowledge construction. These contributions hold substantive weight, its ideas not only floating in the realm of the hypothetical but possesses the ability to redefine the cultural systems of play surrounding them. “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature” – indeed, and a great opportunity for learning.

Master's student studying Game Design at Teachers College, Columbia University.