A few months ago, I spent an evening playing Versus mode in Left 4 Dead. It was the No Mercy campaign, and the survivors had just blown up the gas station when I spawned as a Boomer. “Perfect,” I thought. “When they trigger the crescendo event and run across the awning, I can puke all over them without being seen.” I climbed up to the roof and waited. And waited.

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And waited.

It wasn’t until I heard the survivors fighting our Tank inside the warehouse that I realized they had somehow skipped past that entire section of the level. I asked my teammates what happened, and someone stated sourly that the survivors had used the “shutter door exploit.” Apparently, the door leading into the warehouse – one that was only supposed to be operable from the inside – would break after exactly 67 melee attacks.

This was obviously not the developers’ intent, but it’s pretty typical in an environment where players will use every trick available to them to win. It’s a lot like performance enhancing drugs in a sports league: Athletes may not want to cheat initially, but the prospect of their opponents taking advantage of underhanded tactics is enough to encourage cheating to even the playing field.

Thankfully, the shutter door exploit has since been fixed. However, glitches and exploitable game mechanics will always exist, and whether utilizing an exploit constitutes cheating is not always clear-cut. Sometimes, the person using the exploit isn’t even aware that what he is doing is questionable.

Many players strongly believe that any tactics allowed by the software are fair game until the developers fix it. There is some merit to this opinion, especially regarding techniques that straddle the fine line between “clever use of game mechanics” and “blatant exploits.” In the absence of developer input, communities generally permit strategies that don’t give an insurmountable advantage to one team or another.

Take “tank juggling” in Left 4 Dead, where the player who spawns as a Tank repeatedly knocks nearby cars into the survivors. Currently, most players consider it a fair tactic, even though the guaranteed knock-down effect is a bit unbalanced and, thanks to random spawn patterns, there’s no guarantee the opposing team’s Tank will spawn close enough to a group of cars to be able to take advantage of the mechanic. But since it still takes skill to execute – and since experienced Survivors still have a good chance of overcoming a “juggling” tank – it’s allowed, if dreaded.

Tank juggling illustrates the fine line that online gamers constantly dance across, both knowingly and unknowingly. On one side is the legitimate use of exceedingly effective game mechanics to gain an advantage; on the other is abusing a mistake in the programming. That line could be erased with a simple statement from the developers, but those clear statements are few and far between. Instead, players most often learn of the developers’ intentions through patches or disciplinary action.

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That was the case with the phenomenon of achievement servers in Team Fortress 2. When the game’s first class update went live, it included a number of items that players could unlock by earning a number of Medic-specific achievements. These achievements took into account your previous play history and, as a result, they were far easier for veteran Medics to complete than neophytes.

Being a new player around that time, I knew that there was no easy way for me to accumulate the one million heal points needed for one of the achievements. That’s why achievement servers were such a godsend. Achievement servers were places where groups of players would get together for the sole purpose of helping each other earn those difficult class-specific achievements. I knew that my actions were not entirely innocent, but I was following the school of thought that said it was better than the alternative (i.e. playing at a disadvantage because I didn’t have access to the new weapons).

One day, I bumped into a friend from another game on a public server. He had been playing TF2 since its release, and his main class was the Medic. He only had a few achievements left to complete before getting the final weapon. Looking to help him out, I offered to meet him in an achievement server. His reply caught me completely off guard and forever changed the way I thought about achievement farming: He flat out called me a cheater.

Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have affected me much. However, not only was my fellow Medic a good friend from real life, he was also an admin in a relatively popular MMOG, Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates. Coming from him, his condemnation was not merely a single person’s opinion, but that of a person who got paid to enforce the rules of a game.

Administrators and game developers often can only react to an exploit. Like real life law enforcement, it’s impossible to predict and moderate everything. If players want to benefit from a fair and evenhanded community, they must undertake some of the responsibility by interpreting and assessing the rules themselves. They cannot blindly assume that just because a tactic is allowed by the software, they can take advantage of it.

When Valve switched to random weapon drops instead of achievement-based unlocks, achievement servers became “idling servers.” Players created and distributed tools to help them park themselves in static servers and passively receive random drops with as little effort as possible. Because Valve did not comment on achievement servers before, players assumed it was alright to continue the practice with the natural next step of idling. Only later did players learn of the developers’ true intentions: In an update last year, Valve stripped players of any unlockable equipment they earned while idling and distributed wearable halos to players who hadn’t been caught using idling software.

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There are still plenty of other mechanics in Valve games alone that may or may not be considered cheating based on the developers’ whims. It’s unclear what Valve’s intentions are for things like chain ubercharges in TF2 or using the “kill” command in the console to commit suicide as a Boomer in L4D. Even rocket-jumping at one point could have been considered an exploit. And a patch isn’t always enough to make the distinction clear to players. When Valve tweaked the Gold Rush map in TF2 to prevent Engineers from using their dispensers to reach an otherwise inaccessible area, players simply found another way to get there.

Developers will never be able to eliminate this sort of creative misbehavior, but they can do more to minimize it. For one, they can start a dialogue with players that is more substantial and ongoing than simply patches and punishments. Developers should make their stance clear to players, especially during the vital period of time between an exploit’s discovery and when the developers are able to fix it.

By making a public announcement about their intentions, developers can nail the problem at the source. Word will spread among players, and offenders will succumb to peer pressure or server bans. Some transparency will give players clear guidance and something to which they can direct other offending players. Combined with hints of punishment or rewards, these official statements can be very effective. They may not altogether eliminate the thin line between clever play and cheating, but at least they would make it that much more obvious when players cross it.

Murray Chu is a writer living in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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