Up-up-down-down-left … Right, you know where this is headed. We’ve all got those moments in games when the frustration is too great, the temptation is too much, and we enter those magic keystrokes that give us the edge we need (and a little extra).

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It’s easy to condemn cheating as, well, cheating. But truthfully, who among us hasn’t used a cheat code, or even just a hint guide or walkthrough, at some point in our gaming? Let’s put the “right” and “wrong” of it aside. There’s a reason we cheat. Actually, there are as many different reasons as there are methods.

Understanding why we cheat the way we do, looking into what we really get out of it, can lead us to discover a lot about ourselves we may not have known. We can start to see the impact cheating has on us (and our gaming), and we may even be surprised to find some of that impact can be positive.

Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned – from and about myself – as a big, dirty cheater:

Sometimes the Problem Is Just Perspective

We’ve all come across those puzzles we can’t seem to solve or those spots where we just get completely stuck. Maybe we missed a clue somewhere, or we’re lacking experience, or maybe we’re just looking at the problem the wrong way. We need a walkthrough. (Yeah, walkthroughs are a kind of cheat. It’s that soft, winked-at cheating, like when everyone in science lab copied the answers of the smartest kid in the group, but let’s be honest: Cheaters.)

My first experience being hopelessly lost was with The Legend of Zelda (NES). I was a young kid, and I lost the manual, as many of us did. Now, I’m standing in the middle of the woods looking for, well … I managed to find a sword, but then what? So I found a hint guide. Suddenly, I was moving forward, beating dungeons and collecting untold riches. I was also learning how to think in this type of game. It hadn’t even occurred to me before to draw a map! I had no perspective on this type of game, and I needed help building one.

That’s all a hint is, isn’t it? Recognizing that we’re just not looking at this the right way, and asking for help to see it differently. Not only is the current problem solved, but we also gain new knowledge that will help us in similar spots in the future. In my case, fast forward a few years, and the strategies I’d learned were helping me with other, harder game puzzles like those in the PC puzzler Myst. I’d been made a better gamer and thinker by cheating a little.

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Sometimes Keeping Score Isn’t the Best Way to Learn (Or Have Fun)

I am awful at golf. I mean real world golf. I do it because it’s time with friends, but I’m just plain horrible. The first few times I teed off, I was a tangled knot of frustration and shameful (but creative) expletives. Learning the types of clubs, proper grip, proper stance, proper swing – it was too much. And then, I had a breakthrough: I stopped keeping score.

I stopped keeping a running tally of my mistakes. After a good swing, I was allowed to feel good about it, without the score card reminding me it was but one success among many failures. I had given myself “unlimited lives and ammo.” I was a cheater, and I was suddenly having fun being awful at golf. What’s more, I was able to focus my attention on what I was doing right, and I was improving.

When a task is too much all at once, a little cheating can give you some breathing space. It can remove a few distractions, and it can keep the experience positive. Of course, there’s a lot to be learned from failure, too, but sometimes we should save the bitterness of defeat for after we’ve tasted the sweetness of victory. It’s the same reason we let young children go bowling with the bumpers on, or why we put training wheels on their bikes. These little “cheats” can help keep things fun (and keep confidence high) when you’re tackling something difficult or unfamiliar.

Sometimes, It’s Okay to Eat Dessert First

When I play guitar games, it’s usually for the social atmosphere – loudly and badly banging out rock hits with friends. Real life being what it is, though, our time together is usually limited. Looking back to the first Rock Band, this was a problem. Getting to some of the songs we wanted meant having to play through several songs we didn’t enjoy.

And like an answer to a prayer, there was an “unlock everything” code. My friends and I could spend our time playing, rather than getting ready to play. The code also disabled saving, but to us that was a fair trade – we just wanted to play our favorite songs right out of the box. Cheating let us enjoy the game more by allowing us to skip to “the best parts.”

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This cheat works in real life, too. When I get home from work, I often find myself remembering that there’s laundry to be done, dishes to wash, the carpet needs vacuumed … And there are days I feel a little bummed about all of those little chores that are part of the whole “grown-up” package.

And then I remember that, sometimes, chores can wait. I park on the couch, throw in a game, and I enjoy my evening. Laundry be damned, there’s fun to be had. Really, isn’t one of the benefits of becoming a “grown-up” the fact that you can decide when the dishes are done, or whether you can have ice cream before for dinner?

Sometimes Shortcuts Cut the Wrong Things Short

While shortcuts have their uses and benefits, there’s that whole business about “too much of a good thing.” And it’s true. Sometimes getting to your destination sooner means skipping a lot of beautiful scenery. In games, it might mean missing something important, or just something really fun. Getting the warp whistles in Super Mario Bros. 3 was a quick way to skip to the end, but it also meant missing out on “Giant Land,” which was a real blast.

There are also plenty of times where I’ve cornered myself by cheating. The ubiquitous Konami Code helped me whiz through Contra, but I didn’t get any better at the game. My own growth was eroded, in the same way I get worse at arithmetic the more I use a calculator. What’s worse is, because I’d already reached the end, my motivation to go back and actually learn was squashed; it was harder to tolerate the challenge of the cheat-free environment.

As tempting as real-life shortcuts can be, we’ve got to resist sometimes. Otherwise, we can turn a life-building challenge into a hollow victory. There are things to be learned that will make us better and experiences (including mistakes) that make for much better stories years down the road.

“Sometimes” Is Hard

Okay, so there’s “good cheating” (which can help you learn) and there’s “bad cheating” (which keeps you from learning), but how can you tell the difference? How do you know when you’re cheating too much, or if there even is such a thing? For me, “moderation” usually means “doing just a little bit less than the other guy.” It’s hard to know where to stop, but it’s unfortunately easy to spot when you’ve already gone too far.

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I recently crossed this line while playing Minecraft. I love sandbox games, I love exploration, I love building – it was a perfect fit. It was a uniquely rewarding challenge digging into “my world” for resources and riches, fending off evil critters, and using the spoils to build whatever I wanted.

And then I discovered the many player-made add-ons. Suddenly, I could create a 3D map of my world, including its caves and resources. Now, finding those treasures was a lot easier. But then there were the inventory editors, and I found I could just create what I wanted from thin air.

Then I found a mod that would let me fly. Now it was easier to get to those snowy peaks, or out of those spooky caverns… only now there was no reason to dig those caverns, and no particular hurry to reach those peaks. The next mountain was full of unnecessary work, rather than brimming with potential. The mining was what had spurred the exploration and sense of wonder, and I’d set my pickaxe aside. Now that I’d sampled this god-like power, could I really go back to digging with those ancient tools, earning by effort what I could simply conjure with ease?

As it turns out, yes, I could. A couple weeks off, and I put the cheats away and went back to digging with friends. Thankfully, we’re never quite beyond redemption.

I did learn the very valuable lesson that it’s a lot harder to spot “the line” when you’re walking it. As St. Augustine once said, “Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.” I think he was probably right, but I don’t know if I’ll ever kick the habit completely. There are those rare moments when a slight bending of the rules can give us just enough room to grow, to enjoy… or to fall. Hopefully time and experience will make it easier to find the balance, but I’m pretty sure I’ll always be at least a little bit of a cheater.

Brian Campbell is a musician and teacher in NC. In his spare time, he wishes he had more spare time. To date, he is 30% less awful at golf. Sometimes he even keeps score.

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