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Cheating used to be fun

Now it’s all business

What it even means to “cheat,” and why it’s considered bad, is almost impossible to define for video games. For me, as a child of the ’90s, it meant using the item duplication glitch to get 99 Master Balls in Pokémon Red, or tracking down the mysterious MissingNo. and capturing it with one of my unlimited Master Balls. Sure, they made me stronger in the game, but they were more about the search for the secret than about powering up.

There was a time when using an Action Replay cheat cartridge to save your progress was considered cheating. Now that’s just a fundamental feature of games. Even today, some people argue that save scumming is uncouth, while a few developers have begun embracing it as a feature.

The argument about whether a gameplay element is a cheat or a feature can be traced back to early arcade culture. Debates have raged for decades about whether tilting a pinball machine is fair or foul play. On the one hand, other players could always see you tilt, so even though you were getting more points, it wasn’t really duping anybody. But on the other hand, every time you nudged a board to keep your ball from dropping, you weren’t paying another quarter for a new start. The arcade owner was, ostensibly, being cheated out of money.

Once players realized they could hump a machine to victory, it became widespread practice — which led to damaged machines. Pinball wizards would toss and shake and drop the boards, so not only were arcade owners missing out on revenue, they were on the hook for busted property.

Pinball manufacturers responded by adding preventatives: analog elements that would lock the flippers or reset the score if a machine was shaken too forcefully. And while anti-tilt tech was meant to stop cheaters, it also basically introduced a new mechanic, one with high risk but high reward. Using tilt became a skill. But some purists still consider using it at all to be cheating, because it’s not “in the spirit of the challenge.”

Watch the video above to learn more about how cheating in video games has evolved over the years, from harmless bug hunt to the drama of legal battles.