Cheating and resisting empire in the age of interactive media
First Monday

Cheating and resisting empire in the age of interactive media by Aaron Trammell

The aim of this paper is to show how cheating at computer games can help to reveal the media infrastructures from which they distract. Scholarship in game studies has generally focused on understanding games as objects with representational, mechanical, and narrative qualities or understanding players as subjects with unique and relatable desires. In both cases, the game-object is granted an aura of sorts. It is either scrutinized for what it represents, or it is analyzed as the object of player desire. Within this space, the potential for learning about the deeply personal and embodied technicity of play is lost. Cheating helps to show how conversations about games are deeply relevant to our everyday social, political, and cultural lives. Moreover, it helps to reveal what we might be distracted from when caught up in the ecstatic feedback-loop of gameplay.


A brief history of countergaming
Ways to cheat
Cheating an evil empire




The aim of this paper is to show how cheating at computer games can help to reveal the media infrastructures from which they distract. Scholarship in game studies has generally focused on understanding games as objects with representational, mechanical, and narrative qualities or understanding players as subjects with unique and relatable desires. In both cases, the game-object is granted an aura of sorts. It is either scrutinized for what it represents, or it is analyzed as the object of player desire. Within this space, the potential for learning about the deeply personal and embodied technicity of play is lost. Cheating helps to show how conversations about games are deeply relevant to our everyday social, political, and cultural lives. Moreover, it helps to reveal what we might be distracted from when caught up in the ecstatic feedback-loop of gameplay.

When media is discussed, terms like “media use” and “media consumption” are frequently invoked. Rarely, if ever, is the phrase “media play” uttered. There is a simple reason for this: media is construed as an object in all of the above constructions, and only in the case of play do we consider the potential for media to take on a subject position. There is a sense of reciprocity to the term “play” that suggests that while we might play with media, it also might play with us. But in the case of games, it is generally accepted that this is true — we accept that games are complex and highly interactive objects. The same goes for many fundamentals of our digital media infrastructure — social media, the Internet of things, search engines, and more are all understood to be highly interactive, temperamental even. Though we are limited in our approach to these media infrastructures, this essay considers how we might conceive of them as games? By understanding the way that media infrastructures can be understood as games, we better understand the limits and ethics of interacting with them.

So, what literature might help us to better theorize how our media infrastructures can be cheated? This paper builds on Galloway’s (2006) concept of countergaming and Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter’s (2009) games of multitude in an effort to understand better how resistance and games have been theorized. Then, this essay builds on these theories by considering Consalvo (2009a, 2009b) and Kücklich’s (2007) work on cheating. Having concluded that cheating takes into account player strategy in a way that Galloway, Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter do not, this paper seeks to expand and update this notion to better accommodate a broad understanding of media infrastructures with Fuller and Goffey’s (2012) work on grey media.



A brief history of countergaming

In some ways the discussion I engage with in this essay is circuitous. I first explain Fuller and Goffey’s (2012) work on grey media to define the paradigm of media infrastructures that I am working within. Having touched on this paradigm I then pivot immediately toward understanding these infrastructures as games, and considering how thought on resistance and games has been theorized thought the concept of countergaming. I note that this is a somewhat circular conversation because I will return to the work of Fuller and Goffey at the end of this essay to complicate the discussions on countergaming I begin in this section.

For Fuller and Goffey, understanding our media infrastructure means understanding what they refer to as grey media, defined as media which escapes the focus of most media analysis: “databases, group-work software, project-planning methods, media forms, and the technologies that are operative far from the visible churn of messages about consumers, empowerment, or the questionable wisdom of the information economy” [1]. Their work is useful in understanding the dense and invisible hegemony of our media infrastructure, and how small and often invisible platforms, techniques, and practices (like the databases and group work software listed above) leave a disproportionately large imprint on our society. Our present social bind is one where our attention and affection have been captured by games [2] and other entertainment media while we are ceaselessly conditioned by grey media to accept the ideology of what Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2009) amongst others refer to as Empire. Therefore, if we are to resist Empire — which I unpack in more detail below — we must learn to resist the logic of games and other similarly interactive media.

Galloway (2006) and Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2009) discuss the social potentials of countergaming. Both are familiar with one another’s work. Galloway considers Dyer-Witheford a “harsh critic” of autonomous social theory [3] while Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter credit Galloway with the idea of countergaming, a tactic that resists the capitalist tendencies of the video game industry [4]. Galloway (2006) situates video games within a history of avant-garde cinema. By locating video games within a discourse of cinema theory, Galloway (2006) argues that we bear witness to a socio-aesthetic shift in accord with Deleuze’s work regarding societies of control [5]. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2009) push this thesis one step further, situating games within a discourse all their own. Not only can video games be read as the harbingers of a shift toward localized control, but programmed into video games are the tendencies and logics of the capitalist system: violence, accumulation, brutality, sexism, and racism are all endemic to the plot, structure and control of video games. Through these motifs, Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2009) argue, video games have the potential to mold us into neoliberal subjects; replicating and instantiating these modes of being in our everyday lives [6]. If the autonomous gaming subject is to avoid the capture of these neoliberal modalities, specific tactics of resistance must be developed. To this end, these theses on countergaming offer a defense against the neoliberal tendencies embodied in the mass market design of video games.

Galloway grounds his work on countergaming within Wollen’s (1982) work on countercinema. Much like the work of Brecht on disruption and performance, Wollen (1982) argues that countercinema is emotionally disruptive — it forces spectators to reevaluate and refocus their attention on the narratives they approach [7], and he outlines a rough blueprint of the ways in which an artist might attempt to coax from an audience a counter-hegemonic interpretation of a text. Similar to Hall’s (1980) oppositional reading of a text where he notes that audiences occasionally interpret texts in a directly oppositional way, where a viewer “‘reads’ every mention of the ‘national interest’ as ‘class interest’” [8], Wollen (1982) suggests that artists can court this sort of critical engagement by disrupting the narrative flow of their work. The game modding communities, computer-savvy players who alter the code of games to suit their interests, are notable for Galloway (2006) as they disrupt the master-narrative of the original game [9]. Galloway then continues by updating Wollen’s (1982) typology of Godardian subversion, ways in which Godard had subverted typical forms of cinema narrative.

Understanding the essentials of subversive game design means first distinguishing the hegemonic from the independent [10]. In order to make this distinction Galloway (2006) proposes a formal grammar of typical game design and contrasts it with the avant-garde:

  1. Transparency versus foregrounding. (Removing the apparatus from the image versus pure interplay of graphic apparatus or code displayed without representational imagery.)
  2. Gameplay versus aestheticism. (Narrative gameplay based on a coherent rule set versus modernist formal experiments.)
  3. Representational modeling versus visual artifacts. (Mimetic modeling of objects versus glitches and other unexpected products of the graphics engine.)
  4. Natural physics versus invented physics. (Newtonian laws of motion, ray tracing, collisions, etc., versus incoherent physical laws and relationships.)
  5. Interactivity versus noncorrespondence. (Instant, predictable linkage between controller input and gameplay versus barriers between controller input and gameplay.)
  6. Gamic action versus radical action. (Conventional gaming poetics versus alternative modes of gameplay.) [11]

Galloway (2006) concludes that countergaming will eventually come to influence the mainstream to which it is opposed. This moment will bring with it the potential of imbuing play with the ideology of a “political and cultural avant-garde” [12]. Moving forward from this thesis, Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2009) provide an essential update to the countergaming revolution.

Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2009) expand the scope of countergaming by discussing more than just game modding communities. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2009) also bring Galloway’s concept of countergaming into dialogue with Hardt and Negri’s concepts of Empire and multitude. Empire, as defined by Hardt and Negri (2000), is the juridical state of world order. They argue that capitalism is immanent in the constitution of this order [13]. In other words capitalism is a social motif that permeates most aspects of our everyday lives, and ultimately reinforces the abilities of a privileged few to decide who lives and who dies. The multitude, as defined by Hardt and Negri (2004), is the essence of a plural collective, “an internally different, multiple social subject whose constitution and action is based not on identity or unity (or, much less, indifference) but on what it has in common” [14]. Where biopower, the power over life itself, is a tool of empire; biopolitical production, the ability to produce, “not just material goods but the actual social relationships and forms of life,” is a tool of the multitude [15]. When Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2009) discuss countergaming movements they call them games of multitude.

“Why are virtual games the media of Empire, integral to and expressive of it as no other?” [16] The history of video games, beginning with its military-industrial roots, suggests the formation of a new subjectivity — wherein the traditional binaries of work and play, volunteerism and exploitation, production and consumption, become ambiguous. Broadly, Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter concur with Lazzarato’s (1996) assessment of immaterial labor, in which late capitalism marks a shift from manual to “intellectual” labor [17]. The history of video games, in fact, begins with this shift [18].

Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2009) suggest that these collapsing boundaries have become the profit model of the video game industry. This profit model, problematically, exploits the volunteer production of immaterial labor. They note three key moments in the development of video games as tools of Empire: First, games are produced as commodities; this moment coincides with the corporate recruitment of hackers. Second, the industry begins to rely and cultivate immaterial labor as a primary means of profit. Third, play becomes the primary mode of training a new generation of immaterial laborers — instantiating further transitions to immaterial labor in other sectors of the economy [19]. It is through games that Empire grows. Games of Empire, therefore, are machines that embed an ethic of immaterial production within their players. This ethic of peer production and creativity is then reincorporated and relied upon by the very constitution of Empire, capitalism.

Games of multitude, then, are an antidote, of sorts, to games of Empire. To be sure, although Hardt and Negri suppose a set of utopian potentials for the multitude, Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter are careful to temper their account of multitude with recognition of its dual nature. Noting the work of Virno (2003) they are careful to point to the dark side of multitude: its tendencies toward opportunism and cynicism [20]. These tendencies suggest that within every game of multitude lies the potential for some fundamental game mechanic to be captured by the apparatus of capital, then boxed and sold at Wal-Marts worldwide. Fiske (2010) has referred to this process as incorporation, or containment. He warns:

It [incorporation] can also be understood as a form of containment — a permitted and controlled gesture of dissent that acts as a safety valve and thus strengthens the dominant social order by demonstrating its ability to cope with dissenters or protesters by allowing them enough freedom to keep them relatively content, but not enough to threaten the stability of the system against which they are protesting. [21]

Tendencies toward incorporation relate to opportunism while tendencies toward apathy and nihilism smack of cynicism. “Game culture is full of glibly promoted ‘empowerment’ and slickly marketed ‘participation,’” Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2009) write, “that provide game capital free labor and expanded revenues” [22]. For this reason it is essential to advocate for and recognize instances of countergaming wherever they appear. Just as opportunism leads to incorporation, cynicism leads only to futility and obscurity.

In addition to their conceptualization of Empire and multitude Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2009) also expand the scope of countergaming to include six approaches, or:

pathways of multitudinous activity that can be seen, sensed, or speculated on at the margins — and sometimes deep in the heart — of contemporary game culture: counterplay, or acts of contestation within and against the ideologies of individual games of Empire; dissonant development, the emergence of critical content in a few mainstream games; tactical games designed by activists to disseminate radical social critique; polity simulators, associated with the educational and training projects of the ‘serious games’ movement; the self-organized worlds of players producing game content independently of commercial studios, especially in MMOs; and finally software commons challenging restrictions on, and monopoly control over, game-related intellectual property.

Although Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2009) take significant care when discussing these pathways of multitude there are two key limitations to this list. First, the tactics of countergaming elaborated on this list are all top-down constructs requiring, at least, an informed multitude of code-literate programmers for implementation. In this regard, the multitudes supposed here constitute a digital elite, which may hold a set of libertarian ideals seemingly at odds with attitudes of the commons [23]. Second, amidst these twisting paths, cheating is dubiously misplaced. Although cheating is arguably more in line with individualist desires than the motive of establishing a commons, I argue that it is nonetheless a tactic of hegemonic resistance. “Cheating can be an excellent path into studying the gameplay situation,” Consalvo (2009b) writes, “because it lays bare player’s frustrations and limitations. It points to some of our ludic hopes and activities, and it causes us to question our values, our ethics.” Even Huizinga (1950) lauds the famous cheaters of myth — Pelops, Gunter, Jason and Theseus — for their ability to recuperate a new “play-theme” out of their fraudulent acts [24]. In other words, understanding cheating helps us to reorient our approach to games within our media infrastructure, and it may even help us to better focus on and understand the pervasive impact of the grey media we encounter all around us.



Ways to cheat

Cheating is, and has always been, a practice of vigilante sovereignty. It represents the extent to which one is able to abuse a system of rules whilst deliberately constructing a relationship of power between cheater and cheated. The study of cheating is a pathway to exploring player agency in an area of study (game studies) that notoriously aggrandizes the interactional and machinic aspects of video games. Studies of cheating — such as Consalvo (2009a) and Kücklich’s “Homo deludens” — seek to challenge normative definitions of play that are ontologically rooted in Huizinga’s [25] concept of a magic circle. To this end Consalvo and Kücklich investigate the limits of player agency in the study and culture of video games. This inquiry marks a moment of discursive fracture in the field of video game studies. Previously game studies scholars like Aarseth (1997), Frasca (2003) and Juul (2005), had justified the potentials of interactivity in videogames through Huizinga’s model of play. This work considers the capture of rapt audience attention through machineries of cybernetic player participation. Galloway (2006) has suggested that the elevation of the aesthetic over the interactive is an essential maneuver of countergaming for it produces conditions of “estrangement and unpleasure” [26]. I argue that if modders constitute a technical class of labor that can resist the hegemony of interactive media, then cheaters might also be a group which produces these conditions of this estrangement without the technical knowledge of code.

Before turning a critical eye to the work of Consalvo and Kücklich it is important to consider a brief etymology of cheating. First noted in the fifteenth century, cheat is derived from the French term escheat: “legal term for revision of property to the state when the owner dies without heirs” [27]. While Empire refers to the juridical use of biopower as a means to social exploitation and control, “cheat,” describes the use of juridical power for the appropriation of property. The plot thickens: “cheater” predates “cheat”! A fourteenth century term, cheater is defined as, “royal officer in charge of the king’s escheats [sic]”. These officers were villainous characters as the negative connotations of cheat — to confiscate or to deprive unfairly — work to denote their actions [28]. From this etymology there are two key take-aways: first, there is a biopolitical meaning, wherein cheat implies a power relationship in which the dead (non-persons) are made subject to the law; second, there is an oppositional reading, cheat is used to describe the abuse of power.

Consalvo (2009a) locates a definition of cheating that resonates well with the oppositional definition above, “The cheater is taking advantage of a person, a situation, or both” [29]. Unwilling to reduce cheating to deception Consalvo argues that for a person to cheat there must be a system of rules for them to exploit. Huizinga’s (1950) magic circle provides a way to understand how rules regulate systems of play, “Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, card-table, the magic circle ... are all in form and function play-grounds forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain” [30]. For Consalvo (2009b), the rules of a game are a far more relevant descriptor of what constitutes a site of play than Huizinga’s magic circle [31]. Without a system of rules to exploit there can be no cheat.

Consalvo (2009b) conducts interviews with players who cheat in various ways. There was little consensus amongst her participants as to how cheating should be defined. Although most of the players interviewed could agree that cheating gives one an unfair advantage [32] the rest of her findings fell onto a spectrum. All forms of outside help: walkthroughs, hints and spoilers, fell at one end of the continuum [33], while players at the other end argued that there was no cheating a machine, only other players [34]. Consalvo’s findings are interesting because they suggest that players adhere to a set of individual ethical codes that help to determine the best ways to game. Finally, Consalvo examines a number of gaming magazines, strategy guides, and gaming peripherals to historicize a sense of the industry’s business model. She notes the distinction in Nintendo Power between the “classified” cheat codes and game reviews of the issue, and argues that the magazine was engaged in the construction of player subjectivities [35]. There would be some players who game to consume, they would frequent the review section, and there would be others who play to win, for them the cheat codes were an essential indulgence.

Consalvo’s study establishes that players choose both when they cheat and how they cheat. It is also revealed that the production of cheaters, through cheat codes and peripherals, has been institutionalized via narratives of Empire. For an interested player cheating offers a way to stage semiotic interventions in which the semantically dense environments of the game become secondary to player agency. Kücklich explains:

As far as gamespace is concerned, cheating can be a truly eye-opening experience, especially in 3D games, which present the illusion of continuous space to the player. The art of level design in 3D games consists of a careful balancing of freedom of movement with constraints, which subtly guide players. In Deus Ex, there are often multiple ways to achieve a goal, and frequently one of them is much more circuitous than the others, and involves using stealth rather than brute force. Cheating can help to lay bare these gameplay mechanisms and thus facilitate spatial analysis ... . For all it’s apparent silliness, this way of engaging with the game denaturalizes gamespace, and counteracts the manifold representational strategies used to make it appear realistic. [36]

Cheat codes enable players to take advantage of games in some contexts and fellow players in others. They offer all of the benefits of practice without a time consuming investment of immaterial labor. By liberating players from the excesses of work cheating affords players an opportunity to play without limits and to play with the limits themselves.

Kücklich attaches the liberating dimensions of cheat codes to Aarseth’s idea of topological constraints in gamespace [37]. For Aarseth (1997), game narratives capture their reader within a formal and participatory grammar. He writes, “The adventure game user cannot rely on imagination (and previous experience) alone but must deduce the nonfictive laws of the simulated world by trial and error in order to complete the game. And a fiction that must be tested to be consumed is no longer a pure fiction; it is a construction of a different kind” [38]. This negotiated dimension of gameplay is, evidently, the procedural exchange between programmer and player. Building on Aarseth’s work, Frasca (2003) has argued that games undermine the authority of narrative by placing the author into dialogue with the reader. This is a contestable theoretical move, however; although video games may undermine traditional notions of literary narrative, the negotiated formalism Frasca advocates is a far cry from the pluralities of post-structural thought [39]. Ludologists like Frasca and Aarseth, strive to maintain some semblance of authority within the text. Even this construction of authority furthers a power relationship. The cheating studied by Kücklich evinces a way out of this logjam; it presents the player with ways to usurp a sense of interpretive sovereignty from the object of analysis. Just as the escheat allowed the state to exercise sovereignty over the dead (non-persons), the play-cheat allows individuals the opportunity to exercise a rare sovereignty over the game (also a non-person).

Are players always already subjects to games of Empire? Is cheating a path of escape? Although cheating may help circumvent some limitations of gamespace, other limitations are not so easily evaded. Bogost (2006) coins “procedural rhetoric” to describe the invisible rhetoric of the algorithm, “procedurality refers to the core practices of software authorship ... . To write procedurally, one authors rules that generate many instances of the same type of representation, rather than authoring the representation itself.” Advocating for the potential of procedural rhetoric to connive a political and social good Bogost writes:

Playing such games can have a critical impact because they allow players to embody political positions and engage in political actions many will never have previously experienced, and because they make it possible for players to deepen their understanding of the multiple causal forces that affect any given, always unique, set of historical circumstances. I want to suggest that procedural rhetoric is precisely what is missing from current uses of technology for politics. (Bogost, 2006)

Though Bogost clearly believes that procedural rhetoric can be leveraged for a social good; I argue that procedural rhetoric is precisely the apparatus that produces effective games of empire. Although some cheats allow players to side-step the trappings of procedural rhetoric, none provide a critical literacy of what these rhetorics are.

I argue that the dismantling of procedural rhetoric will require a toolset more sophisticated than the cheat codes distributed in Nintendo Power. Even though procedural rhetoric offers the potential of social change, it is a double-edged sword. Interactivity, and (even worse!) interactive rhetoric, is the mechanism through which Empire constructs its machinic subject. The machinic subject is an essential part of Empire’s “high-tech machine” [40]. To paraphrase, machinic subjects are the person-machines that buy video games from the market-machine. These games entertain/train person-machines to buy more from the market-machine and occasionally developing subversion-machines that then are ultimately reincorporated into the mean-machine of Empire [41]. How can one hope to subvert Empire’s global and biopolitical machine when cheating, an essential line of flight, feeds back so readily into capitalism’s immanent reach? Devilishly, I suggest a brand-new cheat; a player oriented countergaming stratagem devised to reveal evil practices of mind control embedded within the procedural rhetoric of games.



Cheating an evil empire

Having made a case for the value of cheating as a player-centered practice of resistance, this paper will now attempt to popularize a new set of cheats. This subversive set of critical stratagems is intended to help researchers, teachers, and critical thinkers unmask the secret cavorting of procedural rhetoric in games and more. In cataloging these tactics I draw on Fuller and Goffey’s (2009) concept of evil media studies. They explain, “Evil media studies deliberately courts the accusation of anachronism so as to both counter and enhance the often tacit deception and trickery within the precincts of both theory and practice.” Although this confounding description of evil media studies tempts the reader to furrow their brow with frustration before exclaiming: “Pah!” and abandoning the whole endeavor; such a reaction is exactly the point. By relying on a lexicon of arcane and incongruent language evil media studies demands that its readers take pause and think critically about their own practices in order to debunk whatever antiquated philosophies it puts forth. A catch-22 of critical reflection is exactly what practitioners of evil media studies aim to affect through these various stratagems. Although Fuller and Goffey put forth 16 stratagems this paper has adapted four into a set of essential video game cheats: stratagem two, exploit anachronism; stratagem five, make the accidental essential; stratagem six, recurse stratagems; and stratagem nine, what is good for natural language is good for formal language. Put into practice, these cheats will help players to evade capture in even their most earnest interactions with games of Empire.

Cheat #1: Exploit anachronism

Players should seek to interact with games by randomly pressing buttons, thus avoiding systems of bodily control. It is through this cheat that one can decisively reveal practices of mind control and hypnotism in games of Empire. Fuller and Goffey write, “it is important to talk about whether things work, not about whether or not they are right.” The point of this cheat is to proliferate a set of scare tactics regarding the capacity of video games to control our minds. Eschewing the precise military logics of game control (Crogan, 2011) for an imprecise and aleatory play (perhaps best honed in childhood) allows players the agency to play haphazardly. I invoke the anachronism of childhood play here because the game will still work, not because an ideal outcome will be realized.

In a 2009 advertisement for Uncle Milton’s $US130 Force Trainer the narrator explains, “Now you can use the awesome power of the force to move an object with the power of your mind. Concentrate and you’ll control the training remote with just your thoughts. The wireless force trainer headset uses the latest technology to connect your thoughts to the Jedi training tower.” The video depicts a young boy wearing a headset and concentrating on a ping-pong ball in a plastic tower. When he strains, the ball rises; as he relaxes, it falls. It is only a matter of time before the brain-controller technology, marketed in this commercial as a novelty, becomes a key interface for the control of video games. Already Square Enix is developing games like Judecca, a zombie-brawler, which requires that the player concentrate before the zombies appear (Fruhlinger, 2008). In the future mind-control technology will be internalized, embedded within our skulls for ease of access.

If brain-control technology seems exceedingly far-fetched then consider the ways in which the repetitive structures of video games condition players to fall into a trance-like state. One critic described the precision controls and repetitive deaths of Super Meat Boy by noting, “When you play, you go into a sort of trance-state, eyes glazed, staring at the screen as your meaty avatar is cut, stabbed, crushed, and destroyed over and over again” (Kuchera, 2011). Parisi (2011) notes that game interfaces that incorporate the body necessitate repetition for functional implementation; players will repeat a jab over and over again until they get it just right [42]. Video games use mind control and hypnosis to control weak willed and unsuspecting players. The first cheat requires that the player reject all instances of repetition in game narrative and interface. This involves buying in to Galloway’s (2006) fifth tenant of countergaming, “noncorrespondance” [43]. As stated at the start of this cheat, to exploit bodily control, we must learn a new practice of erratic engagement.

Cheat #2: Make the accidental essential

Cheat number two requires that players reduce game narrative to a series of accidents revealed over the course of gameplay. There are many ways to play a game; this cheat maintains that a game’s procedural rhetoric leads many players to play games according to an unfortunately standard set of rules. Fuller and Goffey (2009) explain:

In ancient Greece the sophists were consummate exploiters of the faults, disturbances and idiosyncrasies of language, its non-sense. Installing themselves within the cracks of language, the fissures which open up where one word could mean many things, two different words could sound exactly alike, where sense and reference was confused, sophistry sometimes humorously and playfully, sometimes with apparently more sinister demagogical intent, exploited the ‘semiurgical’ quality of language and the seething cauldron of affective charge it contained to make and remake our relations to the world.

In the semantic fissure where one word takes on a second accidental meaning the most exciting mutations of the gaming generation can be located. The exploitation and subsequent proliferation of the meme, “All Your Base Are Belong to Us” exemplifies the potential of reducing the accidental to the essential in video games. The brief history on Know Your Meme reveals the meme was accidental, a mistranslation, “the quote originally appeared in the opening dialogue of Zero Wing ... ‘All Your Base’ phrase and the dialogue scene went viral on popular discussion forums in 2000, spawning thousands of image macros and flash animations featuring the slogan both on the Web and in real life” (Anonymous, 2009). After going “viral” the meme gained a theme song, JRR’s “Invasion of the Gabber Robots”; mainstream news coverage on CNET, San Francisco Chronicle, Register, and Daily Mirror; hacker imitations, “ALL YOUR TRAINS ARE BELONG TO US” appeared on The Dutch Railways Web site; and was even misunderstood as a “terrorist threat” after a teenage prank in Sturgis, Michigan (Anonymous, 2009). The accidental nature of this meme helps to show the productive narrative space of coincidence.

Cheat #3: Recurse strategies

The third cheat requires players to actively seek and chronicle bugs found during gameplay. This cheat will help to pinpoint exactly where a game is ripe for exploitation. This cheat is, perhaps, the most widely understood and universally recognized. Similar to Kelty’s (2008) idea of a recursive public, a public that autonomously regulates its own means of existence [44]; Fuller and Goffey (2009) suggest that recurse strategies are the means through which multitudes are brought into being, “the autonomy of code, independence from human interference, is not incompatible with the existence of the strategically marshaled multitude of agents who bring it into being.” While a recursive public continuously produces the very means of its existence, the recursive player must constantly test the limits of their experience. Recurse strategies are the essence of playtesting. Playtesting is a debugging practice in which players are paid to repetitively encounter branches of game design until all of the lingering bugs have been located. Many bugs endure in games long after playtesting has been completed reflecting a main consequence of Empire’s accelerated market-machine.

Cheat #4: What is good for natural language is good for formal language.

The excesses of language lead to its most interesting features and ardently work to debunk staid discursive strategies of mind control. The aberrations that develop within a solipsistic fissure should be embraced for their creative potentials. Fuller and Goffey argue:

If glitches, bugs, faults and fissures are unavoidable (because even formal systems are incomplete), then technological norms, the constant injunction to optimize and the unreasonable exactness of the formal logic necessary to the programming of software, are themselves generative of aberrant movements, movements which exploit the idiosyncrasies of language both formal and natural. Incipit the viral.

The thinking here is that the exactness of video game code leads to a situation where the code undermines itself while simultaneously becoming to resistant to normative modes of linguistic capture. The Sim City 3000 project “Magnasanti” reflects this cheat; it is the largest city ever created in Sim City 3000. Although its creator, Vincent Oscala, is careful to note that he did not cheat while building “Magnasanti,” his obsessive attention to detail provided him with a very intimate understanding of the games formal language.

Understanding the formal language of Sim City and therefore recognizing its intersection with the natural language of Empire has provided Oscala with some fascinating insights. He reflects in an interview:

There are a lot of other problems in the city hidden under the illusion of order and greatness: Suffocating air pollution, high unemployment, no fire stations, schools, or hospitals, a regimented lifestyle — this is the price that these sims pay for living in the city with the highest population. It’s a sick and twisted goal to strive towards. The ironic thing about it is the sims in Magnasanti tolerate it. They don’t rebel, or cause revolutions and social chaos. No one considers challenging the system by physical means since a hyper-efficient police state keeps them in line. They have all been successfully dumbed down, sickened with poor health, enslaved and mind-controlled just enough to keep this system going for thousands of years. 50,000 years to be exact. They are all imprisoned in space and time. (Sterry, 2010)

By playing obsessively to his desire to optimize, Oscala is able to critically examine the tendencies of Empire he has subjected his sandbox nation to. Not only does he note (accurately) that this state of hyper-efficient order becomes possible only through mind-control, but he also notes the capture of his citizens within space and time. The fourth cheat requires players to grow obsessed with the optimization of gamespace. Through optimization the brainwashing tendencies of Empire are revealed as the self-evident telos of video games.




The culmination of these four cheats is a new strategy to games that is more sensitive to the meta-social consequence of interactive media than the immediate consequence of human-computer competition. They propose a strategy for gameplay that seeks to strip bare the entertaining dimensions of gameplay and reveal the grey, invisible, media structures which are always at work conditioning our needs, desires, and approach to knowledge.

Although this paper has recommended a set of cheats through which players can neutralize the threat of Empire during gameplay it is hard to imagine these recommendations being taken very seriously by the average gamer. For the researcher or teacher, seeking to locate articulations of procedural rhetoric and machinic subjectivity within games of Empire, however: these cheats are essential. They provide a novel path for resisting the logics of games and interactive media, and thus help to reveal the conditioning effects of grey media.

Galloway (2006) concludes by writing, “So countergaming is an unrealized project. An independent gaming movement has yet to flourish ... . But when it does, there will appear a whole language of play, radical, and new, that will transform the countergaming movement, just as Godard did to the cinema, or Deleuze did to philosophy, or Duchamp did to the art object” [45]. Now, five years later, the indie game movement is picking up a good deal of steam. It is apparently threatening the sovereignty of blockbuster games at major industry conferences. In recognition of these shifts, I argue that cheating should become the foundational critical literacy of the video game generation. Cheating like the avant-garde countergames of Galloway, Dyer-Witheford, and de Peuter’s games of multitude, instantiates a mode of resistance that empowers all players with the tools needed to better resist the glamour of play, thus allowing for the emergence of new player subjectivities, and helping us to focus on the grey media conditioning us while we were otherwise distracted by the hypnotic lure of gameplay. End of article


About the author

Aaron Trammell is an Assistant Professor of Informatics at UC Irvine. He was a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar for Faculty Diversity in Informatics and Digital Knowledge at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He earned his doctorate from the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information in 2015. Aaron’s research reveals historical connections between games, play, identity, and the U.S. military-industrial complex. He is interested in how military ideologies become integrated into game design and how these perspectives are negotiated within the imaginations of players.
E-mail: trammell [at] uci [dot] edu



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2. See Seaver’s (2016) excellent discussion on how Pokémon Go has captured the habits, bodies, and minds of its player base.

3. Galloway, 2006, p. 88.

4. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, 2009, p. 191.

5. Galloway, 2006, p. 88.

6. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, 2009, p. xxxi.

7. Wollen, 1982, pp. 80–81.

8. Hall, 1980, p. 138.

9. Galloway, 2006, p. 109.

10. Galloway, 2006, p. 114.

11. Galloway, 2006, pp. 124–125.

12. Galloway, 2006, p. 126.

13. Hardt and Negri, 2000, p. 8.

14. Hardt and Negri, 2004, p. 100.

15. Hardt and Negri, 2004, p. 94.

16. Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter, 2009, p. xxix.

17. Lazzarato, 1996, p. 134.

18. 1962’s Spacewar, developed by Steve Russell at the MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club, began as a “hack” for DEC’s (later Compaq, then Hewlett-Packard) car-sized PDP-1 (Programmable Data Processor-1). After the initial game was coded, the rest of the club pitched in, patching, debugging and playtesting the program (Kent, 2001, pp. 16–19). The development of Spacewar exemplifies the social shift to immaterial labor: not only did Steve Russell and his friends, members of the Tech Model Railroad Club, oscillate between work and play, production and consumption, they also worked for free. Though it was a two-player game, the creative blueprint of Spacewar was later appropriated, copyrighted, and sold by Atari as Asteroids, a one-player game with a precariously similar design (Kent, 2001, p. 131). Here the boundaries between volunteerism and exploitation blur as well as Steve Russell had never attempted to copyright his work.

19. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, 2009, p. 32.

20. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, 2009, p. 84.

21. Fiske, 2010, p. 114.

22. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, 2009, pp. 190–191.

23. Dyer Witheford and de Peuter, 2009, p. 185.

24. Huizinga, 1950, p. 52.

25. Huizinga, 1950, pp. 10–11.

26. Galloway, 2006, p. 118.

27. Online Etymology Dictionary, at

28. Ibid.

29. Consalvo, 2009a, p. 5.

30. Huizinga, 1950, p. 10.

31. Consalvo, 2009b, p. 409.

32. Consalvo, 2009b, p. 87.

33. Consalvo, 2009b. p. 88.

34. Consalvo, 2009b, p. 91.

35. Consalvo, 2009b, p. 30.

36. Kücklich, 2007, p. 360.

37. Ibid.

38. Aarseth, 1997, pp. 50–51.

39. Frasca, 2003, p. 222.

40. Hardt and Negri, 2000, p. 39.

41. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, 2009, p. 71.

42. Parisi, 2011, p. 118.

43. Galloway, 2006, pp. 120–122.

44. Kelty, 2008, p. 29.

45. Galloway, 2006, p. 126.



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Editorial history

Received 15 December 2015; accepted 15 December 2016.

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This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Cheating and resisting empire in the age of interactive media
by Aaron Trammell.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 1 - 2 January 2017

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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