Cheats and meta-games
Mia Consalvo, of New York Times fame, is concerned about cheating and the moral consequences of cheats, particularly for researchers. Do we, the observers and analysts, really understand the playing experience if we cheat? I just posted a lengthy comment on her blog, but since I have been thinking a bit about this problem in my thesis, I want to post it here as well.
Roger Caillois, in Man, Play and Games, writes about "the corruption of games" (chapter IV). According to Caillois:
The cheat is still inside the universe of play. If he violates the rules of the game, he at least pretends to respect them. He tries to influence them. He is dishonest, but hypocritical, He thus, by his attitude, safeguards and proclaims the validity of the conventions he violates, because he is dependent upon others obeying the rules.
I found that the players I played with viewed the programming and the statistics of the game as a game in itself. Since they were hard-coded and not soft, social rules, to be able to get around them was a part of the game. And to be kicked out and denied access for breaking the system was a part of some players' style, and just proof that they had managed to find an error in the programming, a confirmation of their ability at the game.
The soft, social rules were a lot more problematic. To break the agreement and assume that its rules did not apply to you was a serious and complicated offense which could ruin the game for many other players. In my thesis, I discuss this in Chapter 7, under "the spoilsports of MUDs."
To mistake the game for something other than a game, turning it into an obsession where the events of the game and the events of your real life become so tightly merged that you no longer know the difference between IC and OOC - that was the worst kind of corruption for the players I interviewed.
As a researcher, I find that understanding cheating is as important as understanding the game. To understand the rules fully, you need to know how far they can be bent. As for cheat and hint pages: I consider them part of the games. Some game producers put in certain cheats, hide them and then wait to see how long before they are found. It is a meta-game within the game.
It is like practicing: to be well prepared to understand all of the potential in a game isn't cheating. It may make the game less surprising for you, but it will enhance your experience of mastery. The real question is what kind of player you are.