I clearly recall playing games as a child. My identity as a video game enthusiast is rooted deeply in those moments. With a controller in my hand and a burning passion in my heart, I played, almost every day. I wasn’t thinking about the reality of sitting in a room with a device hooked up to a television; I was fully present in an exploration of a polygonal world. With amazing moment after amazing moment, I deepened my understanding of what a game was and cultivated my opinion on what a game should have been. I booted. I loaded. I played.
During this wondrous period of my childhood, I was playing the most frequently of my life. The internet was not very easily accessible during this time and living my lower middle-class life and not yet being connected to the universe through an information superhighway, games were my greatest connection to the artistic and outside world. Through games I was introduced to so many incredible works. Thinking back, it was strange for a child to be appreciating art on that level, but I and every other child game player of the time was very much able and thrilled to do so. I spent my free time digesting and appreciating all of the work that went into games through playful interaction with them. They expanded my mind. Game makers were my Gods and each game was like a page in my holy book. With vivid and exciting visuals, I was immersed deeply into the worlds that these adult artists had spent years creating, celebrating the games with everyone else. It was pretty magical, actually.
Working my way through these beautiful and compelling narratives alone was enough excitement, but being the experimental child that I was, I found it even more interesting to break the fourth wall and play games in different ways; I wanted more control of my games. There was no easily accessible modding at the time so my only way of doing this was through one of the most interesting and important aspects of games: cheat codes. “Cheats” were particularly meaningful to me as a very young person. Every month, I received a game magazine that contained cheats and whenever I discovered one for a game I owned or I bought a game that I had codes too from a previous issue, I spent hours enjoying all of the new things I could do on top of the normal game play.
I’ve played a good amount games that were popular before I was born but ultimately missed the era of peripherals such as the Game Genie. My golden age in cheating took on another form, during my adolescence. One of the most intense experiences that I personally had with cheats and cheating was with a game that can at this point be considered a classic: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. After completing the game’s story a few times, I started a deeper exploration and in that found myself doing something with a game I had never done before. These weren’t your run-of-the-mill recover all your health cheats, these were things every player wanted to do but could not. I found myself in cinematic slow-motion bike chases on highways, with full aiming rotation, shooting triad pursuers. To escape, I made gigantic leaps as I bunny hopped on bicycles, cackling as I did. After discovering this way of playing I questioned why all games didn’t have cheats that provided that level of “what if…” gameplay. Sadly, I never received a satisfying answer that that question.
As I and audiences matured, things changed. No longer could you enter a button combination to hear a noise that confirmed a cheat’s activation and be done with it. The special sneakiness had become something obvious and boring. Game makers built in cheat screens into pause menus as they attempted to make cheats something normal, a staple for all games. They were no longer secrets and ultimately, they limited what you could do to pretty dull things that were difficult for anyone to really care much about. This is when codes stopped being fun; this was when cheats as they were, were lost to time.
We then moved into a time of great connectivity. There was a “online” and what was once small groups of friends playing together or with other friend groups became a space for anonymity and over time with this became incredibly toxic. From this behavioral waste came those who only desired to break games for themselves and disturb other players online. This kind of cheating is not special; there’s nothing magical about ruining fun for others. This kind of cheating is simply vandalism. If not this kind of altering of the game experience, there are also more innocent modding communities that enjoy adding to a game as well. From these groups occasionally comes an interesting indie project or two, but because of the limitation of creation with no-budget and lack of permission from the originators, these modifications of play are typically pretty weak.
This is where a line should be drawn between a player using codes to make their own experience fun and exploitation through “hacking.” They both fall under the umbrella of “cheating” but are rather different. Exploiting games has always been something I have been against. From the standpoint of a consumer, I don’t want to be able to beat something by basically skipping the parts that require me to be good at them and as a person that is a part of game culture, I don’t think others should find pride in their ability to not play a game as they are, well, playing a game. I honestly don’t see the fun in playing games in ways they were never meant to be played. Using codes as I did when I was younger was simply exploration.
There is always hope for a return to how things were before. There are ways to punish toxic behavior and cultivate good. Why not to go back to entering codes? Why not return to a time when games felt like love went into them? Why not return to vanilla masterpieces?