There Is No Such Thing as Honor or Cheapness: Artificial Rules in Multiplayer Gaming

I am not a good person.

Or, so I’m told, anyway. Be it XBL, PSN or Steam, I’m constantly inundated by cries and BAAAW’ings about how cheap I am, how I make the game less fun, how I shouldn’t be allowed to play games like I do.

You’ve probably heard, if not partaken in the nonsense, too. Certain practices are frowned upon depending on which game we’re talking about, usually revolving around mechanics that are considered to require no ‘skill’ to execute. Noob tubing in Call of Duty. Hado trap (WHAT!?) in Street Fighter. Then there are behaviors which are like rites of passage for acceptance within a game’s community. In Gears, for example, knowing how to handle a shotgun means you are worthy of respect. Every game seems to have a list of rules not present in the game proper, but upheld fervently by the community in an effort to arbitrarily privilege certain types of play than others. Those who can play well in spite of those rules/constraints, are considered to be the superior players, those who do not are fools, novices.

All of these factor into the wider issue of ‘sportsmanship’ in video games. Yes, you read that right. Sportsmanship–upholding a sense of fairness, ethics and respect. Being a proponent of Sirlin’s Playing To Win philosophy, though, to me that’s all hogwash. Dynamics not intended by designers aside, if it’s in the game, why isn’t it fair? I am hesitant to acknowledge issues with non-intended dynamics, too, especially with the proliferation of patches in multiplayer games. Designers cannot predict all the dynamics that will arise from mechanics–who would have thought that crouching would burgeon an era of teabagging?–but that doesn’t change my argument. Anything not intended by designers, or that they might consider to be ‘cheap’ or ‘unfair’ can be tweaked to become a more acceptable mechanic/dynamic. If the practice in question stays in spite of the patches, are cries of unfairness or cheapness legitimate? Moreover, if a designer has chosen to include a wide arsenal of weapons and abilities, how is one specific combination the only ‘legitimate’ way to play?

Admittedly, there are times when I doubt myself, when I wonder if I’m making the game less ‘fun’ for everyone involved. I can’t help but feel a tinge of guilt when I’m aiming down my sights toward the spawn in Monday Night Combat as the Sniper. My current obsession is sniping people the second they get out of spawn, I have the angles down to muscle memory. Sometimes I have to settle for freezing enemies a few steps away from spawn, a skill which allows me to line up my headshot. I’m sure that makes me sound like a wonderful person, but before you start curling your lip in disgust, let’s discuss the design of Monday Night Combat a bit.

Monday Night Combat is curious in that the designers have chosen to place your objective, the thing that dictates whether you win or lose (the ‘moneyball) at the enemy spawn. Now, I can’t speak for the designers, but that layout must be by design, no? To win means not only guiding my bots into the enemy moneyball, but also controlling the enemy spawn. Good pressure is often evident by whether or not one can keep the enemy playing defensively, controlling where they can or cannot go. In this specific case, keeping them contained at spawn, if not spawn camping itself, seems like an unavoidable reality. I’m not going to ignore you because you spawned a millisecond ago, your mere existence threatens the success of my objective.

That being said, my doubts usually subside quickly: I can’t feel too bad over what I’m doing when people keep repeating their mistakes over and over again. There are 6 exits from spawn available in Monday Night Combat, but people will continue to try to get out of the two where I have clear shots. It’s here where I reassure myself that perhaps, just perhaps, these people do not deserve to live until they learn from their mistakes. It’s a tough job, this service I provide, but someone’s got to do it.

But naw, I’m just a terrible spawncamper, aren’t I? Here, the function of such labels becomes clear: it’s just people licking their wounds, being butthurt, if you will. They can’t win the game, the next best thing is to engage in verbal assault, smacktalk, demean the ‘honor’ of the other player, belittle their success by calling into question the legitimacy of their skill. When was the last time honor won you a match of Smash Bros? How is someone’s skill called into question when it’s the opponent that does not learn how to deal with the scenario at hand? While no game is 100% balanced, things tend to have counters, if not workarounds. You don’t keep trying to use Squirtle against Bulbasaur in Pokemon, you whip our your damn Charmander. In a game like Street Fighter, everyone has a move that goes through fireballs–so what’s this nonsense about hado traps, again? If someone is camping in the corner of a building, either you have the skill to take them out or you stop going through there because you lack the skill to deal with that.

Learning to deal with the scenario at hand is crucial, and that failing usually falls on the shoulders of the ‘victim.’ A player has no reason to mix up their methods if strategy X works just fine against the opponent, and expecting them to change it up is silly. Why does anyone need to ‘prove’ their skill if at the end of the day, the scoreboard does not lie? Apparently it does not take skill to defeat the opponent: who does that reflect more poorly on?

Interestingly, there are examples of ‘cheapness’ by design, if not ‘fairness’ by design. Epic Games has gone on record in regards to the Sawed Off shotgun in Gears of War 3, admitting that it’s a weapon meant to help new players out. Before that was known, though, the sawed off shotgun in Gears of War 3 was immediately considered to require no skill to acquire a kill or three by the community. Nevermind the fact that its increased power at close range is well-known, and, to meet your demise at the hands of a sawed off must mean you dun goofed and got too close. Or the fact that it’s balanced out by its long reload speed, as well as its inconsistency in attaining kills. Another interesting design choice in Gears of War 3 is how the game takes into consideration how new you are to the multiplayer. Newbies are granted not only an extra health bonus, but also a small damage boost. These are meant to make the game more fair against well-seasoned players who already have the ebb and tide of multiplayer combat down to a science. Now that, I will concede, can be a very real problem in multiplayer: balancing teams such that new players and veterans alike have a reasonable shot at winning.

And of course, I can’t ignore when games where winning is a legitimate crapshoot. In a game like, say, Mario Kart, luck is just as important as skill when a lead can be decimated by a fateful blue shell. Most games do not fall under that banner. Similarly, there are cases when an opponent bests you out of sheer chance–lobbing a grenade at the general direction of the enemy in COD, for example. As unfortunate as those are–for the victim, anyway–it still takes some knowledge of tactics for that to even have a chance of being viable. That probably sounds silly to some of you, but it’s preempting and calculating where an opponent might be based on knowledge of maps and player behavior. Knowing that sort of thing is useful in just about any game you can name; questions like ‘where would I be if I was the enemy?’ or ‘what would I be doing if I were the enemy’ can lead some some very high level play.

In the end, what I want to leave you with is this: all these self-imposed rules and behaviors exist outside of the game. To quote someone else on it, it’s a “set of rules designed to guarantee the complexity and integrity of the game system, but they’re actually already violating the integrity simply by existing outside of it.” You are not ensuring exploration and mastery of a game system by arbitrarily following rules that exist outside of its actual design mandate. In fact, you may be undermining the design by doing so.

So, yeah, maybe I’m a terrible person. Or maybe you should learn to play the game.


  1. “Anything not intended by designers, or that they might consider to be ‘cheap’ or ‘unfair’ can be tweaked to become a more acceptable mechanic/dynamic.”

    Yes but you fail to take into consideration the fact that certain developers will not actually tweak an unfair or cheap mechanic/tactic. Call of Duty is a testament to this fact. Look at Modern Warfare two and the myriad of problems it suffers from, all of which have been admitted by the developers but they failed to rectify until their subsequent games were released:

    * Commando- where is the sense of balance in someone teleporting to you from a considerable distance and then knifing you? The mechanic was broken hence why it will not return in other games but people saw fit to abuse this by having cheap running classes sprinting across maps and knifing people contrary to the spirit of the game.

    * Quick scoping- whilst personally this didn’t pose that much of a problem it can still be described as a cheap tactic simply because you rely on a broken mechanic- the autoaim abuse doing all the work for you. The sniper wasn’t intended to be used like this.

    You say there is no such thing as honour or cheapness in games- well then I can equally say there is no such thing as SKILL in games because its merely on the other end of the spectrum. Spawn-camping (in most games) is a cheap tactic putting you in an un-even playing field.

    Games are meant to be enjoyable, for everyone. Many gamers are also competitive. Someone planting a claymore near a doorway and then staring at the doorway with a heartbeat sensor attached to his gun can hardly be described as a player that conforms with competitive play.

    I will admit, I myself have resorted to cheap methods such as noob-tubing from across the map, using a thermal scope which is imbalanced and ‘abusing’ one man army- but if I had adopted your view, this would all be okay and acceptable to do. Luckily, I don’t think that and a result I have sought to increase my skill by actually learning to play in a manner that can be described as fair and skilfull.

    I do whine about people who are cheap and abuse elements of a game, but bear in mind that I do also win 99% of my games.

  2. Parker

    I think you raise a good point when considering matches where everyone is playing hardcore competitively. In these cases the the only thing that matters to the players is winning the match, topping the scoreboard, etc. Unless someone is hacking or modding or whatever, 99% of the time no matter what weapon or tactic a person is using, there is a way to beat it. It may require a change of strategy on the victim’s part that may put them out of their comfort zone, but it will certainly be doable. Things like armor lock in halo, infrared scopes in COD or the sawed-off in Gears may be called cheap of often and see to give “nubs” some kind of sucker punch weapon, but I think they just change up the dynamic of the game and force players to play differently and think differently from what they are used to. One of the few exceptions to these would be something like constantly killing someone the instant they spawn with no chance of movement or reaction on their part.

    The problem I do have with the point you raise is that I think it doesn’t consider those who are playing to have fun. Granted pretty much all multiplayer games are designed around competition and beating somebody else, but many play in a less serious way than others. Some games split up their modes into competitive and non-competitive, so people have little excuse to complain if they choose the competitive modes. If you take that same competitive mentality into non-competitive matches or into all of your matches in a game that doesn’t differentiate, then I think those who are non-competitive have some justification for their complaints.

    Competitive players who just stomp all over noncompetitive players by using strategies that are extremely effective and can only be beaten by equally skilled players are just being bullies. A non-competitive player should not have to devote a ton of hours to a game just to get good enough at it to have fun. In these cases I think some of those unwritten laws of gaming are totally valid. A professional baseball player wouldn’t go balls to the wall if he was playing with a bunch of friends who are just playing for fun. Not all of the fault can be put on the competitive players though, developers could also come up with more effective matchmaking methods or with more varieties of modes so the competitive players can go no holds bar and the non-competitive players can frolic.

    • It’s definitely tricky, but the thing is…so…people playing ‘for fun,’ is probably the wrong way to phrase that. People who play hypercompetitively…are playing for fun. As in, that’s what they find to be fun. And so are people who are playing less casually, sure–who, as you say, don’t pour a ton of time into mastering the game and such. Is there a reason everyone should play to accommodate one party’s idea of ‘fun’?

      Now, the real ‘issue’ (for players, anyway–developers have some responsibility here, too) there is recognizing what type of player you are and playing in the appropriate ‘battleground’, ie, player/nonranked matches if not playing competitively. Though yes, that’s not a perfect solution. Basically I agree with your last paragraph there wholeheartedly.

      • Parker

        Yeah, you are right, players who “just play for fun” was poor word choice. I guess a better way of putting it would be more like “those who play just to relax and have an easy good time” or something like that. My main point is that in games such as halo or COD, especially because they are such popular games and are often played by more casual players, don’t really have good clearly defined modes or areas or what-have-you. This means the more casula players are often going up againt the more hardcore players and getting their asses handed to them and they can’t do jack shit about it unless they become hardcore. This I think gives some players justification for complaint as they are not getting the experience they payed for. However I think you raise a good point in that hardcore players shouldn’t have to dumb down their playstyle for the sake of the pubbies because then they are not getting the experience they want. The only way I can think of to handle this at least semi-effectively is through multiple types of modes that are defined in the game as “hardcore/ranked, social/player/?, and possibly beginner”, like I said before.

  3. Ramunas Jakimavicius

    While this doesn’t apply to games that are multiplayer-only or that focus on multiplayer, I think games that make both their single-player campaigns and multiplayer skirmishes important often suffer from not preparing the players for the reality of fighting humans instead of fighting AI. Single-player campaigns of many games (on the “normal” difficulty, anyways) hold the player’s hand and make it unlikely for the player to die to AI enemies if they find some first order optimal strategy or have even a modest amount of skill. Developers often do what they can to increase player agency and make them feel as if they can handle any threats or challenges that they may face. Competitive multiplayer, on the other hand, tends towards the optimization and perfection of effective tactics and Sirlin-style playing to win. Because of this contrast in what is demanded of the player, some may see fit to whine after getting complacent about always (or at least often) winning in single-player.

    TL;DR: Single-player only demands execution while multiplayer usually demands mastery.