For gamers weaned on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, Contra occupied a special spot in the cartridge lineup. The impoliticly named shoot-'em-up of the late 1980s featured two Stallonenegger protagonists armed with "spread" guns and tasked with kicking tail in the Central American jungle. With hours of fast-paced action and cooperative play, Contra was an NES sensation. But there was a hitch: The game was so difficult to complete that most players had to cheat.
Punch a now-iconic series of commands into your controller (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A), and the Contra gods would boost your lives from three to 30, more than enough to blast a path to the final boss. Dubbed the Konami Code, after Contra's Japanese publisher, the secret sequence was one of gaming's first great "cheats" and helped inspire a tradition of semisanctioned cheating that is still flourishing today. In the new Transformers game, a similar sequence (up, down, left, right, up, up, down) gets you unlimited ammo. And the Konami Code itself still works in recent titles like Quake 4.
But as games have grown in complexity, so has cheating. Massive online games such as EverQuest and Final Fantasy involve thousands of strangers playing simultaneously, striving to obtain virtual assets that have real-world value (by some estimates several billion dollars' worth). Cheating in these games can be at once harder to identify and more troubling.
While the Konami Code had the whiff of the illicit about it, the code was programmed into the game cartridge. The only people you were cheating were the pixilated bad guys and, perhaps, yourself—out of the experience of beating the game without all those extra lives. Compare Contra with World of Warcraft, the 9-million member online game, where a hue and cry has ensued over the practice of gold farming, in which players, many of them Chinese, earn virtual gold through drudging labor (by killing the same monster over and over again, for example). The farmers then sell their gold to lazy players, many of them American, who use it to acquire coveted weapons and armor they don't have the time or dedication to earn the hard way.
Most gold farmers haven't hacked the game. They're only doing what any player could do, given the time and inclination. But their efforts foul up the game's economy, and Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind World of Warcraft, has banned tens of thousands of them.
So, where does gameplay end and cheating begin? Given that virtual property now has real-world value, it's no longer just an idle question for gaming geeks. These days, there's enough nerdy talk about social contracts, democracy, and deontology in games to wear out a Lyceum. Much of it centers on the ethos of the gamer, who by nature—and indeed by nurture—is a subversive creature. He hunts for shortcuts and trapdoors. He looks for ways to bend the rules. It has been this way for as long as mischievous designers have written software for rebellious kids. Which is to say: forever. Or nearly so.
In 1978, Warren Robinett, a recalcitrant Atari 2600 game designer, squirreled the first widely known "Easter egg" into the first action-adventure game (appropriately titled "Adventure"). Fed up with the lack of credit given to programmers, Robinett turned a single gray pixel in the middle of a gray wall into a portal to a secret room, where his name appeared in bright colors.
Robinett's naughty pixel started a trend. Other designers, toiling anonymously in the video game trenches, began seeding games with secrets, a way to put a personal touch on their work. Before long, Easter eggs had transformed into full-blown cheat codes that unlocked bonus characters, special levels, and superpowers. The first cheaters in games were the people who made them.
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