Play, Cheat, Program

There are three main relationships kids have to gaming, and they seem to correspond to three main relationships people have to culture.

A kid initially plays a game the way it was released. He (or she) gets as far as he can, and if he gets too stuck, his play is over. What then? He either practices, quits, or goes online to find the cheat codes.

Now he's playing beyond the frame of the original game. He's cheating. But since these codes were written by game designers and released, he's not really breaking anything but the rules of the inner game. He's simply choosing a new perspective from which to engage, beyond the original boundaries of play.

With infinite ammunition or impenetrable shields, he can make it through to the end of the game, which again means the end of play, or maybe an opportunity to go back and practice again as a player.

If he's really inspired by the game (or, conversely, incensed by it) he will go back online, find the modification tools (if the game company was smart enough to make this easy) and program his own version of the game. Now, instead of the game taking place in a dungeon, it can happen in a simulation of his high school, or instead of killing one another players can transform one another into angels.

Of course, in all likelihood he's not just creating the new level for himself to play. He finishes his version of the game and the posts it online, where he hopes other people will find it, play it, and love it.

For me, the development of a gamer from player to cheater to programmer mirrors our development as a society....

Before literacy, we were mere listeners. We heard stories read to us as a group. After the printing press, we were elevating to individuals, each with our own, acknowledged perspective on what we read. (The Renaissance, if anything, was a celebration of individual perspective - just like the paintings.) This reading phase took us right through the reading equivalent of cheating: postmodernism, cut-and-paste, and other personal deconstruction of the author's original intent.

Finally, computers have changed our relationship to the text again. Instead of just reading the publications of others, we are free to write and distribute our own - on a relatively level playing field. We become authors.

Of course, we can argue that kids writing their own Doom wads aren't really programming. They're customizing an existing game, not delving into the game engine or writing code. Then again, those of us using computers to publish blogs aren't really programming, either. We're creating content within the proscribed constraints of the systems being offered to us. Most of us aren't even conscious of the biases of the interfaces to which we're submitting, much less capable of actually reprogramming them. We put our text in the blank space and hope someone's listening.

So we really went from listeners to readers to writers - but not yet to programmers. We're still (just) users. Only the programmers are capable of creating the architectures where all this writing and sharing takes place, and defining the rule sets through which it all happens.

Do we all need to become programmers? Not necessarily. While I mourn the devolution of computer classes in high school from a chance to learn Fortran to a chance to learn Excel, I don't believe everyone has to know how to write their own software any more than I believe people have to know how to build their own cars or pave their own roads.

But, we do have to at least be aware that the programs we're using have been programmed by someone. The way they work may not be the only way they can work. When we are introduced to computing as a suite of Office programs, we tend to think of computers as tools with a preset range of application.

Likewise, when we approach the world from the perspective of a player or cheater instead of a programmer, we tend to succumb to the values of the game rather than questioning if we are really choosing those values as our own.

(Douglas Rushkoff is a guestblogger)


  1. I am in full agreement with this article. I am a programmer by trade (though thats not my specialty, and definitely not what I want to do long term) and it takes a certain mindset to create the rules. From much of my life, I approached rules as things to be challenged and broken, though this was mixed with a healthy dose of reality injection in that for every broken rule is a consequence, no matter how minor or drastic. But once you’re on the other side and creating the rules, you begin to realize why certain rules must exist, and why others are just frivolous and stupid. In my opinion people need to be at least at the “cheat” stage. It breeds healthy skepticism, and being a skeptic is more important now than ever. If you can leap from cheat to program then you know you’re ready for real heavy lifting that this world needs. As for the details about mods vs real programming, I think its pretty much a moot point. Everyone in the real world operates in the framework of reality, bound by physics and various other natural laws. Until we can surpass these laws, that framework still exists. The same could be said for the modders. They are recreating the world in their own image, but the framework is still there, unchanged. The mentality of the modder is still very much the same as the programmer.

  2. This is an interesting take on things, both the original post and the first comment. I would throw one thing in though; self serving behavior. When someone cheats and then begins making the rules to better only themselves we have problems. We are perhaps seeing those problems play out right now on Wall Street, and history is replete with more examples. We should all be able to see those, however rosy our glasses may be.

    Cheating may breed healthy skepticism and programming may lead to a better understanding of the rules and their place in all things, but without some empathy for all things other than yourself they are paths to disaster. I think there are in fact better ways to find healthy skepticism and a respect for the inner workings of systems than “cheating” and “programming”, but that’s another discussion completely.

  3. I too agree with the article however it’s not just “kids” who do what is described. I’m 37 years old and I do much the same with single player games. I don’t belive in cheating with online games where I’m going up against another live player but I do enjoy using mods that don’t break the game or make it unfair in those circumstances. I’ve even done a few mods and skins in this game and that.

    As a tinkerer in several areas myself I also think its best to have at least an understanding of how things your using work. No you don’t need to know how to break down an engine block and put it back together but you should have at least an understanding of what it does, how it works, and how to do the upkeep of it.

    Same with computing. You don’t have to know exactly all of the programing that’s involved but you should at least be aware of the framework of it, what its capable of and what its not, and why some bounderies are needed. In MMORPG forums you can read post after post of gamers wanting this and that, not liking this aspect of the game, bla bla bla on and on they go. If the programers of one of those games actually took every single suggestion that everyone threw out you’d wind up with a game that was dull, boring, and pointless to play.

  4. In my opinion, the real question is when do we actually start calling something programming? If level-building in DOOM isn’t, because you’re just using a toolbox created by someone else, is programming DOOM? They’re probably writing in a high-level language like C++, and that’s a toolbox created by someone else. But is Bjarne Stroustrup a programmer? He’s working in a toolbox created by the hardware manufacturers. And then you’re down to Turing machines, and then you’re down to elementary physics, and then it’s either G_d or turtles all the way down.

    I think the idea of programming is the idea of taking an existing set of rules, and seeing how far you can extend those rules to build something new.. You’re given a toolbox, and you have an idea, and you have to see if you can make the tools you have and know build something that hasn’t been built before. Throwing out the rules is often counterproductive because then you have to start from the bottom again.

  5. Hit the nail on the head (or me on the head at least).

    My first foray into the depths of computer gaming was with Ultima 7 black gate. First off you had to pretty much customize dos to be able to run this thing (some extended RAM mode). Secondly the cheat mode was a thing of wonder. You could practically redefine the world. I honestly believe that it was this experience that pushed me into computer programming and mathematics. Even now, finishing my masters, I still play ultima 7 from time to time with exult [] (a wonderful ultima 7 emulator).

  6. Oh, man, this brings back memories. There was a game called “Bolo” for the Apple ][e — I loved that game (a tank-with-robots-in-a-maze game) but I don’t have the patience to get terribly good with games.

    So I dumped the hex and disassembled it and learned a *lot* about 6502 assembler and how the graphics worked on the Apple. And I could beat the game easily after I made myself invincible.

    It was confusing when I made myself able to go through walls, though, because then I could leave the grid entirely and (apparently) wander through the core memory until I ran over the program code and crashed the system.

  7. I agree with #5, as I think #8 has proved the similarity between programmers and cheaters. Back when I had Bolo on my Classic II and didn’t have anyone to play against, I spent my time digging around inside Bolo with ResEdit. That was the tool I had at the time, and the only tool I knew about. Had I known about programming languages and compilers and whatnot, I probably would have built my own tools using those tools.

    Also, I do think we all need to become programmers to a certain extent. For one, kids should be learning C in sixth grade.

    We should learn as many programming languages as possible. We should know how to build cars. We should absolutely know how to build houses. I come from a town where people often build their own houses. The knowledge of the house programming language enables us to understand just how poorly coded the recently appearing “McMansions” really are.

    So it is important to be not just a programmer of one sort, but proficient in many toolsets. With the knowledge of tools outside your primary realm, you can question the efficacy of your realm’s standard tools in comparison with all other tools.

    But all of that metaphor doesn’t really mean a whole lot. It’s nice to think of how well we’d all end up if everyone were inquisitive and skillful.

    The truth of the matter seems to be that most people don’t want to program. They want to play. At life. They play, and then they lose. At life.

  8. Apuesto: I agree, and house building is a great metaphor to illustrate your point about needing to learn many languages.

    Whatever language you learn housebuilding in, there will be rules that you understand, that other builders do not follow, whether it’s the way the doorhandle rotates, the hot faucet being on the “wrong side”, the light switches being upside down, lack of reinforcing in the concrete, use of the “wrong” materials, and so on, But you’ll all be using a “building” language. If someone wants a tent, or a cave, or a mobile home, you would be inefficient help to them, unless you also had experience in those languages too.

    Modding games is the best thing you can do to them, if you ask me. Playing Morrowind, I was bored. I had explored the length and breadth of the world, and it had no life in it. Then I installed Children of Morrowind. Suddenly, it was filled with life! The difference is indescribable, but huge: the game was suddenly not just playable to me again, but it had spirit and life I’d never before seen in a game. At that point I became a Mod convert, and (despite hating the ObKids Hollywood sticks in movies!) I also became a children-in-games convert.

    Now there’s a team just started up trying to do the same with Oblivion, over on – I’m hoping they manage to do just as awesome a job.

  9. Great article.

    We don’t all have to be programmers, but us mere ‘writers’ GREATLY appreciate it when programmers build customization into their apps.

    The ability to assign a shortcut key to a certain task/macro or re-arrange a menu to suit the user’s whim or change a skin gives us a sense of ownership in the product…and why shouldn’t it? We paid for the right to use the software. It isn’t really programming, but it does give a user a sense of satisfaction when we can stamp our personal brand onto the product.

  10. I have to take some issue with the simplification of cheaters here. I guess any time you’re making a tripartite slice of humanity, things get fuzzy on the edges, but cheating is more than just viewing the game from an extreme but pre-programmed angle. In the old days, when cheats consisted of opening ludicrous powers or instant wins, the trajectory of the game was simplified but easy to understand; the mystery was only how much fun you could possibly have holding down the b button and forward.

    But now, now we have beautiful cheats, cheats without a necessary purpose, cheats which don’t make the game any easier to play but make exploring the edges of the technology, the gaps in the programming lie. I remember finding pointless accidental tunnels in on old SNES RPGS, beautiful little getaways in a scripted organized mechanical storylines.

    Now, the fun to be found in open-world games with jetpacks and jumping cheats to explore the nooks and crannies in skyscrapers, trying to see interactions, between images, between characters, between different programmed responses, that to me is the best part. And it’s all brought to me by cheat codes.

  11. Interesting.
    Seems like in order to nerf the bad connotations of cheating you’ve just made it the logical half step between audience and creator.

    Personally I’m skeptical about the assumption here that we are born as audience and evolve into creators – for two reasons.

    1. I don’t agree that audience/viewer/listener is a degenerate or necessarily lesser thing than creator/author/performer. Take the case of the critic – an excellent lifetime consumer, an expert audience member. There is no need for Elvis Mitchell to ever make a movie to make an amazing contribution to culture.

    2. Kids don’t sit and listen as a default status. I think the whole communication and culture creation skill set is present from day 1 and develop organically together.

  12. >While I mourn the devolution of computer classes in high school from a chance to learn Fortran to a chance to learn Excel

    I wholeheartedly agree with this- in the UK, it took me until college to get somebody to teach me to program, or show me around the insides of a computer- and even then we were programming Pascal. Worse, is this was only eight years ago.

    PE isn’t used to teach kids how to walk- it’s used to teach them how to use their body’s functions to play sports. English lessons aren’t used to teach kids to read, but to appreciate the English language and mould it into our own forms. So why are IT lessons just about typing?

  13. When I get frustrated with a video game, I go to and follow the instructions to play past the point where I got stuck. Where does this fall in the play/cheat/create scheme?

  14. This is reminding me of Tim Etchells’ book ‘The Broken World’ which is a novel written entirely in the form of a walkthrough for that fictional eponymous game, but with continuous asides about the ‘real time’ life of the player writing the guide. The safety that the protagonist finds in the knowable parts of the game compared to his increasingly unmanageable life is an important aspect of the common condition most of us experience as habitual ‘end users’ of environments and activities we mostly inherit and can feel powerless in shaping. Faced with that, there are those who want to play at a safe plateau – find an existing ‘beatable’ level and play it again and again.

  15. Mr. Rushkoff wrote: “Before literacy, we were mere listeners. We heard stories read to us as a group. After the printing press, we were elevating to individuals, each with our own, acknowledged perspective on what we read.”

    If anything, the opposite might be true: back when the only way to propagate information was to copy it by hand, it was standard practice to add commentary to the margins of the document. This could include clarifications or even personal reflections. One sees this in Western monastic manuscripts as well as Chinese brush paintings (where standard practice was to indicate receipt of the painting by marking it with one’s personal stamp, and then perhaps write one’s thoughts on the piece in the margin).

    In contrast, the printing press (and the Reformation in some sense) gave people the idea of a book as an official, received text. Written comments have a lesser status than the printed text. For example, if one buys a used textbook at a college bookstore, one generally hopes that it hasn’t been written on much. Before the printing press, the commentary could often be equally or more valuable than the main text itself.


    …and blog comments are seen as less important than blogs. You may be onto something here.

    Personally, I love heavily annotated books: they add another layer onto a story: a layer of explanation, or of mystery. Why did the anonymous previous reader underline *that* passage? What made it stand out, for them?

    The only books I’ve been able to bring myself to annotate have been my collection of Dan Browns, though: his pseudofacts practically beg the reader to correct them.

  17. From Angela Nesci….As a teenager, this absolutely describes my friends and I! It’s tottaly me! And I have reprogrammed a game before. But the latest is to try and cheat with an mmorpg(massive multiplayer online role playing game. This seems starnge, but cheating is addicting. I cheat on games I dont even like. Time Management, Online, Even Simulations(and virtual villagers) But cheating IS wrong, because it takes the fun away. Unless its an impossibly hard game, like Legend of Zelda.

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