Hacking Is The New Cheat

It's no secret that gamers love cheating -- why else do you think developers built cheat codes into early games that granted extra lives, crazy weapons, or vast quantities of in-game currency? But in the modern era of gaming where everything is networked, where patches constantly update a game's security level, and cheat codes come printed in a game's manual, entering a series of button presses into a game pad has lost its deviant appeal. To get that heady feeling the Konami Code used to give us as kids, to really feel "in control" the way 30 extra lives used to make us feel, we have to find new ways to get ahead -- new ways to be devious.

I get my deviant fix through obsessive and compulsive exploration and experimentation. I want to see things most gamers never see, I want to know a game sometimes better than its own producer does. I also love to manipulate a game's design features in a way that produces abnormal results -- it makes me feel superior to average gamers and even to the game creators. Example: I spent three weeks in Sims 2 trying to get around the game's "no incest" programming and eventually succeeded in marrying a grandson to his bastard half-aunt. It served no real purpose -- I just wanted to see if I could do it.

But I'm "vanilla" even by my own definition -- I would never use the "BewareOblivionIsAtHand" cheat in Turok 2 on my Nintendo 64 because it felt too much like cheating. I still sometimes feel guilty using the "motherlode" cheat in Sims 3 because some part of me says I should earn the in-game currency. I've never actually jailbroken an iPhone or modded a console -- not only because I'm lazy but also because I'm not really that deviant when it comes to non-sexual exploits.

Not everyone is as much a goody two-shoes as me, however. While editing a PlayStation: The Official Magazine cheats special a couple of years ago, I discovered that the majority of what my audience wanted to read went beyond neat in-game tricks and Trophy walkthroughs -- they wanted to know how to hack. How to crack open their console and change its hardware, or access an obscure menu set to confuse Hulu into streaming on PS3s. Basically, PS3 owners wanted to feel as in control of their console as I feel of my Sims' sexual lives.

So it's no surprise to me that last week, hackers George "Geohot" Hotz and someone called fail0verflow hacked the PlayStation 3 and exposed Sony's private software keys to the public. The two claim that all they wanted to do was bring back OtherOS (which Sony disabled on PS3s via firmware update last April), but regardless of their motives, it sure seemed to be a surprise to Sony -- and a nasty one, at that. In addition to slapping both hackers with a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) lawsuitthis week, Sony also wants to shut down any site offering the keys, seize any computing technology responsible in creating the hack, and sue Geohot for extortion because he asked Sony to hire him after he hacked the PS3 the first time.

I see why Sony's worried -- that hack puts the PS3 at a severe risk of piracy because anyone with the keys can run anything they want on it. But I think Sony has misunderstood its audience and it has no one to blame but itself for the loss of security. At first, Sony seemed to remember that we're the type of people who liked having cheats built into our games because we've got a deviant streak -- why else was OtherOS built into the PS3 to begin with? But in the four years since the PS3's release, Sony somehow confused cheating with stealing; assuming that anybody who wants to be deviant is automatically a software pirate.

That's just not true -- and a lot of other people know that. Microsoft doesn't go after all the Kinect hackers, and hasn't taken any legal action against the alleged 1 million Xbox Live users banned for running pirated games. Nintendo only goes after people who actually pirate software and after distributors of R4 Cards (which are almost exclusively used for piracy) -- not after proclaimed Wii hackers*. The United States Government also gets the distinction between a hacking something to satisfy your own nature and a thief out to pirate software for profit, recently deciding to extended Fair Use Doctrine protection to jailbroken iPhones.

This is where the Geohot/fail0verflow saga gets interesting. If the case goes to court, the recent Fair Use jailbreaking decision could extend to PS3 if the two hackers can suggest that what they did was Fair Use. Already, an existing class action lawsuit paints Sony as company so scared of hypothetical piracy that they ripped off honest customers who bought the PS3 thinking they could run Linux via OtherOS because it was listed as a console feature. And a professor at Carnegie Mellon University is running a mirror of Geohot's jailbreak files on the university's servers openly criticizing Sony's decision to sue the hackers as a threat to free speech.

Even if Sony does somehow win an injunction and both Geohot and fail0verflow settle out of court, the company has to know that this isn't the end of it. It's in our nature to cheat and cheating has evolved into hacking. If they cannot build a console that satisfies that side of our nature by design -- and I'd argue the PS3 did when it still ran OtherOS -- then Sony's better off investing in an army of PlayStation Network moderators to start banning people. Because if there's a way to cheat, a way to hack, any way to feel like you're one step ahead of someone else because you know your console better than them, gamers will find it. It's just how we're wired.

*Yeah, I know -- who'd hack the Wii?

This article was originally posted on GamePro and can be viewed here

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