Are Cheat Hackers Ruining Online Gaming for Us All?

A recent bust in China shows how widespread online game cheats have become in esports.
Marcia Wendorf
Online gamingCasarsaGuru/iStock

COVID has forced us into our homes, and people who have never played online computer games before are suddenly spending hours in front of their computers.

Esports has become a billion-dollar business, with millions of dollars up for grabs in gaming tournaments. All this has enhanced the pressure on players to win like never before, and this has spawned the creation of "e-cheats".

A history of cheating

Cheating at games is nothing new. Archaeologists have unearthed "trick" coins made by the ancient Romans which had been cut in half, then a piece of iron was inserted to shift the balance of the coin. Loaded ancient Roman dice have also been found.

Ancient Roman die
Ancient Roman dice. Source: Wikiwand

During the height of arcade game popularity during the 1980s, players would unbalance arcade game consoles, allowing them to rack up game-high scores. In the early days of video games in the 1990s, so-called "cheat codes" consisting of strings of letters or numbers gave players access to in-game money, resources, or extra lives.

Perhaps most famous was the Konami Code that appeared in many Konami video games of the period. It consisted of pressing the following series of keystrokes:

Konami cheat code
Konami cheat code. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The biggest video game cheat

In today's Massively Multiplayer Online Games or MMOGs, cheats are widespread across lots of first-person shooter games. This past week, Chinese authorities busted what they are calling the biggest ever video game cheat operation.

The group, calling itself "Chicken Drumstick", had its own website, which sold its cheat software to buyers in hundreds of countries and regions. According to a BBC article, Chinese police, with assistance from the world's largest video game vendor Tencent, arrested 10 gang members and seized assets valued at $46 million, along with a garage filled with luxury vehicles.

The gang, operating out of the city of Kunshan, reportedly raked in $76 million from subscription fees of up to $10 a day or $200 a month from clients who wanted to cheat their way to the top of games such as Overwatch and Call of Duty Mobile.

In 2018, Chinese authorities, again working with Tencent, which had released Game Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, or PUBG in China, arrested 135 people who had created cheats for the game. Those hackers were also fined $5.1 million.

Types of cheats

The types of cheats that are being sold include "aimbots", which vastly improve a player's shooting by, in some cases, making opponents' heads bigger, which makes kill shots easier. Other cheats are "wall hacks", which allow players to see the locations of their opponents, even through opaque objects such as walls, floors, and ceilings. Wall hacks can also help identify the locations of treasures.

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Additional cheats include "lag switching", which allows players to stutter around a game's map and become very difficult to hit. Other cheats allow players to hide their avatars during gameplay, emerging only at the end and thus winning by default. While some cheats allow players to heal their avatars over and over again.

Players have begun raising the alarm about cheaters in popular games such as Warzone and Fortnite. Just last month, the BBC reported that well-known gamer Vikkstar had quit playing Warzone, claiming that it is "saturated with hackers."

Warzone is played by more than 50 million people worldwide, and the game's publisher, Activision, has previously said that it has zero tolerance for cheaters. Vikstar, whose real name is Vikram Singh Barn, has over seven million subscribers on his YouTube channel. In a recent tweet, Barn described a hacker who was live-streaming their cheating on Facebook at the same time that they were playing the game, saying, "We just happened to catch these guys in it but often you don’t even know when people are doing what we have just witnessed."

In January 2021, another well-known gamer, NickMercs whose real name is Nick Kolcheff, announced that he would no longer take part in Call of Duty tournaments due to cheating. Kolcheff said, "There are all kinds of hacks… there's no pride in [playing tournaments] anymore."

Cheats are increasingly being sold on chat forums and on encrypted websites. Cheats can even be found on sites such as Instagram and Discord by searching for terms such as "hackhelp" and "helpfulhacks". Discord, which is a digital distribution platform, allows users to share media and files via voice, video, text messaging, or private chats.

Game developers fight back

Fighting cheats keeps game developers from being able to improve their games or add additional levels. In recent weeks, the developers behind Call of Duty: Warzone, PUBG, and Destiny 2 have all announced big pushes to respond to cheating. The BBC reported that Warzone publisher Activision recently announced plans to bring Warzone into its professional esports Call of Duty League. However, players are calling on the company to implement anti-cheat technologies.

Louise Shorthouse, senior analyst at Ampere Analysis told the publication, "Without addressing the cheating problem, its success and reputation as an e-sport will undoubtedly suffer." To date, Activision has banned over 70,000 Warzone accounts for cheating.

Famous cheats

Probably the most famous example of cheating in a game occurred in 2019 when YouTube esports star FaZe Jarvis was given a lifetime ban by Epic Games for cheating in the game Fortnite.

Jarvis posted a tearful apology to YouTube for using an aimbot, and that video has garnered a staggering 21 million views. For its part, Epic Games said "We have a zero-tolerance policy for the usage of cheat software. When people use aimbots or other cheat technologies to gain an unfair advantage, they ruin games for people who are playing fairly."

PUBG, has banned players of its mobile version for up to ten years for cheating, while players on the PC or console versions have received bans of indefinite length. Some players have even been hardware banned, which stops them from playing on their computers or consoles.

According to the website The Loadout, as of October 2018, over 13 million PUBG accounts had been banned. By the end of 2019, PUBG Corp. confirmed it was banning around 100,000 accounts per week.

If video game developer and publisher Valve detects you cheating on PUBG, you'll receive a Valve Anti-Cheat (VAC) ban, which will block you from playing any games on your Steam account.

More ominously still, Activision just released a report on cheating in its widely popular game Call of Duty: Warzone which described how cheats that are promising infinite ammunition, extra speed, and improved targeting were actually malicious programs designed to take over a computer's camera or microphone, record keystrokes, or steal banking information.

In 2018, the avatar of a 7-year-old girl who was playing a game on children's site Roblox was virtually gang-raped on a playground within the game. Luckily, her mother was nearby at the time, and she removed the device before the child could see what was happening.

The mother took screenshots, and she alerted Roblox who banned the person responsible for life. The company also put additional safeguards in place, however, the incident raised questions as to whether kids should be playing MMGOs in the first place.

The future of cheats

What is clear is that the staggering amount of money Chicken Drumstick was able to make will encourage others who want to make cheats. As long as people want to stand on top of a leaderboard or have their name appear in the top 500 lists, the desire for cheats will continue.

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