Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, B, A

Remember when cheating at video games was harmless fun? Meet the racketeers, rapists, and hustlers of today’s online gaming.

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.

Naturally, players were soon demanding hidden content, and game companies obliged them. Insider magazines like Nintendo Power and Electronic Gaming Monthly emerged, offering playing techniques and tips, but also cheats. They spawned their own booming satellite industry of cheat purveyors: strategy guides and Web sites that unearth and distribute new ways to game the games.

The cheating question got a bit knottier with the introduction of devices like the Game Genie, a piece of hardware that let players, say, make Mario immortal. Introduced by Galoob in 1991, the Game Genie allowed you to cook up your own cheats. Nintendo tried to keep the product off the market, arguing that altering the code of its games amounted to copyright violation. Most gamers, however, saw nothing wrong with the device, whose descendants are still popular. You were still only cheating a game. You weren’t taking advantage of anyone else.

When gameplay becomes a social contract, however, everything changes. This, of course, happened long before the advent of today’s online games. To be successful at NHL ‘93, the hockey game to beat all others, you had to learn “The Move,” a deke that worked on the opposing goalie just about every time. The Move was essentially a glitch in the game’s programming—you either banned it and played against your friends the way the designers intended, or you endorsed it and made the contests about seeing who could execute the move most effectively and most often. But only a hustler—or a real jerk—would use The Move on an unsuspecting noob.

The social contract gets a lot more complicated once your opponent is no longer the buddy sitting next to you but rather a few hundred thousand people around the globe—all of whom have invested time and money in the game. Cheaters who exploit glitches in online economies can affect the real-life bank accounts of other players. “When there’s money to be made—and there’s certainly money to be made playing online games—cheaters come out of the woodwork,” write cyber-security experts Greg Hoglund and Gary McGraw in their new book about cheating in online games. The result is a “virtual arms race” between the cheaters and the game companies that crack down on them.

The cheaters, for the moment, seem to have the upper hand. Scam artists now write their own code for online games, whether it’s to gain an edge in a Counter-Strike gunfight (with an “aimbot” that makes targeting a cinch) or to bilk other players out of virtual goods. Although code manipulation hearkens back to the Game Genie (and many games owe some of their success to players introducing third-party tools and mods), malefactors in online worlds are no longer just goosing the longevity of Italian plumbers. They are victimizing other players. Recent reports have identified rapists in Second Life and racketeers in Eve Online. In Lineage, the wildly popular South Korean multiplayer, criminal gangs muscle protection money out of new players. The extortion is so widespread that the government’s cybercrime division now monitors it.

We’re a long way from Contra. But what to do about it? Mia Consalvo, a professor at Ohio University and the author of a recent book on cheating in video games, believes that gamers need to work it out for themselves, determining the boundaries of acceptable play and ways to punish transgressors. Players might shame cheaters, report them to administrators, or blacklist them from war parties. Or even resort to more drastic measures. Some gamers in World of Warcraft have turned vigilante, hunting down and slaughtering gold farmers.

In Consalvo’s vision, the once impish, cheat-happy gamer must now play the role of hall monitor. But it may ultimately be up to the programmers—the ones who introduced cheating to gaming in the first place—to find ways to protect gamers from the thugs who have finally taken that tradition too far. Surely the guys who found a way to sneak the Konami code onto an NES cartridge can think of a way to keep bespectacled villains off the servers of World of Warcraft.