Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Online Poker Cheat Device Texas Hold ‘Em "Cheat 'Em" Gets Wall Street Journal Coverage

Normally, playing “five-of-a-kind” in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em would be grounds for a Vegas pit boss to escort you from the premises. (It’s impossible as there are only four of a given class of card in a deck.) But in “Texas Cheat ‘Em,” that dishonest hand is only proof that you’re doing it right.

Developed by Wideload Games, “Cheat ‘Em” is a twist on the traditional rules of Texas Hold ‘Em as players automatically get a spate of add-ons to spoil their opponents intentions. This includes seeing what cards are coming next, changing other player’s hands, and even stealing chips from your rivals across the table. The cheats are enough to turn even novice players like me into competitive poker studs. I was able to best some of the makers of the game during a demo in a conference room in West Los Angeles.

“Cheat ‘Em” stemmed from the development team’s conversations about real-life games of poker in their Chicago offices. They watched gambling movies like “21,” among other things, to develop “the zeitgeist of cheating,” says the game’s director Scott Corley. Adding new cheats was easy to do, taking only 20 minutes to program in, and then the team played each other to figure which cheats were a little too unfair.

But is it really cheating at all if everyone can do it? Perhaps if one person could peek at another player’s hand that would create inequity, but when everyone can do it, than it’s just a matter of playing the game. “Most people agree that cheating gives you an unfair advantage,” says Mia Consalvo, associate professor of telecommunications at Ohio State University. “With this game, how would it give you an unfair advantage if the developers built it that way?”

In a sense, “Cheat ‘Em” is just a new way to play poker with its own rules and strategies, albeit ones different from those in Las Vegas. What’s interesting is how the introduction of cheating into a game environment changes the previous norms for talent. That means that within this new rule structure, even one in which players “cheat,” there will be advantages and disadvantages to certain styles of gameplay. I was tipped off to one method by one of the game’s producers – I could freeze the cards that appeared in the “community,” the cards the dealer plays that are available for all to use, and then replicate them with future cheats. This method would allow me to reproduce multiple pairs at will, transforming my two pairs to a full house or three of a kind. And suddenly a lawless game looks a little bit more organized after all. “There are strategies to use within the game,” says Mr. Corley. “There are things that you wouldn’t think you’d be able to do.”

Of course, everyone else is cheating as well and so I found myself often thwarted by other players’ more devious tactics. The game takes on a bit of the feel of “Calvinball,” the nonsensical game developed by the child protagonist from Bill Watterson’s popular comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes.” “The only permanent rule in Calvinball is that you can’t play it the same way twice,” Calvin announces.

Cheating is one the new developing areas of study by academics who are interested in why and how players cheat. Ms. Consalvo says there’s a sliding scale to cheating, according to the research she finished for her book “Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames.” There are the purists that argue that no one should try to deliberately take advantage while others see pragmatic uses in cheating to overcome difficult parts of a game.

The latter was certainly my experience during my first encounter as a child with the “Konami code.” Early Nintendo games could be brutally difficult, and “Contra,” a 1988 side-scrolling action game from Japanese developer Konami, was certainly no exception. The game only gave you three lives (and three “continues” to start over) to attempt to complete the game--a pittance given its exacting requirements. But on the playground at my grade school, a fellow sufferer shared a tip – if I pushed in a certain button combination during the game’s initial screen, I would instantly get 30 lives in place of my previous triad. The information felt sacrosanct as if I was part of some resistance movement to secretly thwart the maker of Contra’s intentions.

The reality is far less clandestine. “The great misconception about cheating is that it’s some sort of deviant act,” says Liel Leibovitz a videogame scholar who finished his Ph.D dissertation for Columbia University on the topic. Because videogames are pieces of software bound by explicit directions of their programmers, cheats are usually intentional. Sometimes, however, programmers accidentally leave loopholes open and players find ways to exploit them., for example, has dozens of tactics players can use to bend the rules in games like “Gears of War 2” and “Fallout 3.”

But Mr. Leibovitz notes that videogames are just algorithms – bundles of “if/then” propositions that dictate what should and shouldn’t happen in a game. Even unintended uses of the games aren’t “cheating” per se, just imaginative workarounds of the rules that videogame designers put in place. It’s less like alchemy and more like metallurgy. “The genius and difficulty of videogame design is that you really follow a tight script while feeling like the decisions you’re making are your own,” says Mr. Leibovitz. “You should feel free will.”

Even the legendary “Konami Code” is hardly theurgical despite my childhood beliefs. It was designed by the programmers to test “Contra” without being constrained by the paltry three life requirement.

But my childhood interest in cheating echoed something very important. “Far from being a deviant phenomenon in video games, cheating is, in fact, very much of an essential feature,” Mr. Leibovitz wrote in 2007. In fact, cheating represents a much deeper type of experience with the game. Rather than accept the rules as given, cheaters look for ways to subvert them and in the process, develop a closer relationship with their hosts. Cheaters are interested in testing the boundaries of the games they love and that takes, more than anything, lots of time and effort.

“We should think about it as ‘getting the game.’ Cheating becomes a type of appreciation,” Mr. Mr. Leibovitz says. “You feel like maybe you’re not just a passenger [when you cheat], maybe you could drive just a little bit.”