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Poster: The Effect of Cheating on Player Engagement in Video Games

Keenan, Andy, Humanities Computing, University of Alberta,


Creating an engaging video game requires the appropriate balance between challenge and reward for players. This balance is known as “difficulty”. Currently, difficulty is created, designed, and managed by video game developers. Difficulty is controlled by fundamental design decisions. For example, in Super Mario Brothers (NES 1986), Mario has a specific number of lives. When Mario loses those lives by making mistakes, the game is over. The difficulty of Super Mario Brothers is progressing through the levels without losing lives. The game balances the challenge of limited lives with the reward of completion. If Super Mario Brothers failed to find the right difficulty, the game would be either too frustrating or too easy. Finding the appropriate level of difficulty for the largest number of players is an important design decision made by video game developers.

The purpose of this project is to explore player-controlled approaches to difficulty in video games. This project repositions the existing power relationship between player and developer, where the developer decides the difficulty. Based on my previous research, I will be analyzing how cheating allows players to manipulate difficulty and change the relationship between player and developer. Cheating enables players to alter game difficulty, enabling players to find their own balance between challenge and reward. This project will provide design recommendations for the video game industry to re-imagine the relationship between video game player and video game developer, empowering the player to determine the rules of their game play experience.


Johan Huizinga argues that play creates a space apart from normal life. He referred to this space as the magic circle. While in play, players are subject to a special set of rules. Play is dependent on these rules. Participating in play requires all players to enter into the magic circle and abide by its rules. The stability of the game depends on its rules: “[if] the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses. The game is over” (Huizinga 1950, p3). Huizinga’s magic circle requires a second examination in regards to video games. Allowing players to manipulate the rules alters the power relationship between developers and players, which could enable players to create more engaging experiences.

Several academic studies have attempted to determine what makes games engaging. Cognitive research in video games suggests that game developers must adjust cognitive difficulty requiring players to change their cognitive model to succeed. This will keep players engaged by challenging their cognitive process (Graham, Zheng & Gonzalez 2006). Other studies found that players require realistic worlds, intuitive controls, character customization, exploration, and unpredictability (Wood, Griffiths, Chappell & Davies 2004). A player-feedback study suggests that a combination of different intensities of challenge, combining “hard fun” (complex strategy, difficult challenges, and powerful enemies) and “easy fun” (exploration, simple puzzles, and novel experience) creates an ideal experience (Lazarro 2004). Yet another study argues for the importance of goal-oriented play with few negative consequences (Provenzo 1991). More abstractly, play must be internally motivated, simultaneously transcend and reflect reality, focus on the process over the result, and provide safe yet unpredictable experience (Stagnitti 2004). There is a gap in the current literature exploring the impact of cheating on engagement.


This presentation explores the relationship between cheating and engagement in video games. Recent innovations in video game design allow players to manipulate game difficulty through time manipulation, an activity once considered cheating. These time manipulation games serve as a case-study to examine cheating and the effect on player engagement. Manipulating time allows players to control difficulty and find an iterative balance between challenge and reward. Players can also create emergent game play types by deciding what constitutes a meaningful “beat” of play.


Using a mixed methods approach, I combined a heuristic inquiry of games that allow time manipulation with Foucauldian discourse analysis. I examined the practice of time manipulation in several console video games including Forza Motorsport 3 (Microsoft 2009); Braid (Microsoft 2008); Skate (Electronic Arts 2007), Skate 2 (Electronic Arts 2009); World of Goo (2D Boy 2008); Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (Ubisoft 2003); Demon’s Souls (Sony 2009); and Madden 09 (Electronic Arts 2008). Heuristic inquiry is a qualitative research approach concerned directly with human knowing and self-inquiry. This method “is aimed at discovering the nature and meaning of an experience” (Hiles 2008, p389). This is a departure from mainstream research “in that it explicitly acknowledges the involvement of the researcher to the extent that the lived experience of the researcher becomes the main focus of the research” (ibid). Based on my experiences with these games, I conducted a Foucauldian discourse analysis focusing on player engagement and player empowerment. I analyzed how activities once considered cheating altered the player’s relationship to the game.


I discovered that player-determined difficulty effected by level of engagement with the games. By controlling the game’s difficulty through its interface, the level of engagement was increased. Manipulating time allows players to learn iteratively and manage their level of challenge in the game experience. As an interface feature, manipulating time encouraged the “flow” state: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of optimal experience. Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990) describes flow as being completely involved in an activity. Reducing frustration and allowing players to control their experience by rewinding time creates this flow state in video games.


2008 Braid, Number None: Microsoft

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990 Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper and Row New York

2009 Demon’s Souls, Atlus: Sony

2009 Forza Motorsport 3, Turn 9: Microsoft

Foucault, Michel 1972 The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. (A. Sheridan, Trans.), Pantheon New York

Graham, J., Zheng, L., and Gonzalez, C. 2006 “A Cognitive Approach to Game Usability and Design: Mental Model Development in Novice Real-Time Strategy Gamers, ” CyberPsychology & Behaviour, Volume 9, Issue 3 361-366

Hiles, David 2008 “Heuristic Inquiry, ” The Sage Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods, Lisa Given Sage Los Angeles 389-392

Huizinga, Johan 1950 Homo ludens: A study of the play element in culture, Beacon Press Boston

Lazzaro, N. 2004 Why We Play Games: Four Keys to More Emotion Without Story. Player Experience Research and Design for Mass Market Interactive Entertainment, XEODesign Inc.. Oakland, CA

2008 Madden 09, EA Tiburon: Electronic Arts

2003 Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Ubisoft Montreal: Ubisoft

Provenzo, E. F. 1991 Video kids: Making sense of Nintendo, Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA

2007 Skate, EA Black Box: Electronic Arts

1986 Super Mario Brothers, Nintendo: Nintendo Entertainment

Stagnitti, K. 2004 “Understanding play: The implications for play assessment, ” Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, Volume 51, Issue 1 3-12

Wood, R., Griffiths, M., Chappell, D., and Davies, M. 2004 “The Structural Characteristics of Video Games: A Psycho-Structural Analysis, ” CyberPsychology & Behaviour, Volume 7, Issue 1 1-10

2008 World of Goo, 2D Boy: 2D Boy