What The 5 Most Used Video Game Cheating Terms Actually Mean?

What are glitches, hacks, exploits and Mods? Are they even cheating?
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Welcome To The Game provided a rare insight into Ethical Hacking, but games as a whole are rarely blessed with that interpretation...

Even if you aren’t swimming voluntarily into the deep dark waters of competitive videogames you’d be hard-pressed nowadays to avoid news of prize pools, tournaments, world records, and the like. With gaming as a whole only ever-growing this past decade it is no surprise it has become industrialized. But where there’s cash to be won or glory to be reaped there will be people willing to go to immoral lengths to get their own piece of the action.

Enter: Videogame cheating. That’s the traditional view, anyhow. I’m here to split hairs and make sure that “Cheating” isn’t some umbrella term people throw at anyone so much as pressing the wrong button at the wrong time in a game. Between Hacks, Mods, Exploits, and Glitches there is a huge range of what people often call “Cheating” and not all of it is all that harmful.

In fact, there are whole sports based around exploits, and yet hacking in them is still cheating! So let’s understand how such a thing is possible, for one to be accepted and one to be ban-worthy. Each term will have plenty of real examples to really demonstrate how these cheats behave. Let’s start with the easiest to grapple, and worst offender…hacking.

What is Video-game Hacking?

The term hacking was first used in the 1960s when editing train sets was called Hacking and this passed to Computing (Almost as if the two hobbies attract similar audiences)

Hacking a videogame involves using 3rd Party tools or manually editing code to force a system to behave differently. In Videogames this is especially prevalent in changing how health or damage or currency works in the game. Hacking can also be a way of gaining access to systems you are not meant to, both inside and outside video games.

Examples of hacking include Stealing Accounts, Bank Fraud, Aimbots, Wall-hacks, Account Ransoms.

How does hacking affect a game?

More and more hacking is used as a default term when in fact, as I hope will be clear here, it is just as specific as any other term. This has caused some overlap in the usage of these terms, and admittedly it is easy to fall into the habit of calling those malicious kill-joys that ruin your games “hackers”.

Most hacking nowadays refers to things like Aimbots, Wall-hacks, or other such tools. The best way to understand these is to see it in action on a Killcam (a recording the game provides when you die in a game) in a game like Call of Duty or Overwatch, but thankfully there are also recordings out there for us to use. From the Call of Duty Warzone scene, no less.

Warzone: Finding hacked gameplay that shows players appearing through walls. Like the man said, "That's ridiculous".

Not only does this demonstrate how the tool works, an external tool to the game running on the computer and creating the insanity you see above, but also it demonstrates how such a tool is dangerously close to real crime. In fact, when Esports pools have risen to around $250,000, the push for harsher legal action against hacking has only grown.

The player in the clip above even had their stat board exposed and as you can see, this sort of thing isn’t shut down the moment it happens. While hacking the game gives them these insane ratings, hackers are also normally self-aware enough to “toggle” their hacks on or off to avoid suspicion.

A Screenshot of a Hacker's Statistics
The hacker's stat block showing how long this con was.

A recent example in a competitive scene is the Speedrunner Dream, who finally admitted to cheating (Using a hack) in their record Minecraft Speedruns. They improved drop rates for certain items, thus editing the game in a way that gives them an advantage over all the other runners. Speedrunning involves breaking the game through exploits (more on those soon) but hacking drop rates of the core game in this way is still a step too far. Not even the people breaking games for a living want anything to do with hacks.

Hacking can take any form similar to this. Seeing through walls, instantly targeting enemies, having unlimited healing, etc. But other genres suffer from the hacking blight too just in a slightly different iteration. The kind of hacking you might be more familiar with from outside of gaming…

Illegal Hacking and Fraud

We’ve all had those calls. The phone rings, it’s a number you don’t recognize but it isn’t withheld or international. Your answer to see if it’s that job you applied for or an office number or some such and within a few seconds the phone is hung up. All the caller needed was to confirm your phone number was “active”. Now they can tick that box, they hang up, and move on.

This sort of information gathering and basic interfering is a key part of the wider hacking community. A hacker may acquire information about an account or IP address very slowly, or sit on all that information for a good while before striking (Similar to how we saw in Call of Duty).

Just like in the real world, hackers in games acquire more and more information before striking. In MMO’s like Runescape or World of Warcraft, the most common form is account stealing. Hackers will break into your account, often selling or transferring items or holding them to ransom, or selling the account to others. Some knaves (Hackers for Runescape should definitely be called Knaves) even steal accounts to then use more egregious hacks than they are comfortable using on their “own” accounts. Systems are in place to close such accounts similar to how you might hurriedly call your bank and cancel your card in a fraud case. However, this doesn’t stop the acts from being possible in the first place.

The danger of Video Game Hacks

Hackers who use this real-world aspect of MMOs to gain both in-game rewards *and* real-world pay-outs too are some of the worst breeds of hackers. While some cheaters hack simply to wipe the floor with a game or feel superior, these hackers are in it as a business model.

There’s a reason that when I search for information on hacking, no matter how negative you make that search, the first results on google are sites selling hacks and subscriptions for cheats. No wonder children playing Fortnite are lured into thinking buying this software is acceptable.

Video game hacks can have a detrimental effect on someone's life by implicating them to the authorities. Websites that sell video game hacks are freely accessible and even pushed to the top of Google as Ads, which means hacking sites are manipulating people into their subscriptions and plans. It is never safe to purchase anything from one of these sites.

A Screenshot of the results showing Hacking Ads
Shameless: Google pushes my ads to be manipulated into spending money on literal crime

Hacks operate on a level that glitches and exploits simply don’t, and that’s what makes the term really worth knowing. If you hear that someone is hacking or has been hacked that should trigger a bigger response than “oh someone cheated that sucks”. The implications and slippery slope to legitimate crime are too severe for hacking to be taken lightly especially if the victim is a child.

What are glitches in video games?

The earliest mainstream game glitch was actually in Pac-Man in the ’80s. At level 256 you would be greeted with a barrage of pixels and nonsensical artifacts and fail the level.

Glitches in a game are simply a programming error that results in an unintended effect. With regard to specifics games, the effect can be visual, audio, control, or input issue, or from any number of other disciplines. Video Game glitches are not caused by the player changing the code but instead exist within the final game itself.

If a player uses these conditions to gain an advantage, they are Exploiting the Glitch (As we will come to later)

Examples of few glitches in videos games include - The Giants of Skyrim ejecting you to the Stratosphere with their legs, a civilian in Hitman 2 spawning above water and immediately dying, or this gem from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion:

Oblivion: I feel safest when an Imperial City Guard is near.

What causes Video Game glitches?

Glitches themselves are what they sound like, the term isn’t exclusive to videogames and you’ve likely had your phone apps glitch or maybe even a system you use for work. A glitch is an anomaly in how something is meant to work, but that isn’t caused by the user tampering or damaging the game. The problem exists in the product itself.

In video games, they can range from simple physics interactions like above to full-blown game-breaking situations. Glitches, therefore, aren’t inherently cheating or even a problem in most games, as they can be reloaded around or simply laughed at and then moved on from and even “patched out” by developers in an update. With gaming being so digitally distributed now it is possible for Developers to "patch" (Update) the games to remove these code errors.

Can glitches break games?

Having looked over how Hacking brutalizes the intent of games, glitches can be compared to be far less offensive. Glitches are often small and can be removed. However, there are examples of what is called a "Game-breaking" glitch. A "Game-breaking" glitch leaves the player unable to progress the game. This could be because the player is stopped from interacting with an object, is stuck under the floor, or is otherwise unable to trigger the next part of the game.

These events are obviously detrimental to the gaming experience and I can attest to the annoyance of having to work around such a case. Just last night I was playing Torchlight 2 with my fiancé and we slowly realized my character was being instantly killed by any damage. We puzzled it out and discovered that the code of the game was telling the enemies I was Level 1.

Essentially, the enemies were hitting me as if I had 100 health when I actually had 2500. This glitch in the coding meant my character was unplayable beyond a certain point. I was happy enough to change the character and try to fix the issue, but the fact is that no one should have to go to such lengths to circumvent a programming error.

The other thing of note is that only myself and my fiancé were playing, and so there's no way for someone to use that glitch to gain some sort of advantage over us.

If the effect of a glitch isn't something a Hacker would even want to trigger, then the differences between the two speak for themselves.

What Makes Glitches a Problem?

It’s the potential hole in the Matrix, so to speak, that makes glitches an issue. Where we see a hilarious situation that we know isn’t meant to be happening, others will be testing the glitch's repeatability and consistency. If someone finds a glitch in a multiplayer map, weapon, or system used in multiplayer then they can turn that into an Exploit.

The key difference is that while glitches do cause a lot of exploits, the responsibility of a glitch existing lies with the developers. Conversely, the responsibility of an exploit generally lies in the community in the form of server rules and the culture around the game. Something being possible (the glitch existing) and something being done (a player using exploits) are very different situations.

What Are Video Game Exploits?

An Exploit existed in Asteroids (1979) whereby a player could leave a tiny rock on the screen and it would stop the spawning of more rocks, allowing the player to wait for Flying Saucers which give far more points.

Video Game exploits are a way that a player can use flaws or oversight in the game design to gain advantages over the game or other players. Video Game exploits are not caused by changing the game's code or Hacking, but simply by finding a weakness in a game's design and exploiting that weakness.

Examples of video game exploits include Cancelling animations, using items more times than intended, reloading instantly, avoiding falling damage

We talked earlier about hacking in online games like Overwatch and Warzone. It’s easy to see that as an open-closed case of moral misgiving and complete disrespect for the other players, not to mention a crime. Exploits are where things get a little more complicated, however.

Where there's a glitch, there's a potential exploit. Exploits are specific cases of unintended effects in a game that the player uses to gain some sort of advantage. For example, if you do manage to glitch through a wall or floor like in the screenshots above then you may well be able to shoot back into the map at enemies who have no idea where you are. Or maybe you discover that selling 3 items to a vendor in an RPG actually gives you the gold of 4 of those items.

Can Video Game Exploits be Accidental?

I personally managed to stumble upon an Unsellable Sword in an RPG called Outward (Fully recommend it to any couple out there that want to game together). I had a Sabre in my bag and went to the local trading caravan, but when leaving after my trade and his eager "Be seeing you, friend" I noticed the Sabre was still in my bag.

I turned and opened a trade with him: "Hello my Friend" he says. I sell the sword, I see it in his inventory, and receive my Silver. I left to his familiar "Be seeing you, friend" and lo and behold the Sabre was still in my bag! I'd technically exploited a glitch to make more money than that sword ever should have, but it was not fully intentional!

These occurrences are "natural", they are all part of the code of the game, unlike hacks or mods. The game allows you, through sometimes ridiculous means, to reach a point where you have advantages you are not meant to. It’s all in the word, “Exploit”. You can’t exploit a weakness if there isn’t one, and that is the key difference between the causes of glitches and exploits.

There are times Exploits are allowed

The best place to see Exploits in action in a safe and fun way is Speedrunning. Speedrunning involves completing a game as fast as possible, glitches and all, so showcases just how much difference an exploit can make.

A Speedrunner demonstrates how using a glitch deliberately can exploit the game, and create the confusing situation you can see on screen. The player pushes himself outside the map to make the game think he is dead. The game then lets him go anywhere. 

Here you can see a single-player exploit, used in a speedrun. The game is obviously designed to kill the player when they leave the game area, but this exploit manages to avoid that. This particular one is only being used for a Speedrun with established rules, so is pretty harmless, but imagine the damage this could have on multiplayer games if someone were malicious enough and found an exploit this game-breaking.

How Are Video Game Exploits Used Online?

Now we see how different an exploit is to a hack or mod, existing in the game as it is shipped (Or I guess nowadays, downloaded), but what about using exploits online?

Reddit showcases a group of players on the verge of winning a match but having to deal with an exploiter to win. Proof that it doesn't take cheating to beat cheaters!

This example is the holy grail of showing the seedy underbelly of exploits. Not only is the game Warzone, which we have already seen an outright hack in to compare this to, but it’s also a situation where the exploiter is foiled without any counter-exploiting. The squad in the final zone sees that the only other person alive is miles away from the gas, a zone that constantly damages you.

The only way that person could survive out there so long is to “stim-glitch” as an exploit. Essentially, they have unlimited healing. The squad used completely fair means to make their way deep into the gas and quickly eliminate the no-gooder before the gas can stop their justified revenge. This situation is one where, while anyone can technically do the exploit with no hacks needed, an exploit is shown to be completely unfair and unjustified.

Hacking is a 3rd party tool clearly cheating the game, mods can do that or can be harmless visual changes, but Exploits exist regardless of the player changing anything. In fact, some Exploits players may use and never realize!

It might not seem possible after that Warzone display but consider a far different exploit. Just like with selling my sword to Mr. "Hello my Friend" earlier. Something like a simple animation-cancel in a reload would be comparable in Warzone. This is done by starting to sprint or climb just as the reload animation is happening.

This is a simple way of reloading slightly faster than intended by interrupting the animation as soon as the ammo goes into the clip. Games generally manage to avoid this nowadays by making sure the ammo only enters the clip during the final few moments of the animation, but it’s still possible in many games.

That sort of exploit, which is in the game and could even be triggered accidentally, is clearly not in the same league as “Stim-glitch” Steve from the clip above. That’s what makes exploits much more complex than hacks, and why the differences in definition are vital.

Punishing and identifying people abusing Exploits is much harder and requires more finesse than locking away those pesky hackers. If someone uses an exploit to skip a reload animation they are technically playing by identical rules to everyone as the game is untampered with, often people argue that it's on the players who don't exploit to learn to.

It’s in this way that servers and players have their own rules on what exploits are allowed or frowned upon. But that's an article for another day, where I look into the Psychology of Cheaters. For now, let's be happy we know what makes an exploit an exploit.

What Are Video Game Mods?

1983 saw the first wave of Modders, but popularisation was Doom 1993 as it allowed Map-Making using the files of the original game.

Game Mods are a huge discipline that uses the files of a game or its engine to add to, remove from, or simply change the game. Mods are not meant to necessarily make the game better but just to create a different version of the game. Unlike a Hack, Mods are created and authored to add or alter the experience in ways that suit a huge variety of players. They are not made to ensure victory in a match, but online mods do exist.

Examples of game mods include Custom levels for Doom, new Weapons and Armours in Elder Scrolls and Fallout games, whole new campaigns, and mechanics in Dark Souls. Online mods even exist like alternate skins and animations in Star Wars Battlefront 2.

A Screenshot of the Immersive Sweetroll Mod Page
Skyrim: The real steam mod page for The Immersive Sweetroll. There is nothing to add, really.

If you ever wondered why Thomas Dimitrescu exists, that's modding. If you ever felt Skyrim wasn’t immersive enough and a single shelf in Whiterun was missing an individual sweetroll, mods are for you. If you hate that some villagers in Stardew Valley seem to disappear when you need to turn a quest into them before it expires, modders got you covered.

That final example is an embodiment of the differences between hacking and modding because in the largest update Stardew Valley received since launch, such a feature was added to the game as an option. The developer agreeing, the game *intending* you to have access to a thing is a big factor. Modding is like hacking's older brother. Modding only really concerns the games themselves rather than that nasty account/password stuff that hackers are after.

A Screenshot of a Modded Map from Nexus.com
Stardew Valley: Now you can track down Abigail when she goes wandering in the forest. As found on Nexus Mods.

Mods are fundamentally different from Hacks

While modders edit game files in similar ways to hackers, sometimes even using 3rd party software too, the end result is more of a change, addition, or refinement than an outright cheat. Modders have done some of the best work in video games, and also some of the most cursed. Single-player content is much more of a focus to modders and so they are careful not to create cheats or hacks. Some mods change games so much, in fact, that the mod itself is a completely separate entity with its own rules.

One example of a combination of single-player modding freedom combined with multiplayer is Minecraft. Private servers allow modders to host servers with huge gameplay differences to Minecraft, much deeper combat and leveling, mounts, RPG mechanics, even loot-boxes of all things (Modding isn’t all innocent). Modding is a key part of gaming in the modern age with Skyrim mod “The Forgotten City” getting its own, standalone, completely separate release from Skyrim, the game the mod was made in!

A Screenshot of the independent steam page for Forgotten City
A modding success story: The Forgotten City becoming its own title from humble beginnings as a Skyrim mod.

Hacking Vs Modding in a Nutshell

If the fact that hackers are manipulating children into buying aimbots while modders are simply asking for optional donations to continue making whole new games doesn’t show us there is a difference worth defining then I don’t know what does!

Le Fin:

So there we have it, we waded into the murky swamps of morally ambiguous gaming practices and hopefully came out with not only muddied boots, but an appreciation for the subtleties of videogame “cheats”. Cheating is a broad term itself and is used contextually for any of the above terms that successfully crosses the line into an unfair advantage, so be careful to know exactly what you’re accusing someone of the next time they steal your win at a Warzone.

In terms of accounts on MMO’s and *that* side of hacking, always make sure your account has two-factor authentication linked to your phone. This doesn’t make you impenetrable but does make account recovery and lockdown easier. Now go, out into the world, and if you find an exploit in a game remember: It might be in the game but that doesn’t make it fair.

Passionate Hobbyist (Gaming of any kind, D&D, all that nerdy stuff). First and foremost always an enjoyer of art and media.

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