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MMOGology: Exploiting the matrix

Marc Nottke

You can't deny it; there's something exciting about seeing something you aren't supposed to see. It may have happened to you before, perhaps accidentally. You were minding your own business, just jumping down a flight of stairs in the Sunken Temple instance. And then ... BAM! Suddenly you're staring into a sea of light blue. "Am I dead?" you ask yourself. "What happened?" You rotate your camera angle and notice you can see three floors below you. You rotate it a little more and suddenly the grand design of the mighty level developer is revealed to you. You can see the entire dungeon stretching into the distance of ethereal blue. You've accidentally crossed over to the other side. You've entered the matrix!

OK, so maybe it's not always quite that dramatic, but it's definitely interesting when you accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose stumble upon these little tears in the fabric of MMOspace. Many of us enjoy the exploration components of MMOGs. We love to find the hidden nooks and crannies of the world, the small places not often visited by our fellow gamers because they're in remote locations. Sometimes in our desire to see absolutely everything in the game, we stumble across these glitches that let us see a bit more than we're supposed to see. I think it's only natural to want to pull back the veil on our unrealities and see the "Wizard behind the curtain", so to speak. But of course anytime you begin participating in things that go slightly beyond the boundary of what you're "supposed" to be doing in a game, it starts to bring up questions about exploits and cheating. Viewing the underbelly of an MMOG hardly seems like a crime, but at what point exactly do you cross the threshold that will get you into trouble? At what point are we talking about account bans?

One of the more legendary "out of bounds" areas in World of Warcraft is the infamous GM Island. GM Island is a small island that was both part of Azeroth and yet separate from it. It was a place where WoW game masters could login, hang out, logout, and teleport to to other parts of Azeroth. There were rumors that GMs could place an infinite number of mining nodes, herbs, and other useful resources on this little chunk of land; one would guess primarily for testing purposes or simply to play around. This remote section of the world was forbidden to all players and those who were caught by a GM while on the island could be teleported to a secret chamber in the depths of the island. This chamber was devoid of any adornment and of any escape. It was completely empty, except for The Chair. Here it was rumored that the GMs would conduct their questioning. I remember a guildmate of mine that really did have his account temporarily banned for being somewhere he wasn't supposed to be (supposedly on GM Island); so I'm assuming the rumors were at least partly true.

I love the whole concept of GM Island. It has such a mythical, timeless quality. It reminds me of Tolkien's Aman, the undying land of the elves and Valar beyond the sea that was both part of Middle-earth and yet not a part of it (depending on time and space). It was a place forbidden to mortals and yet mortals attempted to land upon its shores, usually with disastrous consequences. I guess there's just something irresistible about forbidden fruit. Something in our nature drives us to discover the unknown; consequences be damned.

So in attempting to push the envelope of our gaming experience we often brush against that line between between innocent curiosity and overt game exploit. If, for example, a hunter can fire through a wall without being seen by the enemy, is he cheating? Technically, what he's doing isn't "fair" or "correct"; and yet he's not altering the game in order to accomplish this; he's simply exploiting the game to his advantage. There are many websites that allow you to download and install cheats and hacks that actually alter the game code or allow you to modify it to your advantage. Personally, I think this type of action defines cheating and should result in disciplinary action by the developer / publisher. But if the game itself allows you to do things that you know are technically exploits of the game, but do not involve altering the software itself; are you truly exploiting the game, or using it to your own advantage and purpose? You are still conducting yourself in a "fair" manner based upon the logic of the gameworld, rather than an ethical code of fair play.

I'll save the intricacies of ethical gameplay behavior for another article. In the meantime, for those of us intrepid explorers who aren't out to cheat so much as just have fun with the game, account bans and any other type of punishment for exploring seems rather harsh. We just want to enjoy the world that the developers have created. We want to see the little inside jokes and remote regions created just for a developer's own amusement. We want to see Old Ironforge and the hidden areas beneath Stormwind. Such secret areas fascinate me as a virtual explorer and I feel compelled to try to reach them. Why? Because they're there.

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