“You’re Playing it Wrong!”

Over the course of the past week, I’ve encountered several instances (either directly or indirectly) of people being told that they’re ‘playing the game wrong.’ From a player who loves interactive games, but only certain types, to a designer who insisted that a troupe played his game ‘wrong.’ And hearing this so much has bugged me.

There are only two ways to play a game ‘wrong’: by cheating and/or being an abusive player.

Even when it comes to cheating, I’m pretty flexible. For starters, I don’t believe that it’s even possible to cheat in a single-player game. You want to enable god mode or turn on console commands or download a bunch of mods? Have fun, brave player! Whatever makes your game experience enjoyable for you!

Cheating only applies when you’re specifically breaking the rules to disadvantage another player. Even metagaming isn’t really cheating, if it’s done for the right reasons and with the right methods. Case in point: I used to belong to a troupe which highly valued fidelity to one’s character concept. When faced with an in-game dilemma, the player should be as authentic to their character as possible. To do anything else was metagaming, and therefore cheating, and therefore wrong.

Then I joined a different troupe, which held nearly a polar opposite view – not only was metagaming not always cheating, it was sometimes even desirable. Sarah Lynn Bowman, a noted academic in the field of play studies, sometimes calls this steering, Players take responsibility not only for their own fun, but for creating a positive experience within the group. The player makes decisions which are not completely in keeping with their character concept, but made with an eye towards creating a positive play experience. The ur-example is finding out that there’s monsters which need killing over yon hill. Your character likely only wants to bring people he or she can trust to have their backs in a fight, but you as the player make a decision to invite the new person along in the interest of inclusion. This is a choice made using OOC reasoning and motivations, but improves the game overall. So, not cheating – and, in fact, behavior that ought to be encouraged!

So. Cheating. It’s not metagaming, and you can’t cheat a single-player game. Narrowly defined, cheating is breaking the rules to give yourself an advantage. Giving yourself infinite resources in Skyrim doesn’t harm anyone else’s enjoyment of the game; but doing so in a cooperative setting does. Even if a cheater is not directly harming someone, they’re still disrupting the game economy – and depriving the game of Storyteller resources as now Plot Staff has to deal with someone being a cheater rather than working on awesome story.

Being an abusive player is roughly in keeping with this idea. In a nutshell: just because something isn’t against the rules doesn’t mean it’s okay to do. Of course, this behavior is harder to pin down. Cheating can be boiled down to saying 1 + 1 = 3, but abusive play is a little more subtle. Broadly, it’s when someone’s play actively interferes with enjoyment of the game. In a high PvP game, it’s easy to make a combat monster who adds a new notch to their gun belt every game session. But behavior like that, though perfectly legal, still harms the overall community by reducing the enjoyment people as a whole derive from the game.

Games are here for us to enjoy – ideally as a community (even single-player games are often part of a larger community, as players share their experiences with one another).

If someone doesn’t like a style of play, they’re not wrong. If someone prefers a particular genre to another, they’re not wrong. If someone’s interpretation of a genre is different, even from the game’s creator, they’re not wrong. If someone sets their game to ‘Casual’ instead of ‘Nightmare,’ they’re not wrong.

Accusations of ‘wrong play’ do nothing except divide the gaming community. Have preferences, by all means – I love me some immersive dark fantasy and will drop everything to play a vampire for a few hours (any setting [except Twilight]). But that doesn’t mean I think other games are bad. Just different.

Let’s enjoy our games, separately and together, and only give grief to the cheaters and abusive players.

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