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Valve's Social Engineering Campaign Against Cheaters is Out of Bounds

Mar 4 2014, 4:26am CST | by

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Valve's Social Engineering Campaign Against Cheaters is Out of Bounds

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Valve's Social Engineering Campaign Against Cheaters is Out of Bounds

The conflict between cheaters and fair-play advocates is an old one in game culture, mostly left to individual discretion in earlier days. Now that competitive online play has become a bigger part of the game industry, with League of Legends, StarCraft 2, DotA 2, and the hat-happy Team Fortress 2, the conflict is intensifying. Case in point: last month a number of posters on Reddit accused Valve of using its anti-cheat software—VAC—to spy on users , alleging it a person’s browser history and sends that information back to Valve for review. Company co-founder Gabe Newell took the unusual step of making his own Reddit post to rebuff critics and explain exactly what VAC is doing on its users computers. “Do we care what porn sites you visit?” Newell asked. “Oh dear god, no. My brain just melted.”

Newell assured users their privacy would remain in tact while detailing exactly what kind of user information does go through VAC. As Newell described it, VAC searches for the presence of cheat codes on a computer, and if found it begins scanning that computer’s DNS cache to see if it’s actually connected to a cheat code server for activation. If the software finds a partial match in the DNS cache, it sends the information back to Valve to be cross-checked against a list on their servers, and if a match is found the user is marked for ban.

Newell claims fewer than a tenth of one percent of users have triggered a second check-through to Valve’s servers, and of Steam’s more than 65 million users, only 570 have so far been banned as a result. “Our response is to make it clear what we were actually doing and why with enough transparency that people can make their own judgements as to whether or not we are trustworthy,” Newell wrote. He acknowledged it’s up to users to “make the call if we are trustworthy. We try really hard to earn and keep your trust.”

The company, in other words, has built software capable of doing what many fear–accessing private information about which domains a computer contacts–but promises to use that capability in an extremely narrow and limited capacity. Newell described the spying accusation as “social engineering,” part of an effort to erode Valve’s trustworthiness as a company. In response, Valve is engaging in its own implicit campaign of social engineering by assuming certain forms of play and experimentation should be illicit, justification for mandatory software that logs user data while weakening hardline respect for user privacy and a support for players to use software they’ve purchased in whatever way they wish.

It’s  disturbing that Valve’s anti-cheat technology seems designed to protect the company’s majority consumer base at the expense of a smaller group who approach play from a different but no less valid position. Instead of encouraging a culture where these rule-followers and rule-breakers can engage one another in creative and confrontational ways, each pushing back against the other to stretch the boundaries of what is possible in a game, Valve has instead chosen to side with the most profitable faction and participate in dispute with its own kind of “social engineering.”

Cheaters are the lifeblood of game culture, a constant reminder that play is not a competition between people who have internalized artificial rules, but a negotiation about the rules themselves. What new social forms emerge when rule-follower and rule-breaker are forced to accommodate, one another? What happens in a competitive first person shooter when everyone is invincible? Or if one person is invincible and everyone else had to decide whether or not to carry on competing with the occasional possibility of being unfairly killed, or else team up to try and identify, harass, disrupt, or worship the god mode hacker. Just as there are countless variations for creatively following rules, there is countless new forms of interaction, experimentation, and play that could come from destroying the artificial constraints of game rules, allowing cheaters to freely mingle with the rule-bound.

Valve’s anti-cheat software is less a tool to preserve the purity of play than an enforcer that ensures play must always occur under the same formulaic constraints and anyone wanting to experiment from the outside-in will be delegitimized, stripped of their rights as a consumer and participant in the community. Newell claims to be uninterested in the sorts of porn sites Steam’s users visit, but then invokes an implicit probity about those who desire unsanctioned pleasures of playing in a supposedly taboo way. Valve’s counter-social engineering makes outlaws of cheaters and the people who code tools for them, while justifying an omni-present surveillance tool that, for the time being, it promises is only interested in scanning for known cheat codes and the servers they attach to.

Valve is famed for its commitment to openness and pursuit of platforms that allow users maximum flexibility. In practice that belief is turning out to be more a freedom to pay for access to controlled, inflexible set of game experiences that Valve profits from policing, defining for everyone what legitimate play should be rather than letting players negotiate it for themselves through games themselves. Freedom depends on the frame surrounding it, and the spirit of play demands the possibility of constantly reframing experiences in response to what someone else claims cannot or should not be done. Valve’s anti-cheat policies are already an incursion into the private choices that many of its customers are making on their own, and it doesn’t need to scan for porn in their browser histories to count as a violation.

Source: Forbes


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