How I got cheated: A Modern Warfare story - Part 1

An unfortunate series of events befell me a few days ago that I imagine other gamers out there will empathize with, and I want to share my experience with you. I'm going to try to make some lemonade out of these lemons, though, and see if my misfortune (and the emotional reaction it triggered for me) can't tell us some interesting things about our emotional attachments to the games we play.

Since it came out in November 2009, my principal game of choice has been Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, developed by Infinity Ward and published by Activision. Playing more or less regularly for over a year, I've accumulated - quite literally - hundreds of hours of gameplay in online multiplayer. Now, I imagine this is something of a dubious source of pride (imagine if I'd spent just half that time exercising, or reading philosophy...but oh, well, it was fun), but the point I'm making is that I had made a very serious time investment into this game. Perhaps it's surprising that on online FPS could be so engaging over such a long period, but this is a game with near pitch-perfect core gameplay and level design (with a few exceptions, but this isn't a game review). More importantly, enjoyment of the game hinges on a deep and extremely motivating challenge system (mentioned in a previous post). As you complete challenges and earn XP, you level up and gain new titles and emblems to show off in your customizable callsign (look here to get a taste of what I'm talking about).

Okay, enough about that. The point is that game fosters engagement both in moment-to-moment gameplay and long-term dedication to progressing through levels, challenges, and the like. This of course leads to a serious time investment, and when you dedicate that much time to an activity you end up with an undeniable emotional attachment to your accomplishments in it. And two days ago I had those accomplishments erased before my very eyes.

A bit of backstory. As with any online multiplayer game, a subset of MW2 players attempt to gain an advantage over other players or complete challenges and level up by unfairly exploiting game mechanics. For instance (and this has been happening since the get-go), a common tactic involves two friends joining the same free-for-all game. After finding some isolated corner of the map, one of the two will repeatedly shoot the other (who uses 'tactical insertion', a legitimate in-game item allowing a player to mark his respawn point) in the head. Gaining consecutive kills like this allows the player to call in killsteak rewards (e.g. getting 7 kills without dying allows you to call in an attack helicopter for support), progress on related challenges and gain loads of XP, and of course win the game if the duo can manage to stay hidden from players like me, who find great satisfaction in snuffing out the plans of would-be cheaters.

That was disappointing to see, and I really hoped Infinity Ward would disallow the use of the tactical insertion item (which would make such a strategy quite difficult), or simply not allow two friends to join the same free-for-all. This never happened, unfortunately. Before long a new exploit cropped up where, though some complicated process that I never cared to look into, a player could save his online profile to a USB drive, hook it up to his PC, and run some hacker software on it. This allowed players to unlock all the titles and emblems they wanted, and set their stats to whatever values they saw fit, before re-uploading their profiles to the MW2 servers. As this became more common, the leaderboards became completely meaningless (players with over 300% accuracy, killcounts artificially inflated to the maximum allowable value, etc.). So, between these two exploits, the leveling system lost a whole lot of meaning. In fact, the higher my legitimately-earned level got, the more common it was for other players to assume I had cheated to get there. As a high level player, I was regularly either chastised as a cheater, or petitioned for help on how to hack an account.

This was all understandably frustrating, but the game remained fun and engaging as I worked through the levels. There may have been a slew of cheaters out there, but by and large they weren't ruining MY gameplay experience. Only recently, however, a new breed of hackers has appeared who - thanks to the PS3 now being jailbroken, I believe - are running software based exploits that allow everything from god mode to zero-recoil guns to automatically unlocking all challenges. Here's a video of the kind of thing I'm talking about (this is from the XBox version, but similar things are happening on the PS3 now).

So on Wednesday I unwittingly ended up in a lobby (via the automated 'find match' system) where someone was using such software-based hacks, and at first was confused by the text showing up on my screen: "Unlocking challenges....10/100....20/100..." until less than thirty seconds later I was looking at the words "All challenges unlocked". This guy can't be doing anything to MY account, can he?, I remember thinking. At the time I was uneducated on the disconcerting possibilities afforded by jailbroken PS3s, and it didn't occur to me that this hacker could actually mess with my profile remotely via a public server. Irritated I left the game and returned to the main menu. Then my jaw dropped.

Every challenge: completed. Every title and emblem: unlocked. My player level: maxed out. Except for my statistics (i.e. kill-death ratio, accuracy, etc.), everything I had to show for my hundreds of hours of playing this game was snuffed out in under a minute. With every single thing unlocked, this was no different than if my account had been completely deleted.

With a not-so-slight sense of panic, I headed to the online message boards, learning the details of this new wave of hacking that I had been ignorant of, and searching for a way to undo the damage. It would appear no such way exists. In the hopes that the hack had merely messed with the local data on my PS3, I deleted every MW2-related file on my hard drive and booted up the game again. But alas, when I logged onto online multiplayer, I saw that the effects of the hack remained.

So I ejected the disk, turned off my Playstation, and put MW2 away on the shelf, in all likelihood never to play it again.

To be continued...

How I got cheated: A Modern Warfare story - Part 1 by Jared Lorince, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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  1. Motivate. Play. - How I got cheated: A Modern Warfare story – Part 2 - [...] You can find the first half of this post here. [...]
  2. Motivate. Play. - Call of $$$ - [...] my previous posts, it should be clear that I used to be a pretty big Call of Duty player …

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