This week game cheats have been in the news. We learnt about the origins of the Konami Code and, controversially, that Nintendo has no plans to fix Mario Kart 7’s Maka Waku glitch. All this talk of codes, shortcuts and glitches got us thinking about the morality of these gaming quirks: when is it acceptable to take advantage of these erroneous pieces of game design, and when does it become blatant cheating? We’re going to attempt to break these glitches down into categories, both controversial and otherwise.

Game glitches have been in existence throughout the entire history of home console and handheld gaming. Many examples from the NES and Super Nintendo days have a certain mythology and place in popular culture, with some being truly engrained in gaming folklore. Super Mario Bros. has some particularly famous examples, such as running across the top of the screen to access warp pipes, or the infinite 1-up trick. The warp pipe example seems to have been deliberately programmed, designed to reward gamers with a sense of experimentation and adventure. The 1-up trick, meanwhile, requires skill and timing to prompt a never ending cycle of jumping on a koopa shell. These examples represent what we’ll call ‘skilful glitching’, utilising loopholes that are deliberate or otherwise for a recognisable reward.

Another form of glitch is the programming error, when a title’s graphics engine is manipulated for absurd results. This applies to consoles both old and new, with certain actions prompting the game world to lose control. The Nintendo 64 has some fun examples in titles such as Super Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie, where particular jumps cause their respective heroes to fall through the floor or float in open space. Early polygon-based 3D titles were particularly culpable, with these tricks normally reserved for the most experimental of gamers. These often bring no advantage to gameplay, but can be fun to prompt and share online.

If a professional tester finds it necessary to use a code to play through a particularly tough game, then where’s the harm in that?

Then we have cheat codes or devices, often requiring a combination of buttons and D-Pad direction inputs to provide extra lives, unlimited continues, a fixed life bar or any manner of other power-ups. The Konami Code is a particularly famous example, and when these codes are used in single-player games they could be considered as entirely harmless. If a professional tester finds it necessary to use a code to play through a particularly tough game, then where’s the harm in that? Unfortunately, some cheat codes, or game modding, are used in competitive online gaming. FPS (first-person shooter) titles are particularly notorious: you know you’re facing a code breaker when you throw a grenade in an opponent’s face and they merely blink. Game developers often try to counter this issue with behind-the-scenes server updates, but those in pursuit of experience points are hard to stop.

These glitches in competitive multiplayer titles can be a major irritation to gamers playing honestly, and that seems to be the issue at the heart of the Mario Kart 7 shortcut. It doesn’t appear, in our view, to be a deliberate shortcut that the developers intended to include in the game, nor does it require a great deal of skill to use. There are no complex button combinations, nor any manipulation of coding, but rather a simple act of driving off the road at a specific point. Anyone can do it, and thanks to plenty of online coverage and demonstration videos the majority of players now know how. Those who hurl themselves off the road skip a large portion of the track, making it impossible for those following the actual course to keep up.

It’s a tricky debate to determine whether using this shortcut constitutes actual cheating. Some claim that it’s an innocent action on the grounds that everyone can take advantage. Perhaps that is the real issue, however, as it has quickly become the most common way to complete this track in the title’s online multiplayer: quite a spectacle as half a dozen Nintendo mascots grind to a halt, queuing up to plunge to a glorious death. Unlike other courses in the title that have quicker routes and ramps accessible to those with a handy speed-boost mushroom, this trick is easily abused.

Perhaps the real shame is that a rather enjoyable course is cut short by so many gamers, with those who refuse to use the shortcut having to resign themselves to a low placing as the majority finish 30 seconds ahead. It seems that an honest race around this track, as the designers intended, is only possible in single-player.

It’s all a grey area, however, as there will always be those who decry the use of glitches, cheat codes and shortcuts in any form. Perhaps the distinction should be made when these false advantages are used unfairly in online multiplayer titles, taking away an element of competitive fun for those who are either unaware or unwilling to play along.

What do you think? Is taking advantage of cheat codes and glitches always wrong, acceptable in certain circumstances, or fair game no matter what? Let us know in the comments below but remember, let’s all play nice.