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Online gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry that serves millions of gamers around the world. But it suffers from a problem: cheating. Some players give themselves an unfair advantage by using ‘cheat software’ to see through walls or to automatically shoot moving characters.

Cheat software is banned but in the sophisticated economies that have evolved in these worlds, cheaters can generate a significant income by using it. The developers of multiplayer game APB Reloaded, estimate that cheatmakers can make up to $50,000 per month.

The trouble, of course, is that cheats poison the experience for legitimate players. The temptation is then for all players to cheat which leads to an uncontrolled escalation of illegal activities and the eventually destruction of the gaming environment.

So gaming communities invest significant resources into finding and stopping cheaters. In the Steam Community, for instance, which has some 30 million users, cheats are clearly labelled so that other users can see them and so that servers can prevent them playing games from which they are banned (although they can play other games).

Cheaters cannot easily start new accounts because the games they buy are linked to their old accounts and access is non-transferable.

So an interesting question is how cheaters behave in this social network.

Today, Jeremy Blackburn at the University of South Florida in Tampa and a few buddies study a social network of about 12 million gamers on the Steam Community of which some 700,000 are cheaters.

What they find is interesting. First up, cheats stick together. The data shows that cheaters are much more likely to be friends with other cheaters.

Cheating also appears to be infectious. The likelihood of a fair player becoming labelled as a cheater in future is directly correlated with this person’s number of friends who are cheaters. So if you know cheaters you are more likely to become one yourself. Cheating spreads like flu through this community.

Finally, being labelled as a cheat seems to significantly affect social standing. Once a person is labelled as a cheat, they tend to lose friends. Some even cut themselves off from friends by increasing their privacy settings

Blackburn and co say they’ve even seen newly labelled cheaters commit ‘social suicide’ by cutting themselves off from all their friends.

While this work gives a unique insight into the social behaviour of cheats, Blackburn and co say it also points to a new angle of attack for gaming communities hoping to stamp out cheating.

Their idea is to use the structure of the network to predict the likelihood that a given player will become a cheat in future. In other words, the number of friends who are cheats determine how likely this player is to becoming infected with the ‘cheating virus’ in future, so to speak. They say they expect to do more work on this in future.

Nobody knows exactly how the Steam Community developers detect and label cheats now. The details are strictly guarded, as would be expected in this kind of cat and mouse game.

But however it is done, the new method is a kind of pre-crime detection rather like the movie Minority Report. That’s a dangerous avenue to tread. The labelling of individuals as potential cheats itself has significant moral, philosophical and legal implications that will need to be teased apart and examined before it can be employed in the real or virtual worlds.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1112.4915: Cheaters in the Steam Community Gaming Social Network

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