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Catching Cheaters with Their Own Computers

Anti-cheating hardware could keep online game players honest.

Researchers at Intel are working on a system that could make it much harder to cheat at online games. Unlike current software-based anti-cheating technology, Intel’s Fair Online Gaming System would be built into a player’s computer, in a combination of hardware, firmware, and software.

Game over: Intel researchers have built a system, shown here, that could detect and report players attempting to cheat at online games.

Since the early days of video games, players have cheated. Some players tried altering the game’s programming, for example, to give themselves benefits such as infinite lives or infinite ammunition. When large groups of people began playing shared games online, these cheats–which seemed harmless in single-player games–became a cause for concern, especially since many of them allow players to make devastating attacks on others.

Too many cheaters in an online game can destroy the group atmosphere that makes online gaming fun, says Mia Consalvo, an associate professor at Ohio University who researches cheating in video games. Although game developers and third-party specialists are always working to combat cheaters, the problem has continued. Some cheaters simply want to wield more power, while others are lured by prize money offered in tournaments.

Gamers can opt to play on servers that block those who haven’t installed anti-cheating software. Such software scans a player’s computer and alerts other players if it detects cheats. But anti-cheating software can only catch cheats once they become known: like antivirus software, it works by scanning for things that look like known cheats, and the list of cheats requires constant updating.

Intel’s researchers say that their system would work without needing updates. By watching at the hardware level for cheating strategies, the system should be able to detect current and future cheats, says Intel research scientist Travis Schluessler.

For example, the system would go after input-based cheats, in which a hacker feeds the game different information than he enters through the keyboard and mouse. A cheater playing a shooting game might use an input-based cheat known as an aimbot, for example, to point his guns automatically, leaving him free to fire rapidly, and with deadly accuracy. Schluessler says that the Fair Online Gaming system’s chip set would catch an aimbot by receiving and comparing data streams from the player’s keyboard and mouse with data streams from what the game processes. The system would recognize that the information wasn’t the same and alert administrators to the cheat. In tests, Schluessler says, the system ran without slowing the play of a game.

In addition to input-based cheats, Schluessler says that the system would go after network-data cheats that extract hidden information from a game’s network, such as the location of other players, and display it to the cheater. Intel’s system would also target cheats that attempt to disable anti-cheating software. Schluessler says the goal isn’t to replace anti-cheating software but to strengthen and augment it.

Tony Ray, president of Even Balance, which makes the anti-cheating software PunkBuster, says this type of system could go a long way toward addressing continuing problems with cheaters. “There are a couple of things that can only be done properly with hardware,” he says. “These are things we expend considerable effort in addressing with software … Having real-time hardware verification that PunkBuster has not been compromised in memory after loading would go a long way toward thwarting even the best private hack authors.”

Although he’s optimistic about the power of the system, Schluessler doesn’t expect it to prevent cheats altogether. “The fact that the system relies on hardware makes it more difficult for hackers to circumvent it,” he says. “This does not mean it is crack-proof.” What Schluessler does expect is that it would force cheaters to modify their hardware, rather than just writing software code. This increases the expense of cheating, and ties it to a physical change to a computer, rather than to a bit of code that can be easily distributed over the Internet.

Some players have expressed concern that anti-cheat systems invade their privacy by sending information about their computers over the Internet. Ray says that this is a necessary evil for any anti-cheat system. “Privacy and security are at odds in many aspects of life these days,” he says. Players who want to be sure they’re playing in a fair environment, he adds, must choose to trust that their privacy will be respected. Schluessler says that those who don’t like the Intel system would always be free to turn it off and play on an unregulated server.

While there are no plans yet to make the system available to consumers, Schluessler says that this is his ultimate goal.

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