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Bugged Game

By Annalee Newitz

LET ME wow you with one of those naive platitudes that everybody knows but nobody believes: Games should be fun. I was reminded again of the reality behind this idealistic little notion while contemplating the fact that my video games are spying on me. And it's all because people were playing too enthusiastically.

It started with Blizzard Games. It is the video-game company whose popular titles World of Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo have attracted 1.5 million subscribers to its online game-play service Battle.net. While most people just log into Battle.net to slay a few aliens or whatever, Blizzard has estimated that hundreds of thousands of its subscribers are earning points using naughty programs called "cheats." The company terminated the accounts of more than 400,000 people for cheating in 2003 alone and, earlier this year, shut down thousands more.

So what's the big deal about cheats? As you slash and strategize your way through most Blizzard games, maps are revealed to you that help with setting up defenses and locating enemies. For the past few years, enterprising game fans have been hacking cheats that do things like reveal the whole map before you've "earned" it. Other hacks kick competitors out of the game or make certain players extra powerful.

Battle.net's message boards overflow with disgruntled comments from people who have uncovered new cheats and want them to stop. There's no denying that it sucks to play against someone who can see things that are supposed to be invisible.

But that suckiness doesn't justify Blizzard's latest technique for weeding out cheaters. According to the World of Warcraft terms of service, when you install the latest version of World of Warcraft, an anti-cheat program called Warden snoops through your entire computer looking for "unauthorized third-party programs" that allow "cheating of any kind" and that allow users to "hack" or "modify" the online game environment.

Warden then "communicates the information" it finds back to Blizzard. This "communication" process is described in alarmingly vague terms that leave one with the nonvague understanding that Blizzard could be receiving a detailed picture of everything on your PC's hard drive on a regular basis.

Whoa. That's taking the anti-cheating spirit a little too far. I can see booting people out of the game if they're repeat cheaters, particularly if they're flushing other players off the servers and ruining the experience for paying customers. But snooping through the computers of innocent gamers looking for the bad apples who have installed a map hack? Give me a break.

The thing that really pisses me off is that this is all being done in the name of having fun and playing games. I'm supposed to give up my Fourth Amendment rights in order to ax a bunch of warriors controlled by teenagers in Milwaukee? No thanks. I'd rather go back to playing Dungeons and Dragons, where at least I could roll the dice without the DM reading all my damn email.

Breaking the rules isn't nice, but this is a game, people—a game! It's not a matter of national security; nobody is going to get killed except the stupid video-game avatars. Do you realize that the government would have to have a warrant to get the kind of information that Blizzard claims it has the right to suck out of your computer to stop cheaters? Doesn't that seem a wee bit wrong?

In a normal world, a sane world, people would be boycotting Blizzard for having the gumption to look through their kids' hard drives. They'd stop playing Blizzard games online and just stick to LAN parties, where a bunch of people network their computers together for a group game that circumvents the Internet.

I think fans are still flocking to Battle.net for two basic reasons. One, most probably don't realize Warden is spying on them (it's hard to blame them for not reading all the way through the stultifying terms of use page). And two, they've convinced themselves that surveillance is normal.

Sure, games are supposed to be entertainment, but in reality they're just compressed, contained reflections of our everyday lives. It should be no surprise that in an era when Americans submit to having their bags searched on the subway to get to work, they are willing to let corporations riffle through the entire contents of their personal computers so that they can have a little fun.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who wouldn't mind being spied on by Blizzard if it meant the techs had to hide in a dumbwaiter outside her bedroom and write down what she was doing in a spiral-bound notebook.

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From the October 5-11, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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