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Recently I've been contemplating my Steel Ruler of Righteousness and trying to decide if it isn't time for me to mete out a little wrath. I try not to use the Ruler unless a situation really screams for it--for example, when I encounter a movie director who believes that if he throws in that effect from The Matrix or films the action sequences in John Woo-style slow motion, I won't notice that his movie totally sucks. Imagine my dilemma after I saw Mission: Impossible 2 .

When I think about game cheats, my eyes flicker to the Ruler's rosewood presentation case. I wonder what effect a few well-placed swings would have on individuals and agencies that ain't halfway near as moral as I. The whole tenor of cheating is starting to change, and we're at the point where it might start to affect gaming as a whole.

In gaming, the path from newbie to elite is a well-worn one. At first, the goal is to master a game through dedication, determination, and the balanced and thoughtful application of intellect, fast-twitch skill, and lateral thinking. Then it's time to learn little cheats that, while perhaps not in keeping with the spirit of the original challenge, aren't necessarily immoral. Then we swing straight into breaking the rules and blatantly tampering with the very conditions under which the competition was originally designed, pulling a Kobayashi Maru (he said, following that up with an overly defensive assurance that Star Trek II was the only Trek film he actually liked).

Finally, we end up so addicted to the tampering that we declare that cheating is part of the game, a feature that elevates us to an entirely higher level of play. Cheating is merely a way to separate the Determined Winners from Those Who Will Lose Eventually. All along we've been telling our parents that gaming helps us develop important and useful skills such as deductive reasoning and long-term planning. Who knew it was also teaching us the fundamentals of modern American business?

Cheating is seductive, I'll grant you. After all, cheat codes are wired into nearly every game under the sun. What was originally an exciting secret--that the programmers had accidentally left in a debugging feature that could grant the player infinite life and power, say--became part of marketing. A few examples:

In Carmageddon 2, stopping your car and typing MINGMING instantly repairs all damage. STICKYTYRES gives your car the ability to climb walls, and typing TAKEMETAKEME Kevorkian-izes all the pedestrians, making them run straight into your path.

In Railroad Tycoon 2, hit the tab key and type POWERBALL, and your company will get $100 million. AMTRAK deducts a million bucks. (Why are they picking on Amtrak? Don't they know that there are now standard AC outlets at every seat?) CASEY JONES will cause all trains but yours to crash.

In Unreal Tournament, open the console and type IAMTHEONE to activate game cheats. ALLAMMO gives you all available ammunition, GOD makes you invincible, and KILLPAWNS does a Kaijû Sôshingeki (or "Destroy All Monsters," for those few of you who don't watch Godzilla movies in Japanese).

Do these things even count as cheats? A more open-minded way of looking at cheat codes is to think of them as equalizers. Just as my 52 handicap theoretically allows me to play golf against Tiger Woods, cheats allow a 4.0 student to compete against a roommate who apparently went to college to major in first-person network shooters.

Then there are patches, which are one level up from cheats in terms of weaseliness. After all, cheat codes reflect the intent of the folks who designed the game. The designers certainly didn't intend for clever boys and girls to pore over the game's resources and source code--and monkey-wrench brand-new cheats of their own by changing a few numbers around. Instead of initializing your character at the bottom of the power scale, you start off every new game as the Sinatra of that universe, through hacks to your saved games or the game application itself.

Most folks patch their games by exploiting a hack that's already been tried and tested: tiny patch apps, which litter major download sites. But installing a patch is like using a bus-station drinking fountain. You have no idea of what's ultimately gonna result from it.

"Version 1.0 of this patch ultimately breaks your USB drivers," you'll read on Usenet the day after you download it. "If you haven't installed it yet, don't; if you have, don't you wish you'd actually read the Terms of Use agreement before clicking on Agreed?"

It's an extremely touchy subject with developers. Some are good-natured about it, viewing the development of game patches as a way to locate new talent in the programming pool. But most developers think of patches as the beach sand they can't get out of their swim trunks. Patches break apps, and then users bitch to publishers, feigning innocence and demanding fixes and replacements. While cheats grant equal justice for all, patches give the edge only to those who've located and installed 'em.

But what the hell. What damage is really being done by cheats and patches? The sooner Johnny reaches the Gold Level, the sooner he'll finish the game and maybe get going on that matrix-algebra paper he was supposed to have handed in a week ago.

The Internet cheats might be doing the real harm.

The more I learn about ways to hack a network game to give myself an edge, the more impressed I am with the gamers in question. You have games in which you're supposed to use the most primitive sections of your brain to kill, stalk, shoot, destroy, and splatter, yet some gamers are also working the higher functions. How about an app that floods a competitor's machine with network packets, so that the machine is too busy sorting them out to process your opponent's command to get out of the way of your Mojo Cannon of Death? What about a secret app that analyzes everybody's game packets and automatically translates your basic Shoot command into Calculate a Maneuvering and Firing Solution and Kill Any Player Who's Open at the Moment?

It's glorious. But this sort of cheating can also kill the potential of Internet gaming.

Wouldn't it be great to have The Sims run in a planetary mode, where your Sim would transparently and automatically interact with real neighbors and commute to shared Sim Cities? You could come home one day and find that your Sim had met, courted, and married someone else's Sim. That'd be cool. But it won't happen if all games played on the Net are competitions to see who can run the best hacks and deploy the most successful countermeasures.

The poor five-year-old who has logged on to Parker Brothers' Web site just to play NetCandyLand has no idea she's competing against college CompSci majors who've written CandyBots to crush her in three moves--and who are blowing off classes so they can create a new version that can do it in two.

See, cheating that makes the game more fun makes gaming better. Cheating that just helps the Gaming Elite feel even elite-ier about themselves restricts the huge potential of the field and cheats all of us.

And anyone who tries to flood my IP address during an office Unreal session will soon find out that there's no counter-hack that successfully defends against the edge of a three-foot steel ruler singing into his or her third distal phalange.

ANDY IHNATKO ( ) didn't write this column; he just knows the best cheat codes in Microsoft Word.

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