Credit where credit is due: Infinity Ward is working hard to ban cheaters in MW3.

It seems that the desire to cheat is an inevitable part of human nature. There’s just something about getting an unfair advantage that appeals to us so much that we cheat in school, on our taxes, and on each other. Naturally this rule applies to video games and the more popular a game is the greater the number of people cheating at it.

The Call of Duty series is very, very popular and it’s no surprise that cheating is rampant. In my reviews of both Modern Warfare 2 and Modern Warfare 3 I decried their usage of a peer-to-peer networking system for several reasons not the least of which was that it didn’t provide any way for players to deal with cheaters in a game. This is primarily a problem on the PC where you can run programs in the background that will allow you to, among other things, see players hidden behind objects (wall hacks) and auto-aim and fire your gun (aimbots).

To get an idea of why this is so frustrating, here is an aimbot in action using the MW3 Chaos hack. You'll note that it pretty much ruins the game for anyone who's not cheating.

With dedicated servers there’s someone who administers the server who will have the ability to identify and ban cheaters from playing on that server. The P2P system used in MW2 and 3, however, randomly picks one of the players to be the host and there are no provisions for banning cheaters or even voting to kick them from the game. The only real anti-cheating system in place on the PC version of the game is the VAC (Valve Anti-Cheat) system provided through the Steam client that Activision uses with that version of CoD. There are two problems with this system: First, it can take weeks for someone who has been flagged as cheating to be banned from multiplayer, though it does ban them from playing it altogether (as opposed to just a single server). Second, it creates an arms race between the folks who maintain VAC and the folks who write the aimbots and wall hacks for the games. Every time VAC is updated to detect the latest round of cheating programs the folks who make said programs simply update their code to hide it from detection for another few weeks.

[pullquote] This is a warning to anyone who’s thinking of buying [MW2] for the PC: Don’t fucking bother.  — Infinity Ward has fucked over “Call of Duty” fans who play on the PC.[/pullquote]The creation of these hacks also appears to be trivially easy as the first one for MW2 was released within hours of the game itself. I suspect that’s partially because the past several CoD games have run on basically the same game engine as the preceding one with some new bits bolted on. In fact, the wall hack part of these programs uses the game’s own internal systems to do its work. Certain kill streaks in the game (e.g. remote sentry)  already allow you to see players approaching from behind obstacles when you use them. All the wall hack does is turn that system on all the time regardless of whether you’re using an appropriate kill streak or just your trusty rifle. The problem of cheaters using hacks was so rampant in MW2 that after one night of game after game being ruined by cheaters I wrote an angry blog post saying that you should not buy the game for the PC. OK, it was a very angry blog post, but my frustration level at the time was through the roof. It’s one thing to lose to genuinely better players and it’s another to lose to someone who’s skill consisted entirely of holding down a mouse button while a program insured every shot was a headshot.

When MW3 came out the hacks followed and it looked like the whole situation was set to repeat itself, but it did seem like it had improved somewhat. I said in my review that the number of obvious cheaters seemed a lot lower than they were during the first few weeks with MW2, but the problem did still persist and there still wasn’t any easy way to report them or vote to kick them from a game. As before, the hackers just laughed at the VAC system as ineffective and the engine was still fundamentally the same as before, so what was responsible for the lower number of cheaters?

The main screen of the reporting tool. Click to embiggen.

As it turns out, IW assigned someone to handle complaints of cheaters in MW3. Initially it was one person on Twitter named BanCandy who handled complaints for all platforms the game is on, but it should go without saying that she was quickly overwhelmed by the deluge. Now it’s a group of people under the collective name @IWEnforcers and they are some busy beavers. I’ve been following their tweets for quite awhile now and they are swinging the ban hammer as fast as you can manage. This has helped a great deal, but the reporting still wasn’t easy. They required that you be able to provide some evidence for the cheating such as a YouTube video and a link to the player’s Steam profile page. The Theater Mode in MW3 allows you play back a game and even render a YouTube clip so long as it’s smaller than 29 seconds which is barely enough to show one death with a killcam.

There had to be a better way and a clever fellow who goes by the alias Xifon came up with one. He created the MW3SA Reporting Tool which allows you browse through the demo files created by the game’s theater mode and lists off all of the players in each saved game. You find the game that had the hacker in it (it looks up each player’s Steam profile to make it easy) and then click on their name and hit Report. It opens a window and allows you to type in a description and then sends that along with the entire demo file off to IW where they can load it up and watch the playback from that player’s perspective to see exactly what happened in the game.

This tool has the hackers shitting bricks because there’s nothing that can be done to counter it. You can’t hide your Steam ID from the game and the files record exactly what happened during the course of a match. If you’re using a wall hack and repeatedly kill people you couldn’t see it’ll show up in the playback. Aimbotting becomes so glaringly obvious (see the previous YouTube video) that it’s pretty much a guaranteed ban.

The tool proved so popular that, once again, the surge of reports became overwhelming and suddenly it stopped working. Xifon posted an announcement that the queue wasn’t updating and it looked like it was to be a short-lived experiment, but the folks at IW got in contact with him and asked if they could work together to improve it. One of the problems it had was accountability for the person making the report. There wasn’t anything preventing you from submitting someone who just pissed you off by being a better player. So after a couple of weeks the new version was released that corrects that problem.

Now to use it you have to sign in with your Steam ID so any reports you make can be associated with your account. This provides a couple of benefits including the ability to see which reports you’ve submitted and whether they’ve been reviewed and what, if any, action was taken. It also has a scoring system that awards you points for every cheater banned and dings you points if your report wasn’t legit. This is to encourage you to be sure you’re submitting an actual cheater prior to dashing off a report.

These two solutions, the @IWEnforcer Twitter account and the MW3SA Reporting Tool, won’t eliminate the problem of cheaters in Call of Duty games any time soon, but they do help and Infinity Ward deserves a lot of credit for at least attempting to deal with the problem. The process is still slow as I have 3 reports in so far, the oldest dating back to June 9th, that still haven’t been reviewed, but at least they’re there and should get looked at eventually. With any luck, the tool will be a success and put a dent in the amount of cheating in CoD games. Either way, Infinity Ward deserves credit for trying to tackle the problem.


Airport chaplain helps folks find more than just God.

I often highlight on this blog religious people who are less than a shining example of the faith they profess to believe in. I can be particularly hard on the ones who have taken on the mantel of religious leadership that have engaged in the very sins they decry in others. I can be harsh in my criticisms of such people.

However, I also try to acknowledge the religious folks who seem to actually be trying to live up to their faith. There are plenty of believers out there whom I have absolutely no beefs with and whom I think are a positive force in society. Listening to NPR yesterday I came across the following news item about one such person. Meet Methodist Minister Chester Cook:

By some definitions, Cook has the largest church in the country. As the full-time chaplain of Atlanta’s international airport, his flock includes the 56,000 employees and a quarter of a million travelers who pass through each day.

The United Methodist minister models his ministry on the parable of the good Samaritan — a stranger who helps a traveler in crisis and practices kindness, often without mentioning religion. Cook says he gets a lot of practice in these days of inflexible airline rules. He often pays a traveler’s $150 change fee from his chaplain’s budget or his own wallet. And sometimes he manages to bend the rules.

On a walk back toward the airport’s chapel, Cook recalls the time he found an elderly woman stranded in the airport. She wasn’t supposed to fly out for three days, and the airline wouldn’t change her ticket. So Cook confronted an airline manager.

“I said, ‘This is a dilemma, because if that was your 81-year-old grandmother sitting out there, you would be fit to be tied,’ ” Cook says. “And I said, ‘I’m sure the news channels would love this story if I gave them a phone call.’ “

The woman was put on the next flight.

Cook’s job has him helping the frazzled, overwhelmed, stranded, and lost (both metaphorically and literally). He is there to lend a helping hand whether it’s only to help you find your next flight or to deal with whatever tribulations you happen to be going through at the time:

Theology on the run and expedited prayers — that’s typically all that Cook has time for. And it’s not just for distressed travelers, but also for the tens of thousands of flight attendants, baggage handlers, cashiers and others who work at the airport. Cook has 40 part-time chaplains who help him serve this huge operation, and they often specialize: Former pilots minister to pilots, retired military tend to the soldiers.

Each day, hundreds of soldiers and Marines pass through this airport going to or from Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s a sea of tan and green. These people have a very different set of spiritual needs. Cook says he’s seen a sharp surge in anxiety in the past year — not about fighting, but about the toll that repeated deployments take on their families.

“It’s tough to have a newborn and then have to leave,” he says. “Or to have a boy just starting T-ball and you have leave. And the wives, who said, ‘I married you to have a life with you, and now I’ve had 10 years of separation.’ There’s no answer.”

It seems rare to meet a clergyman who’s willing to admit that sometimes there’s no answer to the dilemmas they’re confronted with. Who’s honest enough or forthright enough not to fall back on the old standby of God’s mysterious methods. Who’s willing to help out without trying to turn it into an attempt to convert you to their faith. Such people are worthy of our support regardless of whether we share their belief. We would be better off if more people, believers or not, emulated folks like Minister Cook.

Kudos to high school student William Sleaster.

John McCain was in Concord, NH on Tuesday apparently doing an Q&A at a high school. During that Q&A a student by the name of William Sleaster challenged McCain on his stance on gay rights. McCain first tried to dodge the question, but the plucky student wouldn’t have it:

Sleaster pressed on. “Do you support civil unions or gay marriage?”

“I do not,” McCain answered. “I think that they impinge on the status and the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.”

“So you believe in taking away someone’s rights because you believe it’s wrong?”

“I wouldn’t put that interpretation on my position, but I understand yours,” McCain said diplomatically.

Sleaster went on to ask another question about how to help the working class in America, which McCain fielded by talking about the country’s need to figure out education and health care, and to secure the environment.

Sleaster indicated that he wanted to follow up again.

“You have one more? Go ahead you’re doing good,” McCain encouraged.

“I came here looking to see a leader,” Sleaster said. “I don’t.”

To his credit McCain kept his temper in check and told the kid “I understand. I thank you. That’s what America is all about.”

Perhaps some might see Sleaster’s response as rude, but it was honest and probably something McCain should hear more often. If nothing else it’s good to see at least one member of the next generation taking a stand.