Official art depicting "Omega" from Final Fantasy XIV

To cheat or not to cheat? Discourses of fear and assumption in the FFXIV Community

18 minutes to read
Hannah Meijaard

This piece explores what resulted from the Omega Protocol controversy in the Final Fantasy XIV community, as claims of cheating reshaped long-standing standards of morality in online gaming. By using an ethnomining method (Digital Community Analysis), it examines the discussions inside the community on websites like Reddit, exposing complex relationships between users and creators and how they affect community trust. In the end, the study reveals how gaming communities react to cases of cheating and how this affects how other players see their reputations.

The Ultimate Test

Beating the toughest part of a game, like finishing a really hard challenge, is something all players feel super proud of. A "clear" is when a group of players finishes this hard challenge together. Getting the first clear in the whole world called the "World first," is even more thrilling. In the game Final Fantasy XIV: Online, players compete eagerly for these world-first titles ("Race to the world first," n.d.). In this game, there are things called Ultimates, or "Ultimate Raids," which are the hardest challenges players aim to finish first. Being the first in the world to beat an Ultimate in FFXIV is one of the biggest achievements a player can aim for.

However, the joy of getting the "World First" title didn't last long for a group of players from Japan. On January 30th, user @rinif_ff14 shared a screenshot on Twitter, claiming their group UNNAMED_ was the first to beat the new ultimate challenge called “The Omega Protocol” (TOP) in Final Fantasy XIV: Online (FFXIV). Later, a video showing their achievement appeared on YouTube, where they were seen using third-party tools, including one that let them zoom out farther than usual (Kougaon, 2023). These tools, especially the ones for zooming out, are considered cheating by the game's community. As a result, the gaming community publicly criticized them through memes and rants on platforms like Twitter and Reddit, leading the players to apologize, and some even deleted their accounts.

On Reddit, a wide debate amongst the community sprung up, with users discussing the worth of the “World First” title. Not only did the community speak up through platforms like Reddit, but even the creator of the game, Naoki Yoshida, wrote a public post about this incident and the use of third-party tools in his game (Yoshida, 2023).

Such fierce debates motivate the current research to focus on the culture of FFXIV and the norms and values of its communities. One could argue that this debate reset the tone about third-party tools and raiding in the FFXIV community. To start, it is good to note that the ultimate raids described above are only cleared by a small percentage of players. Ultimate Raids are the longest and most difficult fights in the game, asking for an almost perfect performance from the player for around 20 minutes.

These raids often consist of one enemy (or “Boss”) that goes through several phases with different mechanics. Thus, players who can clear this, especially those who cleared all of them, are looked up to in the player community. The status of the ultimate raider can be shown to other players through specific titles and weapons retrieved from the fights. However, these titles and weapons are worth nothing without the community acknowledging the skill level needed to clear these Ultimate Raids. A violation of this pact, or norm, could cause a break in the community norm, and thus, backlash as discussed above. 

Motivations and Norms in Gaming

The breaking of such a norm can have several motivations. Existing studies can shed light on what makes a player motivated to play, or even cheat. The accomplishment of achievements, titles, and status seem to be important motivators for people to play, especially as these improve the self-image of a player (Yee, 2006; Lin et al., 2015; Korekeila and Hamari, 2020). All of these concepts apply to a player who has cleared an Ultimate Raid. They receive a specific achievement, a title they can show, and with that title, a status amongst the community. The high value these concepts have might influence a player to risk more, such as risking being caught cheating, to maintain or achieve them. However, what is considered cheating?

A cheater as discussed by Consalvo (2007) is someone the community deems to have an unfair advantage in their game. Moreover, when taking on the philosophy of Huizinga (1949), it is someone who bends or breaks the rules of the “magic circle”.  

According to Huizinga (1949), the magic circle is an imaginary place of play, in which certain rules count that make the play activity valid. The second aspect involves the community's interpretation and application of these rules within the context of the game. This includes determining what constitutes cheating, how cheating affects the integrity of the game, and how the community responds to instances of cheating. Both these definitions assume there is a certain norm the community establishes together on what is and what is not allowed. This debate within communities can be observed on Reddit as well, by looking at the rules stated in subreddits, as well as the negotiation done through “upvoting” and “downvoting” of posts and replies (Bergstrom, 2011; Kiene, Monroy-Hernández and Hill, 2016; Chandrasekharan et al., 2018).

Not only does Reddit offer rules and norms, but communities also have their norms of play. The norms of play, and thus what is considered “legitimate” play by the community, are key to the TOP scandal in FFXIV.

Crucially, these norms and their alleged violations were discussed most widely on the active subreddit from the community. Therefore, social media platforms and community studies are important to be considered in this topic, as they set the stage for discussing what these norms even are (Bergstrom and Poor, 2021). They are especially important since, as mentioned above, the specific mechanic Reddit provides with “upvoting” and “downvoting” posts and replies allows community members to contribute without having to write something. Thus, it can be argued more users can participate interactively in the debate. All in all, the “magic circle” of play, its rules, and the debate following the breaking of these rules, is what will be the focus of this thesis – for the global communities of MMORPGs like FFXIV, this magic circle manifests itself through digital discourses on social media platforms like the FFXIV subreddit.

This research will therefore examine norm negotiation by performing a social media community analysis, by attending to both the norms of the game and the community’s digital space, a subreddit. The research will focus on the community activities of Final Fantasy XIV: Online on Reddit from the day UNNAMED_ was exposed and the debate surrounding the issue.

The following research question will be answered:

“How do gaming communities negotiate norms regarding prestige and what they consider as cheating?”

To do this, this thesis focused on the communities in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing games (MMORPGs) and presented a case study of The Omega Protocol Ultimate Raid scandal in Final Fantasy XIV: Online (FFXIV).

Ethnomining and Ethnography

To answer this question, an ethnomining approach was adopted. This combines a big data analysis of the FFXIV community page on Reddit (r/ffxiv), performed through Communalytic (Gruzd & Mai, 2023), and an ethnographic approach. Throughout the results section, the following abbreviations are used: Submission (S), Commenter (C), and Replier (R).

This dataset included data from the 29th of January up until the 5th of February.  This period was chosen to ensure that the post of the video exposing UNNAMED_ using third-party tools was included in the dataset as the video exposing the scandal was first posted on the 30th of January. From this dataset, the posts were ranked according to engagement score.

Among these top 50 posts, I searched for certain keywords. These keywords are 1) TOP OR Ultimate, 2) cheat, and 3) Third-party tools OR mods OR Plug-ins. Comparing these posts and comments with the top 50, I was led to eight interesting posts. From these 5 were taken a closer look into through digital ethnography, these being S2, S3, S4, S5, and S6. The comments that included the keywords were presented with red highlights, and referred to as “keyword comments”

Table 1 presents an outline of the scores of the posts, as well as their upvote ratios. These provide us with information about how the community received the original submission, as well as how popular the post was in general, meaning how many community members might have seen it and thus would have been able to interact with it. 

Table 1: Scores and upvote ratio's from S2-S7

For the digital ethnography part, I took on the role of a silent observer. As such, I anonymized all data, as the Reddit users were not able to consent to being a part of this research. Moreover, it is important to note that this is only a small sample of the FFXIV community, as not all players are on Reddit, or participating in the Reddit discussions.

Discourses on Reddit

As not all data can be presented in a short article, to show how I  conducted my research and what the data brought forward, I will be discussing one of the posts I performed my discourse analysis on. This post, S3, represents one of the more interesting perspectives I discovered throughout my research. Before S3, I analysed S2 in which I identified 5 discourses.

These being:

  1. Discourse 1: Something should be done to control the World First Race
  2. Discourse 2: All players clearing Ultimate Raids use plug-ins. Thus, everyone cheats.
  3. Discourse 3: There is a big difference between appearance mods and gameplay-changing mods. With the latter often being referred to as cheating mods.
  4. Discourse 4: Players note the fear that Ultimates will stop being made, as well as the fear that the enjoyment of the players themselves will be limited, due to other players
  5. Discourse 5: The community assigns a parental role to the developer, with them feeling like they have in turn disappointed a “parent”.

Later, in S5, I also identified another discourse: Discourse 6: The developers will never take heavy action against mods, such as an anti-cheating software

These are important to keep in mind, as they are often referenced throughout my analysis.

The post in question is “Regarding Illicit Activities in the Omega Protocol (Ultimate)”, or Submission 3 (S3), presented in Figure 1. S3 was posted on the 31st of January 2023. This post had a total engagement score of 4752 and an upvote ratio of 92. The post had 2.3K comments. The post included a link to a statement from the FFXIV producer, Naoki Yoshida (Yoshida, 2023). This statement was written by Naoki Yoshida, also known to the community as “Yoshi P”. In general, the post discussed the incident with UNNAMED_. It made clear that the use of third-party tools is forbidden, connected to a warning that if this would happen more in the future, the team might have to rethink the value of creating Ultimates. Moreover, it discussed the action (to be) taken against the users involved.

Figure 1: “Regarding Illicit Activities in The Omega Protocol (Ultimate)” , posted on 31/01/2023. Screenshot taken 19/05/2023.

Figure 2 illustrates the top comments, which represent an apparent discourse, one in which Yoshi P is angry at the community, and they feel like they have disappointed a “parent” (Discourse 5).  

This discourse thus represents how the community assigns a parental role to the developer, with them feeling like they have in turn disappointed a “parent”. Moreover, this also indicates a power dynamic. By placing the producer in the role of a parent, the users from the community put themselves at their disposal. The relationship between a child and a parent is usually one in which the child is dependent on the parent. Thus, when some of the “children” break the rules set by the parent (cheat/”misbehave”), the entire community might get repercussions for the event that happened. Thus, it seems that the community feels a certain responsibility towards the producers to obey.

Figure 2: A comment thread below S3, comparing Yoshi P to a (disappointed) parent. Screenshot taken on 23/05/2023.

This discourse is also illustrated through R27 “Nothing worse than truly disappointed parents.” and R28 “Uh oh. dad’s home.”. Especially R28 even writes from the perspective as if they are the child that disappointed their parent. This is an interesting and unique perspective, which was also shown in S2, with R24 feeling a “disappointed dad tone” throughout the statement. This community therefore seems to hold the developer to a very close level of themselves, placing him in the position of a parent.

Figure 3: A keyword comment threat below S3, discussing disappointment and status. Screenshot taken on 23/05/2023

The community being angry at cheaters, as they made their “parent” angry (Discourse 5), can also be observed in Figure 3. As C9 notes “this is the moment when your parent is not mad at you. Just fucking disappointed on all possible levels.”. C9 even explicitly states how the feeling is even worse than having a parent being mad at you, the disappointment feels even heavier on them. Moreover, we can also observe the suspicion discourse, Discourse 2, through R30 “There is a huge amount of people using these tools, but offline, not streaming, just to get titles and shiny weapons.”. Interestingly, R30 also notes how they suspect the players using these plugins to only do them for the “title” and “shiny weapons”. These titles and weapons can be connected back to the concept of Status. As Lin et al. (2014) argued, Status is a big motivator for people to play, and according to R30, it could also be a reason to then use these plugins.

The overarching discourse in the comment thread below S3 seems to be one of disappointment. Feeling like the community has not only each other but also the developers of the game down.

This feeling is brought up by breaking the rules set down by the producers, whom the community holds to a high standard, due to the observed power dynamic between the players and the producer. It could be speculated that the norms of the community have also been renegotiated after this incident. After the warning from the producers, perhaps more players are against the use of plugins as before, as they are scared that their experience will be cut short due to the players using these raiding tools. This situation exposes the power of the producers to the players as well, as it shows the players how quickly something could be taken away.

Conclusions and Discussion

In sum, through a combination of big data and ethnographic research, this thesis identified six discourses from the community discussing the case of UNNAMED_ being exposed for using add-ons. These discourses are: 1) The discussion of something should be done to control the World First Race, and 2) The idea that all players clearing Ultimate Raids use plug-ins. Thus, everyone cheats. 3) The discussion that there is a big difference between appearance mods and gameplay-changing mods. 4) Players noting the fear that the fear that Ultimates will stop being made, as well as the fear that the enjoyment of the players themselves will be limited, due to other players. 5) The community assigning a parental role to the developer, with them feeling like they have in turn disappointed a “parent”. And 6)  The discussion amongst players about how the developers are weighing their options considering anti-cheating software.

These discourses can be considered a combination of assumption, disappointment, and fear narratives.

Discourse 2 is part of the assumption narrative, assuming that all players will cheat. The disappointment narrative can be mostly found in Discourse 5, with the community feeling like they have let the developers, who are here put into a parental role, down. The biggest narrative is that of fear. Discourses 1, 3, and 4 are all part of this, and they are connected. Discourse 1 is that of a fear that if this race is not controlled more, more scandals might happen. This could in turn lead to the fear in Discourse 3, the fear that appearance mods will be affected by the raid drama. This fear is also expressed in Discourse 4, where the players fear that this drama will cause developers to stop making hard content, such as Ultimates. Moreover, Discourse 6 also involves a discussion surrounding this fear, whether the developers will act on this with anti-cheating software as a result or not. This underlying fear of possible action being taken due to scandals like these, thus seems to be very prevalent in the community around this time.

These discourses gave insight into how the negotiation of norms, whether what is and what is not cheating, is done on Reddit, in specific for the community on the r/ffxiv subreddit. It was found that the community in general seemed to have a narrative of fear, expressing their concerns on how cases like that of UNNAMED_ might influence the way they play the game. Moreover, it was observed that groups who had been exposed as breaking the rules of the community before (Neverland being exposed for using add-ons with the previous Ultimate), were not trusted by the community. Both UNNAMED_ and Neverland represent groups who were exposed to cheating in the game, according to the rules of the game, and the rules of the r/ffxiv subreddit (not allowing the discussion and use of game-altering add-ons).

These groups received a lot of negative feedback, resulting in distrust in the case of Neverland, and account deletion in the case of UNNAMED_. Thus, both groups have lost the prestige they got from being the World First to clear a fight. In the case of UNNAMED_ the community as well as the producers reacted harshly to what they perceived as ‘cheating’. This harsh response, especially from the community, can be connected to the “magic circle” of Huizinga (1949), as the cheaters are even viewed as potential “Spoil-sports” who might change the entire game if the producers would choose to take action due to their rule-breaking.

Importantly, I want to go back to the research question “How do gaming communities negotiate norms regarding prestige and what they consider cheating?”. It can be observed that the community did not seem impressed with the players who were exposed through the video, not only were many commenters scared that this scandal would affect their gameplay, but many jokes were made at the expense of those exposed.

If the members of UNNAMED_ had prestige, as could be argued according to their status of clearing Ultimate raids and participating in the World First Race, this prestige fell away after this was exposed. Interestingly, this can also be observed in S2, where the clearness of Neverland was discussed. Neverland is a group that was exposed to using add-ons for the previous Ultimate, and thus, many members of the community expressed their concern whether this clear was also “legitimate” or not. From this, it can be argued that after the expose of Neverland with the previous Ultimate, their established prestige fell away as the community had observed them cheating before.

Thus, I would argue there is a connection between cheating and the failure of maintaining prestige within a gaming community.

It seems that the moment a player or group is exposed of “cheating”, or as observed, the use of game altering add-ons, this player is no longer considered a prestigious member of the community, as they have broken the magic circle and now take on the role of the “spoil-sport”. This research thus showed how prestige could be maintained, through showing how it is not maintained. From observing how prestige is taken away, the negotiation of norms in the community can be observed, as well as how they handle the “exposure” of these “cheaters”.

Another interesting finding from this research, was the power relationship between the producer and the players. The players seemed to view the producer as their parent, whilst also acknowledging the power they hold over the game to potentially install anti-cheating software that could put an end to all mods (even appearance mods).

Interestingly, when comparing the rules of the game and the rules of the subreddit, there are distinctions made in what is and what is not allowed. Thus, the players do not always play into the hand of the producers.

As seen in this research, add-ons were selectively accepted by the community, with the community only providing hard critique when the add-ons used were gameplay changing. Considering the “everyone cheats” discourse, if the players are motivated to get the major achievement of being World First, the use of add-ons is quite understandable.  As observed in the literature review, achievements, titles, and status (or prestige) are all big motivation for players to pick up a game. Clearing an Ultimate as the first in the world is connected to all three of these, and is a major accomplishment for the player, as well as for their position within the community. But, when the community chooses to not acknowledge this due to the use of add-ons, this position of prestige is taken away.

Thus, my study brings the perspective of the community into the concept of prestige, specifically, how a community can give this position of prestige (Lin et al., 2015), and also take it away.

As observed, many players became concerned with their own gameplay when considering the consequences of these cheating scandals. It could be argued that the community taking away the prestigious position of Ultimate clearers, is one of self-protection.

If those players are not acknowledged for their accomplishment, as they got it through using add-ons (or cheating, following the line of the community), members of the community might feel more in power over what the consequences will mean for the entire community, perhaps hoping that it remains with individual punishments.

One could argue that this narrative of fear from the community stems from a place of insecurity and perhaps uncertainty about how the developers will handle these scandals going forward. The community seems to express the fear that a small group of players will be ruining the game for the other players, the so called “spoil-sports” as described in Huizinga (1949). These players who were outed of using add-ons, already broke the magic circle for the players by breaking the rules of the game, but now also seem to fundamentally effect the other players, which might cause for a complete change of experience for everyone involved (if the developers end up acting on this).

Furthermore, the discourse that presents the developer as a parent, also exposed the closeness of the relationship that the players feel exists between them.

I would argue that players of MMORPGs tend to be very invested in the game, and thus, it is a big part of their life. This could be the reason why these players feel so connected to the developers of the game as well, being upset when they have disappointed them, even if they did not do the act which caused the developer to feel let down by the community.

With FFXIV being a big part of the players life, there is an extra disappointment towards their fellow players as they disappointed “dad” together.

Everything considered, this study also provided a unique perspective on the concept of game studies and community analysis. Considering the timing of the scandal, as well as the wave of distrust and discussion it brought into the FFXIV community (not only on Reddit), this analysis provided a real time overview of how the community viewed the use of add-ons, as well as the specific players involved in the scandal, thus providing an overview of real-time norm negotiation on the platform Reddit.


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