Tony Gardner Talks About “Cheating” with iRacing News editor David Phillips
In the coming weeks, iRacingNews will feature a series of conversations with key members of the iRacing team discussing topics of interest to the iRacing and sim-racing community. To get the ball rolling, I sat down with iRacing president Tony Gardner and picked his brain about iRacing’s ongoing efforts to insure the integrity of the world’s foremost online racing service. Which is a nice way of saying, we talked about cheating.
Much as we all wish it were otherwise, cheating is an element of iRacing just as it is in any sport, whether it’s athletes doping, race teams making “deals,” basketball players shaving points or Rosie Ruiz taking the subway to the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Each sport has its own challenges, none moreso than one that sanctions and organizes some 200,000 online races annually for 50,000 members around the world. Read on to learn more (but not ALL) about how iRacing is working hard to put a lid on cheaters and their cheats . . .
Q: As a fellow employee at iRacing, I know a lot of time and energy is put into anti-cheating measures. Care to talk more about that?
A: Sure. First of all, we simply do not tolerate cheaters. We do our best to try and prevent cheating, disrupt it anyway possible and make it as difficult as we can for cheaters. However with the current operating systems in place, it is simply not possible for any game — including iRacing — to entirely stop people from cheating or trying to cheat, so we also do our best to try and CATCH people cheating using various automated detection measures.
I should also take a second to clarify what I mean by “cheating”, for the purposes of this discussion, Dave. I usually mean tampering with our software or modifying anything that artificially changes the game, whether or not on purpose or whether the purpose was to gain a “competitive” advantage.
At any rate, we have automatic monitoring going on-all the time for all members and we keep adding new wrinkles to those efforts. Along with our own ideas, we talk to other gaming companies in the industry, attend workshops and do our homework in other ways to make sure we are thinking and doing what we can in terms of best practices. If anything, we are working harder and harder at this; so if you are a cheater, be aware. We also have the ability to put automated watches on specific people which amps-up certain things and we also start monitoring their results and race data for anything unusual.
There are all sorts of different kinds of cheats from bots and lags, lag switches to trying to remove or add game elements, to trying to disconnect and connect, to modifying code, files, scripts, hardware, controllers, data, and settings and on and on. It is important to note that linking or modifying/changing or even trying to link or modify any part of the game that is not part of the normal experience will not only get you banned without refund but, from a legal standpoint, you are also violating the license agreement and are tampering illegally with Intellectual Property. Anyway, there are different measures we use to try and attack any one or all of these issues.
It should be mentioned that unsporting play or racing is also a form of cheating.
“We banned about 40 people for trying to modify various elements of iRacing in the past couple months . . . “
Q: Let’s cut to the chase, are people cheating on iRacing?
A: I’m sure someone is probably trying to cheat right now on our game . . . and on any popular game! So the answer is yes. Whether or not they get away with it is the other question. That is the nature of the beast unfortunately. By the way, we just attended an anti-cheating seminar which was very interesting. Basically, industry-wide, the number that was thrown around is 1% of gamers attempt to cheat via cheat hacks, exploits, bots, lags and things like that. That’s probably not all that bad a number if you consider all the bad apples or whatever in society. With 50,000 + members we are bound to get our share. For example, Steam/Valve — the largest gaming portal in the world — has banned hundreds of thousands of people for using cheat hacks. Then again they have 75 million accounts.
We banned about 40 people for trying to modify various elements of iRacing in the past couple months that were flagged through our automated detection measures.
Q: Wow, good information. You just banned 40 members. Tell us more about that?
A: Well I don’t want to give too much specific or technical information but, again, they were caught via our automated monitoring.
The process is they all get banned without refunds but have the right to appeal. So far, about half of those 40 filed an appeal. You normally see appeals from people who tried to cheat or modify something once or to a small degree in a private test session because they feel — or at least they tell us — it was an innocent mistake. Some of those who appeal typically feel they have valid reasons; others are just honest and tell us they were curious and made a single mistake, and apologized. Some do deny they were cheating. More often than not though, they don’t deny it once we provide some details to them. In some cases we may reduce the ban to a suspension, but most of time we don’t. Generally speaking it is one of the few things that we ban for a first offense rather than issuing a suspension or using it as a “teaching moment.”
The other thing we hear is “I did not realize I was ‘cheating.’ That is not really an excuse to us. I won’t go into details as to why, but to be honest if it happens to you, just tell us the truth and we can figure it out. The full truth always works, not partial. Once things start to sound odd or funny we have less and less sympathy.
Q: Do you ban people right away when you detect them cheating?
A: We could and we sometimes do, but not always. In fact, we typically like to wait a while for various reasons. We get automated cheat reports daily and we could automate the suspension itself. However, we often wait before we take action to see how much a member — or members — is using cheat files. Frankly, we build the evidence and see how wide the circle might grow in order to catch other cheaters, especially if we feel the cheating is gaining little or no advantage, which is most often the case.
We also monitor which people start using the same “cheat.” Maybe we can get to the source of the cheat if it is shared somehow. We also want to know how much, if any, any particular cheat helps a cheater go faster . . . which is very good information.
But there’s another reason we don’t ban instantly: We try to make this a professional process, and we think we have succeeded. For example, a member may have cheated once, six months ago (keep reading below) because a new detection we just added to the system might have just caught them. Therefore, we would rather explain to them via an organized communication process why they are being banned and what options they may have rather simply having a big red “you’re banned cheater” that comes up in the middle of a race when they may have already forgotten they even cheated or possibly did not even realize they cheated six months ago.
Most often, we see people trying to use cheats in private sessions, probably out of curiosity . . . at least that is what we are often told. The funny part is we rarely see cheats give people better race results.
We also are constantly looking at adding new cheat detection measures, and those often can go back in time. This has happened before, in fact, on numerous occasions. Therefore, we might contact a member telling them we caught them cheating and they may say “That’s impossible. I have not raced in weeks.” So when we tell them the incident occurred seven months ago and give them the details, not surprisingly, it comes as a big shock to them. So again, cheaters beware: There is no statute of limitations on iRacing. Don’t think you got away with it if even a few months have passed.
“There is no statute of limitations on iRacing.”
Q: What if anything new are you working on to stop cheating?
A: We have some new ideas to catch more people that we are going to work on right away to add to our 24/7 monitoring of all members. Obviously, I can’t give the details.
As far as prevention, we also have some new ideas and are reviewing some of the basics like making sure we have encrypted everything we can, along with having to digitally sign all the executables we can and that sort of thing.
There are a couple things that we know about that are smaller in-game “cheats” that we think we can fix. Sometimes there is behavior in the game that is cheating, for example, things like trying to heat-up tires artificially and lag switches, which we try and stay on top of. Anything like that is a violation of the Sporting Code and could result in a suspension in the short term but in the longer term we would rather just take away the advantage for anything like that if we can.
We also have discussed publicly flagging accounts that have been caught cheating and, despite all my reasoning above, we may decide to automatically ban certain cheats on the spot. But we are not working on either one of those at the moment. Many other games do flag accounts for cheating and some even list the people who were caught cheating. I’m not sure we will go there – in fact I’d say probably not – but it’s something to think about.
Q: Any other thoughts on cheating Tony?
A: It is extremely unfortunate that we have people trying to cheat and cheaters on iRacing. It sucks away valuable development resources that could be used to develop new features and positive things, but it is something we must do. It is a bummer. These are our resources and, therefore, the members’ money being spent on policing and trying to stop cheats.
So I would encourage all members to help and let us know if you see or hear anything “fishy” going on, including letting us know if you hear about third-party developers writing cheats. If you see or suspect someone cheating on iRacing, please tell us and provide all the details you have. You can contact me directly or any staff member. We also setup a new email to report any information you might have. It will be kept strictly confidential. It is Reportcheaters@iracing.com
I would also say that, although it is very important to do all we can to prevent cheating, people can also get worked-up about cheating to the point of being destructive. Cheating happens in the real world in every sport including racing; it happens in every game and, I don’t say this lightly, it is going to happen here. That damn 1%!
“Gossip . . . can create a lot of problems that, in their own way, are far more detrimental to the service than cheating.”
Our goal is to do a better job than most and annoy the hell out of anyone trying to cheat . . . and make them lose sleep. I think we are doing that but we have more work to do in that regard, which is not good news for cheaters. 40 people just found out recently that we are watching. If we know or suspect someone is cheating, trust me, we are on it. Everyone on iRacing is being monitored and those processes are only improving.
Also and this important, sometimes people might not be cheating and yet they are accused on the forums and elsewhere without good reason. Remember, gossip is often just that: gossip. It can be driven by jealousy or some other human emotion and it can create a lot of problems that, in their own way, are far more detrimental to the service than cheating.
Make sure I or another staff member know about a potential cheater privately and leave it at that. Drive, have fun and do your best to get better, if that is your goal. If someone is getting away with something for a while, they are only cheating themselves. It will catch up to them someday here or in another part of life; don’t let just the mere thought of it ruin your fun.
We have had the pleasure of watching many of iRacing’s best drivers race on our computers here in the office and they put up the exact same blazing lap times as they do at home. If some people we haven’t caught yet are cheating, I can assure you the cheating will not help enough to beat those guys and probably is not impacting any of the fun or competition for an average member either from what we have seen.