Young gamer playing video game wearing headphone.

Punishment for online gamers who exploit bugs critical for ongoing game success

New research from the University of Florida highlights that gaming platforms that don’t prioritize punishment to gamers who take advantage of bugs lose out on engagement from players who observe rule breaking.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Among the 3.1 billion active online gamers around the world, a ubiquitous challenge has come to be accepted across games – bugs and glitches. These game defects give players the opportunity to take advantage of the bug, allowing them to gain an illegitimate advantage, like acquiring higher-level weapons or skills.

An equally ubiquitous challenge for game makers is how to respond when players take advantage of these bugs, and new research from the University of Florida offers insight into company response tactics that could help propel the gaming industry into its projected $205.7 billion in revenue generation by 2026.

Shu He

Assistant Professor Shu He

“Although online gaming platforms can create tremendous economic and social value, their long-term survival depends on whether users are willing to conduct continuous information exchanges, online activities and business transactions on the platform,” explained researcher Shu He of the UF Warrington College of Business. “Online platforms face a dilemma between disciplining rule breakers with the risk of being perceived as unfair to the rule breakers—because rule breaches are, after all, caused by the game software’s technical glitches and belong to a ‘gray area’—and not disciplining rule breakers with the risk of being perceived as unfair to the observers. Different countermeasures may result in significantly different economic impacts.”

To test game company responses, He, Jianqing Chen of the University of Texas at Dallas Jindal School of Management and Xue Yang of Nanjing University used a data set of more than 92,000 active players of a popular game that experienced two major bug incidents that allowed certain players to take advantage of valuable tools with minimal effort. In the first bug incident, the game didn’t punish rule breakers, but did punish rule breakers in the second bug incident.

The experiment led the researchers to find that bug instances in general negatively affect user engagement afterward. Specifically, players who didn’t take advantage of bugs reduced their gaming activities, including fewer logons, less time, fewer product purchases and lower expenditures on the platform.

While both bug incidents in the experiment proved to reduce the players’ gaming activities, when the company didn’t punish the rule breakers, players who didn’t take advantage of the bugs reduced their game activities more than when the company did punish rule breakers.

“Surprisingly, although the platform is responsible for the bugs and the rule breakers are a small group of players, not punishing rule breakers leads to even larger reductions in observing players’ platform engagement than punishing them, especially for most directly affected observers,” He noted. “The findings suggest the essential role of the platform’s fair countermeasure of properly punishing the rule breakers.”

For gaming companies to continue to grow, He’s research recommends that they properly punish rule breakers while also designing good quality control systems and effective rules and recovery measures when rule breaches occur. One specific recommendation is for gaming companies to tailor their remedies to different players, such as placing the immediately affected observers in the most important position.

“Somebody exploiting the bugs can create negative value for other players,” He explained. “Player engagement may decline not only because of the direct effect of bugs, but also because of their indirect effect, the mismanagement of rule breakers. To maintain the platform’s long-term prosperity and the overall welfare of its participants, it is crucial for games to have good quality control of their games and maintain high software standards.”   

The complete research, “Platform Loophole Exploitation, Recovery Measures, and User Engagement: A Quasi-Natural Experiment in Online Gaming,” is published in Information Systems Research