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People with VAC Bans on Steam

The Valve Anti-Cheat System (VAC) is probably the single most-used strategy to counter cheaters in online gaming. It's used for all Source engine games and a ban in one game will keep you from being able to play any of the games on their list. Because the system is automated, and in most cases irreversible, many in the Steam community see it as a permanent mark from Valve and proof positive that you've been up to something shady. Is that really true though? Even a cursory analysis suggests there might be something more here.

Earlier today I saw an article on Gamasutra that discussed the social consequences of "cheating" on Steam. While the discussion is interesting, the article and the original academic paper it examines are heavy with the term "cheat", "cheater" and "cheating." I've heard plenty of stories of people who have received VAC bans without a single instance of actual, factual cheating. Youtuber George Weidman of SuperBunnyHop is such a fellow. In one of his videos, he describes both how he was erroneously banned, and how that's affected his ability to play games that VAC should have nothing to do with.

The academic paper linked in the Gamasutra article called "Cheating in Online Games: A Social Network Perspective." It posits that cheating is a social "contagion" that spreads through relatively tight-knit communities. While I think that's probably true in some instances, some of the most common files that trigger VAC bans are simple mods – totally innocuous graphical updates and the like. While it's just anecdotal evidence, I know from my own experiences that I know quite a few people that mod their games – many of whom I personally convinced. Gaming communities, especially when it comes to a large chunk of the core crowd evolve from real-world friendships. Those communities are bound to discuss how to get the best gaming experience, and how they can make the thousands of dollars spent on their high-end rigs worth it.


Valve doesn't investigate VAC bans, though, and the exact circumstances that trigger their automated system are never made public. As such, it's impossible to discern which accounts were banned for actual cheating and which were for harmless mods and software. Some websites like VACBanned have taken to collecting information on Steam accounts using crawlers to see which users have been banned and how many bans there are total. As of today, VACBanned has logged 2,140,571 accounts or 1.29% of all Steam accounts. To put that in perspective, the incarceration rate of the United States is 0.71% and is the highest in the world. If VAC bans are this prevalent, are known to generate false positives, and can interfere with more than what Valve has previously said, why is the stigma attached to bans so harsh?

In both my own experience and in the conclusion of Blackburn et al.'s paper, VAC bans carry with them heavy social consequences. Blackburn implicitly suggests that this is a great thing, as it dissuades other cheaters from taking up the practice, but I'm a lot more willing to believe that 1% or more of people on Steam are heavy modders than cheaters deserving of strict punishment.


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