Making mistakes is part of life, but how long are you supposed to be branded with it, like a badge of shame? When it comes to having your Steam profile flagged for cheating, where anyone can pull up your profile and see evidence of misdeeds, that length is apparently seven years. Through some poking and prodding, reddit user 4wh457 discovered that after seven years, the badge of shame disappears. You're still banned, of course, but no longer shamed.
Valve did not respond to my request for comment on this story.
Hiago Oliveira was 17-years-old when he logged onto Steam and decided it was time to answer a question he'd wondered for a while: What's it like to cheat in Counter-Strike?
"I had always been curious about it would feel like," he said.
Oliveira had been playing Counter-Strike before the game's landmark version 1.6 patch in 2003, when Counter-Strike patches became tied to Steam, and could often be found running around with a regular group of online friends. It was easy enough to cheat in Counter-Strike, and the prospect of spooking his buddies proved too tempting. It was less fun than expected.
"I tried the cheat, saw how ridiculous it was and put it away, didn't even play a full match," he said. "It just didn't feel right and made me feel very bad about myself."
Full match or not, it didn't take long for Valve to slap Oliveira with a VAC (Valve anti-cheat system) ban, an automated system for tracking down cheaters. His brief journey into the world of cheating suddenly meant he couldn't play on any server with Valve's anti-cheating software, which is where most legitimate players hang out. And since it was a Valve-developed game, he was automatically banned from a bunch of other games, including Team Fortress Classic. (In most cases, however, you're only banned from the game you cheated in. A Modern Warfare 2 ban does not apply to Modern Warfare 3.)
"I don't remember very well but in a matter of hours/a day max I was hit with the ban," he said. "I was so mad at myself. But I knew it was deserved. I knew the risks, and I got caught."
Counter-Strike and Team Fortress aren't the only games that deploy VAC; there are currently 435 games on Steam using the technology, from Call of Duty to ARK: Survival Evolved.
Unless you're one of the rare cases where the system flagged a false positive, you're screwed. You can't transfer your purchases to another Steam account, though you can continue to buy (and play) Steam games on a VAC banned account. Additionally, Steam deploys a form of public shaming, branding accounts as VAC banned, which others players can easily view.
It looks like this:
"When you have big red letters on your profile announcing everyone you have a ban, the experience is never going to be good," said Oliveira. "If you don't suck at a game, they will right away point a finger at you and accuse you of cheating. You get told so many times that 'Once a cheater, always a cheater.' I knew I did it, I knew I would never do it again, and I wanted to prove that that was not me. But how do you do that? How will they believe you? Yeah, no. It's the biggest badge of shame a person can have in an online world."
Oliveira found himself taunted when playing games, years after his initial offense. He couldn't shake the stink, and Valve offered no recourse. He was, for at least seven years, a cheater.
11 years ago, 15-year-old Andrew Kurz fell into the same hole. While attending a LAN party, friends passed around a hack that'd unlock every game on Steam. (At the time, that wasn't very many.) People were careful, using dummy accounts and playing multiplayer matches via LAN, preventing VAC from picking up on what they were doing. Unfortunately for Kurz, he forgot about the hack, and later, jumped into an online Half-Life match, only to be kicked out.
"I then remembered what happened and kicked myself for forgetting about it," said Kurz.
"I tried the cheat, saw how ridiculous it was and put it away, didn't even play a full match. It just didn't feel right and made me feel very bad about myself."
Though the ban was annoying, he'd spent a couple hundred dollars on games, and figured the sunk cost was worth dealing with the consequences of the VAC banning. Fortunately for him, the recently released Counter-Strike: Source was exempt from his ban, so he started playing.
The problem? When he'd win, they'd look up his profile, and notice the VAC banning. A Counter-Strike clan was happy to have him, for example, until they discovered his profile—and kicked him out. He eventually opened a new Steam account and re-bought Counter-Strike.
"At first, the shaming sucked," he said. "Then, it started to become hilarious as people would get so flustered and could not accept any reason that someone would beat them or be better than them. People shut up quickly when you pointed out the fact that the VAC ban was older than their accounts."
Again, there's no way to receive forgiveness from Valve, even if it was over a stupid mistake from more than a decade ago. Your only option is to wait long enough for the public badge to expire from your profile, or register a new account with Steam and build yourself a new life.
"I think that overall the way it works is fair," said Kurtz. "Seven years is a long time. There hasn't been a single thing in my life that hasn't changed within seven years. People's attitudes are one of them. Tons of people got VAC banned for changing their field-of-view in Call of Duty. Nobody told them they weren't allowed to do that. These people can now finally play games online without getting harassed about the stupidest thing."
That part of about Call of Duty is true, and it got then-17-year-old Nick Morningstar banned, even though he was part of a competitive Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare team. A team that, at one point, wasn't far from being able to make enough money to make things interesting.
On the PC, it was common for hardcore Call of Duty players to use a game's developer console (often brought down by hitting the ~ key) to modify elements like field-of-view and model placement, touches meant to enhance the experience for both players and viewers.
But with the release of Modern Warfare 2 and the rise of consoles being the primary audience for Call of Duty, the interface was overhauled, the developer console was removed, and players were forced to dig into the game's private configuration files to bring everything back. Unfortunately, it wasn't clear what modifications would get you banned—just take a look at a Google search for confusion of field-of-view modifications for Modern Warfare 2. It's possible that field-of-view isn't what got Morningstar banned but the program allowing the change tripped up Valve's anti-cheat measures. Whatever Morningstar's intentions, he was "cheating."
Though he moved away from playing Call of Duty, the VAC ban followed him in other ways. Some games would implement plug-ins to scan Steam profiles for a VAC ban, even if a VAC ban didn't explicitly ban you from that particular game. As a result, Morningstar would have to jump around from server-to-server, hoping they'd find one that would allow his profile to join.
"I understand why Valve shows it, I get it," he said. "I am just grateful that Valve can at least see that having a drop off period of it showing on public profiles is a nice change. People change, with seven years being a long time. Many people may not even touch a game anymore these days. Kids are kids, I was just 17 when it happened and we are all humans who make mistakes or a slightly bad choice and deserve a second chance."
Like others, though, Morningstar is generally fine with Valve's approach.
"I do think it's fair, but not the length," he said. "A cheater is a cheater at the end of the day, you don't just randomly get a VAC out of thin blue air."
The consequence of a VAC ban get heavier over time, as you accumulate more games in your Steam library. Valve's zero tolerance policy makes sense for a company wanting to show it's serious, and cheaters, no matter their reasons, are hardly the most sympathetic subjects. But it's worth wondering if there's a more humane policy in dealing with such mistakes. It's nice that a user's public shaming will disappear after seven years, but a lot changes in seven years.