There’s a particular scene native to nearly every old black-and-white cowboy movie where gruff gunslingers sit around a table at a saloon and banter over a hand of high-stakes poker—until one inevitably accuses another of cheating. In a split second, jaunty laughs are replaced by menacing stares and the simultaneous click of pistols being readied.

A far less dangerous version of that cliché played out for me recently in a multiplayer session of Dungeon Defenders, a sword-and-sorcery battle game on Microsoft’s Xbox Live network. What began as a friendly session of show-and-tell between four of us, comparing tricked-out medieval style swords and staffs, turned heated fast after a level-75 squire named VaderNader offered to grab a special “corrupted” blade out of his inventory and give it to a level 71 huntress sporting the name ImpaledTiger. According to local legend, a corrupted weapon has the potential to delete all Dungeon Defenders save data from a hard drive if stored in an item box.

“Don’t you dare use that in my game! If you do, I’ll remember your Gamertag [Xbox Live user name], and look you up, and rip your balls off!” yelled ImpaledTiger into his microphone.

VaderNader laughed off the threat. “I’m not going to do it, dude. Chill.”

ImpaledTiger didn’t sound completely convinced. As the online host of this particular match, ImpaledTiger muttered “I don’t want him fucking up my Xbox,” and kicked Vader out of the game.

Dungeon Defenders

What’s notable about Dungeon Defenders on Xbox Live isn’t the existence of boys behaving badly—multiplayer online gaming is notorious for a lack of civility—it’s the extent of the delinquency. In just over a year since the game’s release, cheating has become the new norm. Con artists and beggars constantly seek to sell or obtain illegal items on the black market, and hackers occasionally try to break your game. And even when there’s no obvious wrongdoing, nearly everyone eyes each other with suspicion, ready to flex itchy trigger fingers on the “Kick Player” button at the first sniff of trouble. In other words, welcome to the Wild West of console gaming.

The proverbial sheriff assigned to clean up the corruption of this lawless cyber community is Microsoft, but the company appears to have more pressing concerns than a smallish Xbox Live arcade game. “We’ve hit them up at Microsoft, but we’re told it’s not a major issue,” said Philip Asher, the marketing director for Dungeon Defenders’ developer, Trendy Entertainment. When asked about the rampant cheating in Dungeon Defenders, a Microsoft spokesperson would only say that they “have the ability to detect if users make modifications to gain an unauthorized advantage in gameplay.”

Crafting ironclad security measures to stop cheaters and scammers wasn’t feasible for Trendy when the studio started work on Dungeon Defenders, according to Asher. The small independent developer, based in Gainesville, Fla., was even tinier before the success of the game, which now boasts about 1.5 million players across almost every platform imaginable—PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, iOS, and Android. “We were almost in bankruptcy before we made the Xbox version of the game,” Asher said, “so it wasn’t as important to make more security and protect the game from modding.”

Modding Dungeon Defenders, step by step

Beyond the lack of resources, Trendy didn’t originally intend to build a game that would attract a large hacker community. The game was conceived as a low-key affair that somewhat resembled the cutesy hack-and-slash-fest Castle Crashers. “We saw something where you sat on your couch and played mostly with your friends,” Asher said.

A 350-point staff becomes a million-point staff.

Instead, the game’s ambition grew until it became what might be best described as a combination of the ubiquitous, loot-obsessed online game World Of Warcraft and the handheld game Fieldrunners, in which players construct artillery towers to defend a stronghold. In Dungeon Defenders, players cooperate on a team to hold off attacking hordes of monsters. Uber-items like a missile launcher that shoots exploding chickens or the power-boosting giraffe-on-a-treadmill pet can only be obtained by raising your character’s abilities—rendered as statistics like “Damage” and “Speed”—to the maximum level and repeatedly beating the fiercest bosses.

This isn’t an easy task. Dungeon Defenders’ candy-colored visuals and cartoonish aesthetic belie its steep challenges and demanding time commitment. To survive the many waves of orcs, dark elves, and other Tolkien-esque creatures on the “Insane” difficulty setting—so that you might outfit your character with the best gear—demands sound strategy and dozens of hours, if not hundreds. As a result, Dungeon Defenders attracts an audience much different from the one Trendy initially had in mind. “The fact that it’s a tower defense and a grindy RPG means you get a lot of hardcore gamers,” Asher said. “You find a lot of techies that try beat all the levels and try to get the best stats and items.”

The Pandora’s Box that led to chaos in the Dungeon Defenders community was opened when some tech-savvy players realized they could modify items, using tools outside the confines of the game, to make them better or stronger than anything made by Trendy. These so-called “mods” are weapons, armor, characters, and pets that have been hacked by tampering with Dungeon Defenders save files on a PC and then saving them to an Xbox-compatible flash drive. “It’s really easy to mod,” said Stephen Arteaga, a 14-year old from Milwaukee who describes himself as a modding pro. “All you need is a computer, a USB drive and some time to change the settings and you download a saved game. No big deal.”

Some of the alterations are cosmetic: an ordinary crossbow made to glow bright pink, for instance, or a dragon familiar blown up to five times its original size. However, modded items almost always have some of their basic statistics boosted as well, giving players who wield them a distinct advantage. A staff used by a monk character that ordinarily might damage an enemy for 350 points may have its damage amped up to strike for 1 million. At this level, the weapon has the potential to kill every foe in the game, including major bosses, with a single swing. The “Assault” mission, normally one of the toughest challenges in the game, takes all of five seconds for Arteaga to complete. “It’d be really hard for me to give up modding,” Arteaga admitted.

The downside of the flooded mods market for Arteaga and other modders is that his business is suffering. The high school student devotes an average of two hours per day crafting outrageous items—green lightsabers large enough to make Luke Skywalker jealous and staffs that shoot orange fireballs at tortoise-like speeds—to sell to other players. He’s even made a website and a YouTube channel (since taken down) for advertising.

Arteaga’s role model is an outfit called XboxRainbowMods. According to a video posted to his YouTube channel in April, the anonymous 35-year-old from Las Vegas has racked up 370 sales of Dungeon Defenders mods. He offers a set of 120 mods for 1600 Microsoft Points (the equivalent of $20 in the Xbox Live store) or $15. XboxRainbowMods also offers half-hour modding lessons online for $50. He claims he can make you “one of the most advanced modders in the game.”

In spite of Arteaga’s constant hawking of his wares in online games, most players these days seem unwilling to pony up his asking price of $20 for a package of 100-plus mods. Over three weeks in July, he only managed to score about $120 worth of business, most of that in Microsoft Point gift certificates.

For $50, he can make you one of the most advanced modders in the game.

For Zachary Jackson, 14, of Lexington, Ky., business is even worse. “I can’t make any money because everyone already has them or they can get them with friends,” Jackson said. “The ones that don’t [have modified equipment] usually beg for mods in my game, so I tell them not to beg me for them or I will boot them.” In the midst of this conversation, as if on cue, a squire entered Jackson’s game and asked if Jackson would give him some mods on “loan.” Jackson laughed and kicked the player from his game immediately. “See what I mean?”

Trendy encourages a certain brand of modding for the version of Dungeon Defenders that runs on the Steam PC network, but only in the “anything goes” Open Mode. Steam players who try use hacks and mods in the supervised Ranked Mode, where players are competing for standing on leaderboards, are detected with an anti-cheating program called VAC. (That stands for Valve’s Anti-Cheat program, after the company that runs Steam.) The protection resides on the master server of the game, and those discovered using mods in ranked mode are banned from play.

“There are two different groups of Dungeon Defenders players,” said Josh Isom, Trendy’s community manager. “And on the PC version, we are able to accommodate those who want to change whatever they want and also those who view the strategy of the game as sacred and who see modding as cheating because you’re eliminating the strategy.”

Dungeon Defenders mods for sale!

Without a formal segregation between cheaters and non-cheaters on the Xbox 360 version, the two groups coexist uneasily. When joining an online game, the host typically asks the new player which faction they fall into—“legit” or “modded.” Sometimes modded players refuse to play alongside legit players, because the rule-followers can only contribute a fraction of the damage that hacked items can provide, so they’re considered dead weight to the team. In turn, legitimate players often boot those who use mods because they throw off the game’s difficulty curve.

Employees hesitate to call it cheating.

Increasingly, however, Dungeon Defenders has become an arms race in which legitimate players are an endangered species. Once constrained to a handful of players, mods have spread to become the de facto standard approach. Though no official figures exist on the extent of modding, I canvassed a handful of Dungeon Defenders players on Xbox Live, and they estimated that between 60 to 90 percent of those who play online do so with modified data.

That number also includes gamers who say they normally don’t cheat at video games. One of them is Ben Miller, who kept modded weapons in storage and resisted using them for months. Miller said he and his friend told each other they wouldn’t use mods because they’d “ruin the game” but he eventually realized just about everyone else was using them. “It used to be a few people that did it, and then people were like ‘Okay, this is cool. I want to be part of the in crowd and do this too,’” said Miller, 16, of Lincoln, Calif.

Psychologist Jamie Madigan, who writes the Psychology Of Video Games blog, has a name for this phenomenon—“deindividuation.” It’s a social psychology concept that tries to explain why bad behavior and the loosing of inhibitions take hold in groups—especially when combined with anonymity.

“People tend to say that the internet and anonymity tends to make people into jerks, but it’s not that it makes people rude; it makes people look to those around them to know how to act,” Madigan said. “Take away a real identity and accountability, and instead of looking internally, they look at the situation to determine, ‘Well, everyone else is doing it, so feels like it’s okay. This is acceptable, this is a norm.’”

“It’s no wonder people don’t trust each other anymore.”

The division between “legits” and “modders” can get murky, added Madigan, because many players have different definitions of what is considered cheating and what isn’t. “There’s some people that think that it’s bad to cheat in a competitive multiplayer game but that in a cooperative game, it’s not hurting anyone else, and it’s no different than activating God Mode in Doom in a single-player game,” Madigan said.

That’s exactly the libertarian type of stance Arteaga takes in the defense of his use of mods. “I say, if you don’t like, don’t do it. If other people like it, it’s not affecting you; it’s only affecting them. If you want to use, do it. If not, don’t worry about it.,” he said.

Even Trendy employees hesitate to brand modding as cheating. “We’re glad people are having fun on the title and we’re not going to judge how they have fun,” Asher said. “I personally don’t view it as cheating.”

But no one defends the lying, scamming, and begging that have colored Dungeon Defenders’ culture just as much as the neon hues of hacked swords and staffs. During one recent game, a player with the handle RufinixMonster entered the room and asked Jackson if he could borrow one of his mods to “see what it looks like” on his character. As soon as Jackson’s characterhanded over the oversized katana, the newcomer laughed and said “Sucker!” before logging off of the game.

Another player who saw the exchange sighed deeply. “It’s no wonder that people don’t trust each other in this game anymore. Everyone is all about scamming each other or trying to mess with each other’s games. It’s crazy.”

Words by Ryan Smith. Illustrations by Richard Hofmeier.