The Social Implications of having a VAC Ban

Posted on December 29, 2019 in general

VAC, Valve's Anti-Cheat System used widely across many Steam games, is known to have unforgiving lifetime bans for any detected instance of cheating. A ban limits a few aspects of the Steam platform and prevents online play in the game that the ban was applied in. These restrictions, however, are only a tiny aspect of the downsides.

Valve has always pushed for VAC to be a public social tarnish on an account. Even being friends with too many VAC banned accounts is a black mark throughout the Steam community. Due to this, banned players are often bullied or barred from playing in some online communities of other Steam games.

The social downsides are beneficial in some regards, such as adding additional fear of receiving a ban. This fear dissuades some cheaters who want to download a game purely to cheat in it. If they don't care about the game, being banned from it is not a punishment. Creating a new account to cheat with is one option, but is another hurdle that many will not bother doing.

On the other hand, this also creates a toxic atmosphere for anyone who has received a ban. It is common for players to try linking accounts of players who have annoyed them to previously banned accounts and harassing them over it. If someone admits to having a VAC ban online, they will be relentlessly harassed and bullied. Valve also pushes the idea that VAC is never wrong, meaning no one is given any benefit of the doubt over a ban.

Almost 5 years ago now, I received a VAC ban in the game Rust. My best guess for the cause would be that I used to idle in the game while I developed software. The game requires smelting materials in furnaces, which is a very time-intensive process. Many players idle while this is happening and check on the game every so often. Software development usually involves the usage of debuggers, software that hooks into applications and modifies memory. Cheats also do the same.

Once this happened, I made the mistake of posting about it on Reddit. The day before the ban, a Windows 10 Insider Preview was released, and a bug was occurring that kept crashing applications and opening up the Windows SDK debugger. As I was unaware of the fact that VAC banned after a delay, I assumed this was the cause. This is also an unlikely cause, as the debugger starts attached to a memory dump when the application crashes, which VAC would not be protecting. My post to the Windows 10 was taken well from memory. This all changed the second I started posting on gaming-related subreddits.

I don't recall the order of these posts or what each exact Reddit post was, as I admittedly did create way too many. However, people were very hostile right from the start. Early on I had people doxxing me, bringing up posts I had made on Hack Forums about Minecraft a few years prior. This did look suspicious. However, there was already evidence online of me having made those posts to be accepted into an exclusive Minecraft cheat maker Skype group as I was developing a private Anti Cheat for a few large Minecraft server networks at the time. This response was ignored, and everyone just stuck with the "Minecraft hacker" monicker in future posts.

I also mentioned a few different theories I had about what had caused the ban, from the insider build of Windows 10, a program that removed the thick borders around windows that were around in earlier versions of Windows, to a software debugger. Despite the nature of a VAC ban meaning you're unable to find out the actual cause, Reddit interpreted this as "flip-flopping" and "not being able to keep my story straight". The only one of these speculations that I had said with certainty was my first, the one about the Windows 10 Insider Build, purely because I had not yet learnt about the way VAC functioned. Despite me stating this, everyone ignored it and just stuck with calling my story flaky.

Someone brought up to me that my ban occurred long after VAC had been retired in the game, and that EasyAntiCheat was now the Anti-Cheat software in use. I had contacted EasyAntiCheat, and they gave me a response stating that they saw no evidence of cheats in their logs, however, if EasyAntiCheat was down at the time that VAC saw something that would also explain the absence of logs. They then said that there was no known outage through that period, but in a way that still implied it was possible. I interpreted this as them verifying I had not cheated, so I made another post about it. Although their messages did not actually prove that, a Reddit user felt the need to pretend an online photoshopped-image detector said it was photoshopped. Despite the image in the post returning different results to what they said, as well as photoshop being the least logical way to fake online communication (Inspect Element exists), everyone on Reddit went along with this conversation being doctored in future posts.

I had also been told that it may be worth asking the ACCC (Australia's consumer protection branch of the government) if they could do something. I enquired about whether taking away access to something that had been paid for in this circumstance with no method of appeal or refund was a violation of the consumer law. I had an in-person meeting with them, and before that an email chain about specific sections of the consumer law and if Valve's actions violated them. They responded saying that my claims on those aspects of the consumer law were factual and that they would be able to help with the case. I posted a screenshot of this final email (removing personal details) on a Reddit thread.

Despite a few people in the thread actually pointing out that the points I raised were indeed valid, someone went and sent the ACCC a modified version of my email and asked them to verify if it was real. Of course, the ACCC said it was not. I defended myself, stating that there's no reason to have faked that as it proves nothing about whether I was cheating or not, but I was ignored. I later met the ACCC in person and discussed that tweet, they showed me that they had been sent an image by one of the Reddit users, which was fake. I ended up not going through with anything with the ACCC as they said they'd have to wait a few years due to an at the time ongoing case against Valve to determine whether Steam actually had to obey consumer law.

While yes, I made way too many threads, the attitude of the Steam community to forcibly prove someone is lying about not having cheated is exceptionally toxic. Most of these issues were propagated by a small handful of users who would post the exact same thing on each Reddit post made but ignoring the fact that I had disputed each aspect of their comment. As people only saw a list of their claims without my response, that is what people believed. After these events, I was harassed for 3 years by people sending me PMs on Reddit, Skype, Discord, and other services. While I deserved the comments about the number of posts I was making, and that I should give up, I did not deserve the massive amount of hate I was receiving.

Nowadays, I don't really care too much about the ban. Would I be happy if it was removed? Yeah, but mostly on principle. I don't particularly appreciate being accused of things I haven't done. Other than that the ban doesn't really affect me too much now. I'm also fairly used to odd situations occurring, they happen so much that there's a running joke amongst my friends that I'm cursed. What prompted me to write this post was a message I received on Discord today, from presumably one of the people who participated in the original Reddit posts. There were many more messages, however, I have only included the opening as they became significantly more violent and rather personal.

The message I received

Overall, the need to actively disprove and shame people with VAC bans amongst the Steam community is toxic. There have been numerous cases in the past of people being banned, being viciously attacked by users on the Steam subreddit, only to have their ban removed a few months later. They did not deserve to be treated like that, no one does. I hate game cheaters as much as anyone, I've even spent significant portions of my life writing Anti-Cheat software. However, they don't deserve the kind of treatment that the Steam community fosters.

Also as a disclaimer, I in no way blame Valve for the harassment I have received. My blame purely sits on the Steam community, and the gaming community as a whole. Even as a Minecraft mod developer I've seen extreme toxicity, which leads me to believe it's a larger issue with the gaming community as a whole. I have in the past praised Valve for the way they handle VAC, and still stand by it.

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