The Social Implications of having a VAC Ban
Posted on December 29, 2019 in games
Tagged with: anticheat
VAC, Valve's Anti-Cheat System used widely across many Steam games, is known to have unforgiving lifetime bans for anything that it deems as cheating. A ban limits a few aspects of the Steam platform and prevents online play in the game (or group of games in some cases) that the ban was applied in. These restrictions, however, are only a fraction of the punishment.
Valve has always pushed for VAC to be publicly visible on an account and heavily stigmatised. No one wants the VAC label on their profile page. Even being friends with too many VAC banned accounts is enough to have people question you 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 first time or casual cheaters 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. This build contained a bug that kept crashing applications and opening up the Windows SDK debugger for the crashed process. As I was unaware of the fact that VAC bans were delayed, 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 (or more accurately, should) not be protecting. My post to the Windows 10 subreddit was taken relatively well, from memory. This all changed the second I started posting on gaming-related subreddits such as /r/Steam.
I don't recall the order of these posts or what each Reddit post was about, as I admittedly did create way too many. However, people were ridiculously hostile right from the start. Early on, I had people doxxing me; bringing up programming tutorial posts I had made on Hack Forums about modifying Minecraft a few years prior. This did, of course, look suspicious. However, these posts were to gain "reputation" (the site's karma system) on the site to get access to a private Skype group. I was being paid by a group of large Minecraft networks to create an anti-cheat, and I needed inside access to patch the newer cheats. This response was ignored, and everyone just stuck with calling me a "Minecraft hacker" in future posts.
I had also speculated on a few different theories about what had caused the ban in these posts. Ranging from using an Insider build of Windows 10, using a program that removed the thick borders around windows that were around in earlier versions of Windows 10, to a software debugger running in the background. Despite the nature of a VAC ban meaning you're unable to find out the actual cause, Reddit users 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. This was because I had not yet learnt about the way VAC functioned, so I assumed it was the last thing on my computer to have changed that caused it. Despite me stating this, everyone ignored it and just stuck with calling my story flaky.
Someone mentioned to me that my ban occurred long after VAC had been retired from the game and that EasyAntiCheat was now the Anti-Cheat software in use. I contacted EasyAntiCheat, and they gave me a response stating that they saw no evidence of cheats in their logs. However, if EasyAntiCheat was experiencing downtime at the time that VAC saw something, that would also explain the absence of records. They then said that there were no known outages through that time. I interpreted this as them verifying I had not cheated, so I made another post about it. Although their messages did not actually prove anything, 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 also contacted Garry Newman (the developer of Rust at the time) through a Rust server owners slack group. Whilst I feel my message was reasonably fair due to having enough reasonable doubt due to what I had been told by EasyAntiCheat, his responses to my message strongly rivalled that of the Reddit users in terms of hostility.
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 very likely in violation of the law and that they would be able to help with a 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 proved nothing about whether I was cheating or not, but I was ignored. I later met with the ACCC representative in person and discussed that tweet. They showed me that they had been sent an image by one of the Reddit users, and it was a modified version of the email. 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 Australian consumer law.
While I fully admit that 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. What I found most shocking was that the level of hate I was receiving didn't increase as I made more posts. From the first post I made on a gaming subreddit, I received severe amounts of hostility, doxxing, stalking on other platforms, and harassment. Most of these issues were propagated by a small handful of users. These users would also post a summary of their fictitious claims about me on every post I made. As people only saw a list of their claims without my response, that is what people believed. After these events, I was harassed for well over 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 just give up. I did not at all deserve the massive amount of hate I was receiving. While I believe the number of posts amplified it for me, all of this happened just after a single one.
Looking through the many posts on Reddit, or the Steam Community discussion boards, there are hundreds of stories like mine. Someone makes a post about having a VAC ban, and they get barraged with insults, threats, and harassment. We don't know how many of those bans were actually deserved either, or how old these people are. The first reaction to someone's post should not be to attack them. While I feel Valve partially encourage this behaviour with the way they treat VAC, the Steam community goes above and beyond to make anyone who posts about a VAC ban wish they never started playing games in the first place.
At the time, the VAC ban did affect me. I lost a significant portion of my income, as many game servers that I had been developing Anti-Cheat software for no longer felt they could trust me. This situation was the reason I stopped developing Anti-Cheat software, something that at the time I earnt a majority of my income from, and heavily enjoyed. It took a long time before I was able to build up a similar client base, working on different kinds of software (game mods for YouTubers to use in their videos).
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 generally 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 somewhat personal.
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 weeks or months later. They did not deserve to be treated like that. In fact, no one does. I dislike cheaters in online games as much as anyone, I've even spent significant portions of my life writing Anti-Cheat software. However, they don't deserve this kind of treatment.
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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