Hacking, Cheating, and Cheesing

Uncategorized Mar 07, 2024
My body has been hacked.
My surgeons altered the structure and content of my physiology, swiftly and with extraordinary specificity. My wellbeing, form and function have consequently been improved in some ways, and compromised in others.
“Hacking” is the application of technical knowledge and skill to do an end run around what would otherwise be impossible. Hacking yields an expedient result, but it sometimes comes at a price. For example, the hacks that were applied to my body facilitated the swift elimination of my cancerous tissues, while also decimating my energy and mobility.
There is no hack that can swiftly boost my physical vitality. Only time and healing can restore that. Meanwhile, I have been enjoying a kind of virtual athleticism by playing video games, and contemplating how assorted hacks can boost achievement in both the virtual and analogue realms.

When you play a video game for the first time, you play it to play it. You meet an escalating sequence of challenges, and ultimately you square off with the final big boss. When you beat that final boss, you get a victory cut-scene. Then the credits roll, and the game is over.
But for speedrunners, an elite class of players, the real game is just beginning.
A speedrun is a play-through of all or part of a game, in which the object is to trigger the final boss fight and roll the credits in as little time as possible. I’ll be talking about both tool-assisted and glitch speedruns, and the hacks players use to perfect them.
Here’s a tool-assisted speedrun of Mario 64. Familiarity with the game is not required in order to recognize the extreme hacking at play here. You normally have to acquire a minimum of 70 stars in order to access the game’s final boss, but this speedrunner dispatches Bowser No. 3 without having picked up any stars at all. Thus, a game that can last 20 hours or more is over in under 10 minutes.
This feat is impossible for anyone playing the game in real time, and that’s essentially the point: rather than playing the game, the goal is to meticulously create an ideal run of the game—making perfect choices, frame by frame, 30 times for each second of gameplay.
That’s Hack #1: extreme micromanagement of your avatar’s every movement and choice with utter precision.
Hack #2 involves creating the speedrun on a computer while utilizing a keyboard rather than a controller for input. On a controller, there are some combinations of buttons that cannot be pressed simultaneously (i.e. how these games are designed to be played). A keyboard allows for depressing multiple keys simultaneously to exploit glitches in the game that can significantly speed your progress.
Hack #3 involves triggering glitches in the game that you manage with either a keyboard or a controller.
You could call it cheating, this deployment of hacks in order to beat the game in a fraction of the time it would take to play it through. But is it cheating, considering that creating a tool-assisted speedrun demands not only tremendous expertise but also many hours—or even days!—to curate a single minute of perfect gameplay?
It only seems like cheating if you believe that the speedrunner and the role-player are playing the same game. They aren’t. For the tool-assisted speedrunner, winning means beating the world record, not the final boss.
Here is the current world record glitch speedrun for Mario 64 (the player has to beat the final boss after having acquired all 120 stars). A glitch speedrun is a realtime play-through of the game, in which the player makes copious use of Hack #3 (glitches that can be exploited utlizing a controller). They cannot employ Hacks #s 1 and 2. However, they do have recourse to an additional “hack” that isn’t really a hack, in my opinion.
I’m talking about Cheesing.
Cheesing is video-game slang for beating tasks or enemies through tactics that while not exactly cheating, are certainly not following Queensbury rules. When you cheese a game, you’re exploiting systemic quirks or apparent design oversights to gain maximum advantage for minimum skill or effort.
That’s how Keith Stuart defined cheesing in this fun piece he wrote for The Guardian. He describes his delight upon discovering that in Elden Ring you can occasionally defeat an enemy by tricking them, e.g. into leaping over a cliff to their death. So not only is cheesing often expedient, it is often also hilarious and cathartic!
Cheesing isn’t hacking. Cheesing, in this sense, is the clever exploitation of mechanics that were intentionally built into the game.
At any rate, as someone who loves Mario 64, watching this guy’s speedrun is for me as astonishing as listening to soprano Diana Damrau sail through the virtuosic Mad Scene in Lucia di Lamermoor. It’s the game equivalent of flawless coloratura, featuring the impeccable, effortless execution of thousands of precise movements, while also chatting with his Twitch fans about his cats.
A tool-assisted speedrun requires a deep understanding of the game’s mechanics. A glitch speedrun requires real-time skill and consistency in playing the game. While there is a lot of overlap between the skill sets required, the rules and goals differ. Which kind of speedrun a player decides to specialize in depends on what they enjoy most: cracking the game’s code, or developing mad skills.

That covers virtual movements. Now for analogue movements, with analogous hacks that you can apply in meat space.
Our enjoyment of our bodies depends on the quality of both their physical form and biomechanical function.
The state of my body’s form has to do not only with my outward appearance, but also—much more significantly—with my internal structure (which, up until recently, included cancerous tissue). The state of my body’s function is determined by how well everything is working. That includes everything from my singing technique to my ability to digest food efficiently (which, up until recently, was dangerously compromised).
There are hacks to improve your physical form, and hacks to improve your physical function. What “improvement” might mean for either is entirely up to you—I encourage you to pursue whatever physical form and functionality you will find most gratifying! but for the purpose of this discussion, I’ll be talking about bodybuilding and strength competitions, and the hacks competitors use to improve their standing.
Derek Lunsford is Mr. Olympia 2023. Competitive bodybuilders are evaluated on muscular definition, symmetry, and poise. Therefore, while poise does demand functional grace, their training necessarily prioritizes form over function. While their functional movement skills may also benefit from this training, winning at this sport depends on how their bodies look, not how efficiently they move.
Steroids can expedite and augment increased muscle size, definition, balance, and symmetry, but as the Mr. Olympia competition is subject to IFBB rules, let’s assume that Mr. Lunsford did not avail himself of this hack, ’mkay. However, bodybuilders do regularly engage in some other powerful hacks that violate no rules. In fact, these strategies I’m talking about have by now become so commonplace among non bodybuilders, it probably wouldn’t occur to you to think of them as hacks. But I do, at least in this context.
Hack #1: Intentional Hypertrophy. Resistance training makes muscles grow bigger and stronger. It’s possible to design a bespoke resistance training regimen that focuses on making your muscles bigger, stronger, more functional, or all three. Bodybuilders pursue a regimen that makes their muscles bigger. Many non bodybuilders who work out also pursue enhanced visual muscle definition. That’s why you may actually equate intentional hypertrophy with resistance training, rather than viewing it as a hack. But I was born in the era predating the proliferation of Big Box Gyms, and their entire marketing plan was, and is, primarily based on the promise that they will help you hack your body in order to improve your aesthetics. As I laid out in this blog post, your Equinox trainer applies tools and techniques that were developed for bodybuilders, in order to help you look more like an athlete without actually training for a sport you would play in real time. Intentional hypertrophy is a hack.
Hack #2: Manipulating Body Composition. The higher your percentage of lean muscle mass, the more clearly defined your musculature will be. It’s possible to design a nutrition regimen with a view to increasing your percentage of lean muscle mass, while decreasing your percentage of body fat. I suspect that you are more likely to recognize this as a hack, given the proliferation of organizations and products that encourage you to “hack your metabolism.“ Early humans made nutrition decisions based on real-time metabolic needs and availability of food. As civilizations took shape and more and better food options became available, nutrition decisions were increasingly  influenced by the enjoyment of food. But it is comparatively very recent that we’ve been creating nutrition regimens with the express goal of adjusting body composition. Just because this practice has become extremely common doesn’t mean that it isn’t a hack.
Competitive bodybuilding is all about hacking the human form, in order to push the limits of what is possible and achieve maximum visual muscular expression. No one ends up looking like that without being extraordinarily intentional and disciplined about it, every single day, for a period of years!
Ingenious, sustained hacking is pretty much their entire strategy. Just as it is with tool-assisted speedruns.
Mitchell Hooper is the 2023 winner of The World’s Strongest Man competition. Competitors are evaluated based on their ability to push, pull, lift, and throw assorted extremely heavy things. Therefore, their training necessarily prioritizes function over form. While the movements they regularly engage in and the nutrition they consume will also likely lead to an increase in both muscular hypertrophy and lean muscle mass, they don’t pursue these things as ends in themselves.
As I see it, strongmen do not deliberately engage in either hypertrophy or metabolic hacks. However, their training does include something I would argue is the equivalent of a subcategory of video game cheesing. You can sometimes best an enemy by luring them into a position where you can attack them, but they can’t attack you. For example, you can get them stuck behind a door frame that is too small for their absurdly massive body, then repeatedly shoot them, slowly depleting their health bar while they impotently rage away. Keith Stuart “beat Elden Ring’s awesomely powerful Tree Sentinel by hiding in the alcove of a church and repeatedly poking him with a spear,” (and so did I!).
This category of cheesing involves creating conditions that lower the stakes, while allowing you to slow down your movements and repeat them as many times as necessary to accomplish your goal. If you’re training to become the World’s Strongest Man, lowering the stakes means reducing the load you’re trying to move, practicing your movements slowly in order to increase efficiency and range of motion, and repeating the movements until they become well-habituated. Once you’ve got the movements nailed down, you can add load and speed them up.
Hmm… lowering the stakes, slowing down the movements, repeating and habituating them… gamers might call that cheesing, but I say that’s efficient motor learning! Which helps with the acquisition of any movement skill, whether you’re seeing how high you can toss a keg, or figuring out how to manage your breath while sustaining a long sung phrase.
Cheesing isn’t hacking. Cheesing, in this sense, just means developing efficient fitness and practice strategies. Strategies that work brilliantly for WSM competitors, glitch speedrunners, and musicians of all types.

While hacking my body was a vital initial strategy in my cancer treatment, there is no hack that will enable me to do an end run around the recovery process. There will be some cheesing involved, as chemotherapy is the cellular equivalent of tricking an enemy into leaping off a cliff! But mostly this is going to be a process of lowering the stakes, reducing the load, slowing everything down, and habituating the movements that work best for my body now.
Most people who enjoy video games aren’t interested in hacking or speedrunning; they’re interested in role playing. Most people who enjoy fitness don’t engage in bodybuilding or strongperson competitions; they exercise to feel and move better.
Most of us are just living our lives, playing the hands we’re dealt, and celebrating wins when they come to us. Those wins can be all the more satisfying when they are unexpected, especially if we feel like we’re getting away with something. As Keith Stuart put it, “The victories that you celebrate with a wry smile are often more lasting and meaningful than the ones accompanied by a fist pump and a yell.”
I wish you many wry smiles as you rise to meet life’s challenges!

I am really grateful to all who took the time to read this long and wonky post! And I continue to feel so grateful for the support and encouragement I have been receiving since my cancer diagnosis. If you would like to contribute to my medical expenses and support my ongoing recovery, please do so through the GoFundMe campaign that has been created on my behalf.

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