For some, Helldivers 2’s anti-cheat software limits the ability to play at all

For some, Helldivers 2’s anti-cheat software limits the ability to play at all

When Steven Spohn wants to play a video game, he boots up the computer and puts on a baseball cap that allows him to use head movements to input keyboard presses. Attached to the hat is a piece of hardware called TrackIR, which uses an infrared camera and metallic reflectors to read the position of his head; Spohn then uses another program to turn those head movements into keyboard presses.

It’s one of several pieces of software that Spohn, chief operations officer for AbleGamers, uses to play video games, along with an on-screen keyboard and dictation software called Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Usually, these programs play relatively nicely with video games.

“Every time I play those games [like Escape from Tarkov or Fortnite], I get warnings about using those programs, but they don’t flat-out block them, and so far, I have not been banned for using them,” Spohn told Polygon over email. “Although I have heard from some disabled people who have been. Those decisions were ultimately always overturned on appeal.”

Helldivers 2 is different.

Spohn posted about his experience playing the hit shooter on X on Monday, noting that the game blocked the programs he uses to play. “Effectively, an anti-cheat protocol is blocking assistive technology inputs from being read by the game. I don’t have a solution for this,” he wrote.

Ironically, Helldivers 2 has a lot of accessibility options, including extremely high mouse sensitivity, according to Spohn. However, the game cuts off disabled players who use assistive technology that’s blocked by its notoriously strict anti-cheat program, called nProtect GameGuard. It blocks third-party programs like Dragon NaturallySpeaking and on-screen keyboards on top of blocking inputs from Spohn’s hat. “[It’s] effectively eliminating all 3 pieces of assistive technology I use to play games in various combinations,” he said.

Steven Spohn in a suit smiling at the camera. Photo: AbleGamers

Spohn told Polygon he’s really alarmed that Helldivers 2’s anti-cheat programs flagged the hat as a cheating device.

“NOTHING has ever seen my hat as a cheating device,” Spohn said. “All it does is allow me to use my head to turn left or right to push a keyboard button instead of the keyboard button itself.”

Games are often packaged with anti-cheat software, and they’re an especially important way for developers to track and ban cheaters who use third-party programs to give themselves advantages. If you’ve played a competitive multiplayer game, you’ve come into contact with an anti-cheat program, even if you didn’t notice it. Easy Anti-Cheat is one that’s used widely — Apex Legends uses it, for instance. Electronic Arts uses a proprietary program called EA Anticheat for Battlefield games and EA sports titles, while Ubisoft uses its own internally developed software called MouseTrap.

Some anti-cheat software, especially those that operate at the “kernel level,” have long been contentious due to player privacy and safety concerns. “Kernel-level drivers run at a very low level of your computer’s operating system,” according to Odyssey Interactive marketing director Ryan K. Rigney, who covered the topic in his newsletter. This lets the programs get a “comprehensive” overview of what other programs are running on your computer. Players have been burned in the past by software that caused massive security concerns, where things were secretly installed and vulnerabilities introduced.

They’ve also been a problem for accessibility technology, since that tech gets caught up in the filters designed to prevent third-party cheating programs. Developers have gotten around this by giving disabled gamers a way to quickly appeal bans from these programs, whitelisting specific software, or handing out warnings and not bans. That wasn’t the case with Helldivers 2.

“If anti-cheat is getting so locked down that my hat will be blocked, I worry about the future of gaming for anyone who needs to use devices like I do,” Spohn said. “I 100% recognize the need for anti-cheat software, but kernel-level often means locking out programs people use to assist with disability issues.”

Spohn posted his experience on X hoping to flag the issue to Helldivers 2’s developers. “I hope to reach out to them and work with them on getting these things unblocked because anyone who needs any of those kinds of assistive technologies will not be able to liberate any democracy,” he wrote. Helldivers 2 creative director Johan Pilestedt responded Tuesday that he’ll look into the issue. Arrowhead Game Studios has not responded to Polygon’s request for comment.

The studio could issue a fix that would likely solve the problem for Helldivers 2, but the tension between anti-cheat and accessibility keeps coming up across the industry. Jason Thor Hall, Pirate Software CEO and Twitch streamer invested in sharing his knowledge and expertise as a game developer, said it’s not an easy problem to solve: “This isn’t as cut and dry a situation as many people believe because there is a hidden war of cat and mouse going on between both sides. Both sides are clever and both sides win at different times but not forever.”

He suggested that there can be a compromise if developers invest in understanding accessibility tools and whitelisting them — while knowing that there may be oversights that cheaters can exploit to look like accessibility tools. “Sometimes accessibility hardware or software can be detected as a modification program due to the way it interacts with the system or game,” Hall said. “For instance accessibility readers may hook the game client to read text, or send inputs, and this may seem suspicious. This is never intended but always hurts people downstream. Best thing you can do is reach out to the developers to work on a solution together.”

Some companies are taking these steps, but it’s not always perfect. Microsoft is one company that’s signaled it cares about accessibility on its video game platforms — it has its own $100 adaptive controller, after all — but it’s banned some third-party controllers that are necessary for disabled players to play on Xbox consoles. It cited “performance, security, and safety” of Xbox consoles in a statement to IGN from November 2023. Devices approved by Microsoft won’t be impacted, a company spokesperson said, but plenty of essential devices will, according to IGN.

Xbox Adaptive Controller - left angle view from above Photo: Samit Sarkar/Polygon

And, similar to the problems with Helldivers 2, disabled gamers have been forced off EA Sports games like FIFA 23 and Madden NFL 24 because the anti-cheat software has blocked assistive software like dictation programs, according to several posts on the EA support forums. An EA representative told Polygon that “nothing should stand between our players and our shared love for video games, and as part of our commitment to inclusive design, we are focused on reducing or eliminating as many barriers to access as possible.” He continued: “We’re aware that some players are having difficulties accessing some of our games due to third-party accessibility tools, and we’re actively trying to work with the developers of these tools to resolve the issue.”

The accessibility-versus-security debate even touched virtual reality social platform VRChat in 2022 after the company implemented Easy Anti-Cheat to prevent people from modding the client. “Malicious modified clients allow users to attack and harass others, causing a huge amount of moderation issues,” the company said at the time. “Even seemingly non-malicious modifications complicate the support and development of VRChat, and make it impossible for VRChat creators to work within the expected, documented bounds of VRChat.”

Accessibility mods for VRChat were collateral damage — and because the platform had few accessibility options to begin with, players started to get concerned. The company didn’t roll back the update, but the debacle did push it to adjust its roadmap to address accessibility concerns.

Addressing cheating alone has never been an easy solution to solve. Consider the number of cheaters still plaguing video games, despite robust and strict anti-cheat programs. It’s certainly not an easy task to monitor legitimate versus illegal uses of adaptive and assistive technologies. However, if accessibility is of importance to a video game developer, there must be a fix. For some, the solution is ensuring that anti-cheat measures aren’t hastily added, and are fine-tuned to allow accessibility devices and software to run smoothly.

Bungie, which uses BattlEye for Destiny 2, adopted a policy that specifically addresses how third-party peripherals are used both for cheating and accessibility. It outlined a set of rules that lets players use these tools to “enable an experience the game designers intended,” but to take action against people who “abuse these tools specifically to gain advantage over other players,” according to a post from 2023. “We will be monitoring for violations of the policy and issuing warnings, restrictions and/or bans appropriately,” Bungie wrote. “This has been a matter of extended conversations both internally and in the community, and we want to strike the right balance between Bungie’s goal of simultaneously enabling everyone to enjoy our games and protecting our community.”

Anybrain, a startup that uses AI to power its anti-cheat tool, told Polygon its software doesn’t work to flag anything at the kernel level, and instead “works by building a unique behaviour profile for each player by reading some inputs between the player and device only while the player is playing the game,” Anybrain digital content manager Ricardo Silva said in an email. That profile is used to detect “non-human” behavior when a cheating program is used. Silva said Anybrain has “more than 99% accuracy,” but would not disclose the games or companies it has tested the tool with.

Silva said, however, that the company has analyzed behavior from gamers with disabilities, using accessible technology, to ensure that this usage doesn’t get flagged. “Because of this, our anti-cheat solution is prepared to correctly identify […] a gamer with the need for an accessibility controller that is playing with one and it will not flag as a cheater,” Silva said. Of course, this method is currently unproven at a large scale — at least until more information about the software is made available — but it shows there are ways to address the problem.

Going beyond anti-cheat software, however, video game companies that prioritize accessibility options that are as robust as their anti-cheat measures could mitigate the need for third-party software. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part 2 is one such game that’s been praised for its robust suite of accessibility options. Of course, that’s also a single-player game with no need for strict anti-cheat measures.

But the message from gamers is clear: Anti-cheat doesn’t have to be at odds with accessibility.