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Most game hacking is fairly benign; some is inspired. But cross paths with the wrong hombre in Diablo II, a fantasy role-playing game that has spawned a large interactive community of online players, and you could find your game persona naked, penniless, or dead.

Like most role-playing games, Diablo II involves creating a character and then, through skilled play, acquiring special attributes and possessions. Most serious players spend hundreds of hours to enhance a character with skills such as spell casting, and valuables such as armor and weapons.

But some players would rather advance by the digital dark arts. By stealing passwords or through more elaborate infiltrations that exploit the mechanics of the game, hackers can kill off Diablo II characters and swipe virtual treasures-sometimes turning around and selling them on auction sites such as eBay, where a nice sword can fetch $50. A player quoted by the BBC early this year described one such hack as “the first online mass murder.”

Diablo II publisher Blizzard Entertainment has cracked down on hackers, instigating legal action against sites that distribute hacking tools. But it’s tough going. “As the programmers get smarter at Blizzard,” says Peter Shaw, a Diablo II veteran who’s had his account looted, “the hackers got better at finding ways around their work.”

Fans of the original version of the role-playing game Warcraft II complained that it became essentially unplayable once cheat tools became widespread. And analysts and industry executives agree that cheating is one of the leading issues likely to limit the growth of online gaming. “You come into a game, you get killed repeatedly because someone is using a cheat weapon-why would you stick around?” asks Mark Jacobs, president of Mythic Entertainment, creator of the online game Dark Age of Camelot. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been very proactive when that sort of stuff rears its ugly head.”

Dave Becker