What are Glitches in gaming?

Glitches or glitching is a term that is mainly used in the field of video games. Simply put, a glitch refers to an error in a video game. However, not every error is automatically a glitch, because there are different classifications depending on the type and severity of the error. A glitch is different from other types of errors, such as bugs and exploits. We’ll explain how glitches occur and when glitching can be beneficial.

Glitch, bug, and exploit

Every form of computer program, be it game, application, or operating system, also comes with its own set of bug terms. Although there are overlaps in some places, the terms glitch, just like bug and exploit, tend to be attributed to the gaming segment. A look at the definition also makes it clear why this is the case. Literally, glitch means something like ‘a small disturbance in the program flow’. This means that the user notices an error, but the game can otherwise continue to be played.

Examples of glitches

Glitches often occur when graphics do not load or load incompletely, game characters get stuck in other objects or surfaces, animations end abruptly and are thus incomplete, or when important boundary elements in the level environment do not work. Most glitches are reproducible, which means that they need to be fixed by a patch from the game’s manufacturer. Alternatively, in some cases, an update of the graphics driver can solve the problem, for example, if the glitch is due to outdated software.

Glitches are often very noticeable and can be quite creepy depending on their characteristics. Apart from a change in gameplay, however, they do not cause any major issues in most cases. This is what fans of the popular action-adventure series Assassin’s Creed experienced in 2014, for example, when the then current eighth entry of the main series went on sale with disturbing graphics glitches. Instead of looking into the elaborately modelled faces of protagonist Arno Dorian or historical figures like Maximilien de Robespierre or Napoleon, the glitch prevented the face from being loaded correctly. As a result, the characters’ heads consisted only of eyeballs and mouths, in addition to the characters’ contemporary wigs. This glitch did not affect the game’s progress, but it did affect the game’s immersive quality.

Distinct from bugs

This example is also very well suited to distinguish the term glitch from bug or to show that the boundaries are sometimes somewhat blurred. Depending on the source, this glitch is also called a ‘no face’ bug. Strictly speaking, this is incorrect, because a bug refers to a serious programming error that can result in restrictions to the game experience, up to and including rendering the game unplayable. This is also the essential characteristic of this type of error—bugs can almost always be traced back to inaccurate or improper programming.

While a glitch can occur exclusively in video games, errors in other programs are also called bugs. One of the most well-known bugs of the Windows operating system is the ‘Bluescreen of Death’, or BSOD. A blue screen including an error message caused the operating system to crash, especially in earlier Windows versions.

Differentiation to exploits

A third term that both computer game newbies and experts such as streamers on Twitch often mistakenly refer to as a glitch is actually an exploit. This is not a bug in the classic sense or a technical inadequacy, but rather the exploitation of a weakness present in the game to gain an advantage.

Particularly in games with a focus on multiplayer modes, exploits are usually quickly resolved by the developers and exploitation of a certain feature often results in a penalty. For example, an exploit may involve players repeatedly performing certain actions in a set order, such as interactions with non-player characters, transactions with merchants, certain movement patterns, or a combination of all. This gives them an unfair advantage that was not actually intended by the game makers – griefers may also exploit certain mechanics of a game to frustrate other players.

How do glitches come about?

Video games are now highly complex productions that often involve hundreds of developers at different locations. When the individual components of a game are brought together, a glitch may not be noticed, or is noticed too late, despite the amount of time taken testing the game.

Another complicating factor is that the games have to function on consoles, and additionally on modern gaming PCs assembled with individual hardware. Although development interfaces like DirectX actually take care of this, it also becomes clear here how well the technology has to work together to give users an optimal experience.

However, glitching often has a practical use for developers as well since the creation of a video game rarely proceeds linearly, developers and especially game testers need to have permanent access to all previous levels and missions after implementing new game content and features. For this reason, they often deliberately leave gaps in the level architecture during development in order to progress more quickly through the game and better test mechanics. By glitching their way through the game, they save time.

If this kind of development glitch is still present in the later game, this can have two main reasons: The glitch was forgotten about, or the developer left it in on purpose.

Glitching as an advantage?

The deliberate inclusion of glitches is almost a kind of easter egg, because before attentive fans find the well-hidden glitches, they usually have to search for them for a while. In single-player games in particular, level glitches that allow players to walk through walls, advance into areas that are actually inaccessible, or fall off the map through invisible holes are pretty harmless and make people smile when they try them out.

Another group of gamers will also be happy about the unconventional method of progressing through the levels: speedrunners. Glitching is especially important when you want to complete a ‘Any%’ speedrun. In a speedrun, the goal is to finish the game as quickly as possible. In the ‘Any%’ category, only the fastest time taken to reach the end credits counts - it doesn’t matter what percentage of the game is seen at all.

This is where the glitch comes into play, because if you know the fastest way through the game world via the secret paths, you can easily complete a title that is designed to take several hours in minutes and secure the world record for speedrunning that game. For example, speedrunners finished the survival game Outlast from 2013 within three minutes instead of embarking on a nearly ten-hour tour through a hospital taken over by homicidal patients. A glitch that lets you run on the door frame and jump to other map areas makes the speedrun possible.

Of course, this only applies to single-player games. In multiplayer titles, active glitching is often equated with cheating. Server operators, such as from a LS19 server, Minecraft server or CS:GO server, determine the rules for their digital playground and usually issue a warning. Anyone who does not comply with these rules can expect to be banned from the server.


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