Duolingo has a cheating problem

By Mason Berlinka

Published Jun 7, 2023 at 12:20 PM

Reading time: 2 minutes

The language learning app with the highly animated green owl that the internet memed to high heaven back in 2018 has a serious cheating problem. I never thought a platform with as low stakes as Duolingo would have this kind of an issue but here we are. I mean, it makes sense to see deception and sneaky tricks in competitive games like Call of Duty and Valorant, but cheating on an app designed to help you pick up a new language? I’m not so sure.

The issue was first highlighted by the gaming publication Kotaku, after a keen-eyed player named Julian spotted that players sitting at the top of his league were ahead by extraordinary amounts of experience points (XP). An average player will earn anywhere from 20 to 50 XP from casual daily play, but Julian began to notice that hours before the weekly leaderboard was to be finalised, a player had managed to accumulate 1,300 XP, creating an impossible gap to climb for anyone hungry for the status that comes with a #1 spot in the Duolingo leagues.

Similar stories of players gathering inordinate amounts of XP on the app have popped up all over the internet, from Discords dedicated to Duolinogo to subreddits. These suspicious users are incredibly committed to winning on an app designed for learning, be it through the use of bots and scripts for automated play, or just sweaty no-lifeing.

So, why cheat on Duolingo? The crux of the problem lies within the gamified nature of the app. Let’s be real, the only way that stupid little green owl gets me to log on everyday and do my German lesson is the promise of another tally to add to my streak (23 days long as of writing).

It’s the promise of that delicious first place spot on the division leaderboard that leads players to pursue unsavoury methods to secure more XP gains. I’m sure for lots of the cheaters, it’s simply a matter of ruining the thrill of climbing the leaderboard for others too.

Lolo, the creator of a popular Duolingo hacking tool, told Kotaku that a lot of the demand comes from students desperate to shrug off homework, especially in the US where Duolingo lessons are often prescribed for extra credit. Bored stay-at-home mums and dads with a swiping addiction also make up a lot of the user base for the hacking tool, claims Lolo.

But the fact that so much of the app can be gamed, like your ranking or the opening of loot boxes, means you’re going to attract a lot of people desperate for a dopamine hit for anything—even language learning. The average player can find themselves sucked into a strange obsession if they’re not careful.

Even me, who thought I really didn’t care about score and ranking, will still ask my German partner while we’re on the phone for the solution to a question if the correct translation or spelling has slipped my mind. The gamification has got to me. I’d never dream of spending a penny on Duolingo or hacking it for massive XP gains, but god forbid I lose all my lives and can’t unlock my next chest.

So, why is this kind of behaviour occurring on an app as trivial as Duolingo? Sweet self-satisfaction, apparently. Something that you could gain from, you know, just learning a language properly. But hey, where’s the fun in that?

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