Once upon a time, I worked as a game master for a very popular MMORPG. My duties were relatively simple: help players out of sticky situations and enforce the rules of the game when it came to cheating, harassment, and general player behavior. A game master's role is to protect the player from any and all potential game dangers, up to and including the player himself.
In my work as a GM, I saw many amazing things. I saw guild members contact support staff because they were worried about another player's real-life wellbeing. I saw incredibly complex scams across multiple players and accounts that, while infuriating and exceptionally against the rules, were astonishing in their genius. And of course, I saw lots and lots of cybering.[/url]
What a GM sees
There is a common misconception in the world of online gaming that game masters are regular players and that they float around playing whatever game you're talking about until the time comes for them to help someone else. This may have been true in the olden days when many GMs were scarcely more than volunteers or trusted community members, but the modern reality is much different. An MMO studio cannot afford to put that much power into the hands of people who do not directly depend on the studio for a paycheck.
Nowadays, games are supported by a roster of full-time staffers working in a call center environment, overseen by supervisors and beholden to a strict list of internal, top-secret policies. Most work in some sort of special software client designed to interact with your characters via in-game chat but not through the actual game client itself (though a special GM-only game client is sometimes necessary for specific tasks). GMs are measured by how many players they can assist per hour, and the great majority conduct two or three conversations simultaneously (in my heyday, I could manage six).
You chat with a GM inside the game just as with any other private communication. But the GM sees your character, your items, and your history in a special window within whatever particular software the developer happens to use for customer support. Every data point on your character is tucked away in special tabs or menu functions, and there's no particular need to ever visit you in-game. Items can be undeleted or created at whim; characters can be booted offline or permanently banned as needed.
Think of it this way: You see The Matrix, but GMs see the code.
What a GM knows
For the most part, players are a respectable bunch of folks who don't bother customer support unless they have a specific problem. The great majority of a GM's work consists of very simple tasks like restoring items deleted by accident or redistributing loot from raids or dungeons and pretending to believe whatever excuse the player provided. You would be astounded at how many times cats have deleted characters by walking across a keyboard and clicking "Totally" in a confirmation window.
What was always surprising, however, was how many players thought they could outsmart the GM staff. This thought was always predicated on the hilarious idea that GMs do not have any more information than the player does, which is in turn fed by the misconception (noted above) that GMs are just other people in the game world.
Here's an example that has to stay pretty vague so I don't end up getting my face sued off:
Player A runs an endgame dungeon. He slays the final boss and acquires an incredibly rare dagger. Unfortunately, Player A's class is unable to use daggers. His best friend, Player B, plays a class that relies on daggers as its primary weapon. But Player B was offline at the time of the dungeon raid, and the item isn't tradeable. So Player A and Player B come up with a brilliant plan: tell a GM that Player A looted the item by mistake and ask the GM to place it in Player B's inventory.
If you're an honest and smart gamer, you are probably thinking, "That is a stupid plan." And you are right.
For starters, game masters have access to a little thing we'll call "encounter logs." These logs list everything that happened in any given encounter. In the case of the raid above, the GM can simply look up the encounter log for the final boss, see that Player B wasn't involved in the encounter, and discover the ruse. Alternatively, the GM can look at Player B's login history and see that Player B was offline at the time of the boss kill. Or most hilariously, the GM can simply pull up chat logs of the two players working out this genius scheme because for some reason they always do it via in-game chat.
Game masters can see everything you do and everything you say while you're inside of a game's world. This sometimes led to fun moments; for example, the time I spoke with a player about a bugged dungeon encounter while he simultaneously cybered his girlfriend, seemingly unaware that yes, chat logs are stored and visible. Sometimes the moments were less fun, like every time I had to explain to a player that we GMs can indeed see all the racist text he posted in zone chat, and no, we do not care that he's in the middle of a raid -- he is done for the day.
These are just simple examples, of course. Every developer's support staff is split into different levels, and higher-level GMs have access to more powerful tools that provide even deeper layers of information and control. If you've ever scammed someone, harassed someone, cheated, or acted in any other way that is unwelcome according the rules of the game you're playing, there is someone on the support staff who can see it, prove it, and act on it. The same can be said for any authentic request; if you really did have that Legendary Axe of Immortality and All of the Damage and deleted it accidentally, someone on staff can find it in your digital trashcan.
You are not smarter than the GM you're talking to because you can't be. He or she has far more information about you, your character, and your actions than you would ever guess. To paraphrase a holiday classic, "He knows when you are sneaking; he knows when you betray." So treat your GMs with respect; they're [url=http://massively.joystiq.com/tag/customer-support]there to help. And don't be surprised if you can't pull off that incredible scam you've come up with -- odds are good whoever you're talking to has seen it a dozen times before.
Oh, and those "secret" sites you visit with all the cool hacks, scams, and other cheaty-type stuff? Your GM knows about those, too.