Welcome to a new series I'm calling We The Meeple, where I'm going to grapple with the larger ideas of gaming in a quick, understandable way - I'll be talking about mechanics, theme, genre, and art; metagaming, microgaming, and megagaming; how we play, why we play, and what we play. For now, I'm planning on dropping an article every couple weeks, but that may vary depending on life and entropy and other chaotic things.
This week, we're covering the king of all gaming sins; the elephant in the room with an ace up his trunk; the paper-playing, hand-mucking, bottom-dealing son-of-a-gun we all know and hate:
To say the least, cheating is a touchy subject. It's the board game equivalent of politics: everyone has a strong opinion and talking about it tends to cause a heated argument. To some, it's the greatest of transgressions; to others, a harmless white lie. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say everyone has cheated during a game at some point. You may swear up and down that I'm wrong, that you've lived a sinless life like a board game Jesus, but come on: everyone has "miscounted" their Monopoly money, or knocked a piece off the board when your friend went to the bathroom, or given themselves that one extra victory point you need to win, or et cetera. It happens.
I say all this to assuage you of guilt: I'm not going to spend this whole article condemning cheating or cheaters. This isn't a diatribe. You won't have to feel bad about that time you slipped a Monopoly bill into your sleeve in sixth grade. Instead, I want to look at cheating itself: what is it, why does it happen, and what does it tell us about ourselves and our hobby? I'll cover all of this in a short (hopefully) and understandable (hopefully) fashion across two parts.
Part 1: What is Cheating?
Let's talk broadly for a bit. What is a game?
Children's Games, 1560, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
As we know from childhood, anything can be a game. Counting, skipping down the street, eating, whatever; I remember learning my kindergarten classmates' names through a simple repetition game. Humans are so adapted for gamification that we apply it anywhere we can: look at FourSquare's check-ins, team building exercises, Fitbit's fitness "challenges", etc. Games can involve a lack of activity, like the quiet game, or more activity than normal, like sports. Some games are physical and some are mental. They can involve multiple players or just one. They can be a simulation or abstracted or something in the middle. They can use a board, or cards, or a wheel, or the world around us. Some games use components while others are more freeform. They can be played for recreational, professional, and/or artistic reasons. Some allow you to make choices, others do not. Some are played for points, others for fun. Some are luck-based, others are not. Some allow you to win, others do not (I'm looking at you, Eldritch Horror).
So what really makes a game?
Many people smarter than I have tried to define it. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously tackled this in his book Philosophical Investigations; he claimed that the usual trappings of gaming do not define it, and that "games" are just a loosely connected group of different human activities. Unfortunately for the beery swine Wittgenstein (NSFW), this is a useless definition. In philosophy, it's usually bad practice to say something is undefinable. I think the definition of a game relies upon its rules. Bernard Suits, in his 1978 book The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia, gives a great definition: "Games are the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles." He expounds on this later, "To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity." To put in the simplest terms, games are a social contract where we agree to abide by certain rules in order to achieve certain goals, whether they be fun, recognition, or rewards. I would argue that without rules, games are meaningless; after all, football without rules is just standing around holding a pigskin.
Smokey, this is not 'Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.Walter Sobchak
Now that we have the definition for a game and understand the system, cheating is easier to define: it is the action of disregarding or manipulating a system of rules to gain an unfair advantage. This can take many forms: omission of information, lying, theft, and collusion are a few examples. Cheating can break stated rules, like a hand-limit in a card game, but it can also break implicit rules, like taking back a move or threatening a player with consequences outside the game. Cheating in the meta-game is one of the most common types of cheating - bringing in outside information, collusion, manipulation of other players, changing the board state, etc - but cheating within the rules of a system is also possible. Often these are considered loopholes, but things like misrepresenting points or taking more actions than allowed are definitely cheating.
Cheating can also be unintentional: sometimes, rules are forgotten and the discrepancy goes unnoticed. This is often seen as less serious than intentional cheating but it can affect the outcome of a game just the same. In a high-profile 1994 match, chess champion Garry Kasparov broke the "touch-move" rule, which states that if a player lets go of a piece after a move, it cannot be adjusted. In Kasparov's case, he moved his knight to c6, but upon noticing this move would end in his defeat, decided to move it to f8 instead; the problem was that Kasparov let go of the piece for one quarter second, which meant the touch-move rule was applicable. Despite a psychologist ruling that it was an unconscious reflex, many chess players still consider it an underhanded move. Kasparov went on to win, as his opponent did not complain in the proper time frame.
Remember, though, that how we specifically define cheating is dependent on the game itself. Some rules don't apply to other games: while bluffing (or lying about the game state) may be an accepted mechanic for games like Liars' Dice or Poker, it may be unfair within the context of others. One of my favorite games, Cosmic Encounter, has an alien race called the Filch. In the older Eon edition, the Filch were given a special power that allowed the player to take whatever cards or ships they wanted from the table as long as they weren't caught. Within the context of the game, this isn't cheating, although it appears to be. Like pornography, people often give the definition of cheating as "you know it when you see it", but that is useless when we consider all the variables at play. What may look like cheating may just be a creative interpretation of the rules, while actions that may not look nefarious can in fact be cheating. This is important to remember going forward as we head into part 2.
So, we've looked at the definition of games and where cheating fits into it. Using our new information, we can move forwards from the What and How and start thinking about the Why. I lied a bit earlier; the next part is the one where you may start to feel bad for that stolen Monopoly money.
Make sure to catch We The Meeple next time for the second part of our adventure into the world of liars, cheats, and thieves. Just remember: keep your hands above the table, your sleeves rolled up, and your eye on the guy next to you. Thanks for reading!
The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs, Georges de La Tour