We The Meeple: Why We Cheat pt. 2

Welcome back to the final part of our (surely) thrilling series on cheating! In the first part, we worked out a definition for cheating, but that's only half of the puzzle. In this week's installment, we'll be looking at the why of cheating.

Part 2: Why Do We Cheat?

"Doubtless the pleasure is as great
Of being cheated as to cheat."
Samuel Butler, Hudibras
The first time I intentionally cheated was over a game of Risk. The battlefield was slicked with sweat and gore - I had gotten a nasty papercut earlier - and we were entering the 5th hour of play in our second game (I won the first). Now, I thought I was pretty hot at Risk. I had won pretty often against others and my winning streak was going strong. This time, I was facing off against my most bitter opponent, my cousin, who had managed to snag a strong lead by taking Asia. I was busy turtling (defending) in Australia, which left me at a disadvantage - veteran Risk players know that, while Australia is a good defensive stronghold, you're backing yourself into a literal corner if you put all your forces there. Unfortunately, it seemed like a good strategy at the time, and by the time I had realized what happened, I was stuck. His troops were perched in Siam, ready to charge into the final battle; my forces were looking mighty slim by comparison. The battle would be close and I wasn't sure of my chances. Luckily, all that soda got to my opponent and he left for a bathroom break. I'm not proud to say it, but I saw my chance and I went for it without hesitation: I added two soldiers to my territories and took one away from him. In the end, it wasn't enough - he overran my positions and I lost the game - but I still felt guilty. In the heat of the moment, it didn't matter; the desire to win overtook any board game morality I had. Afterwards, though, it hit me like a train. It was like the five stages of grief: first I denied it was a big deal, then I was angry about it ("I'm not a cheater, the game cheated me"), then I did some bargaining ("Next game, I'll give him an easy point to make up for it"), followed by feeling like a jerk, and finally, acceptance of my transgressions.
So why did I cheat? "Well obviously," you'd say, "because you knew you were going to lose." While that's partially true, there had to be more to it. I had lost games before; I'd even lost games of Risk before. I don't cheat when I think I might lose. I believe that's true of most people. I think, instead, it has less to do with losing, and more to do with winning.
"The Hand of God" - In the 1986 World Cup, Diego Maradona (pictured) of Argentina used his hand to "punch" the ball into the goal - use of the hands is illegal under soccer rules - but the referee claimed to not see it. Argentina later went on to win the game.
If you're confused by that, let's turn this over to a good friend of mine from college, A Recent Scientific Study.
A recent scientific study by scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem tested a group of participants with a simple die-rolling game and found some surprising results: Winners are more likely to cheat than losers. They found that the players who won games in the first round (a no-cheating round) were far more likely to cheat in the second round, where their die rolls were secret. They repeated the experiment, this time asking some participants to remember a time when they had won a competition against other players and some to remember a time when they achieved a personal goal. The scientists found that those who had reminisced about competitive victories cheated more often than those who had remembered achieving a goal. Even more than the first part, this is telling. It means our view of ourselves - as winners, as losers, as a superior player or just as a player - is hugely influential in how we play.
"A guy who'd cheat on his wife would cheat at cards."
Texas Guinan
I believe that cheating comes from the dark side of the lusory attitude: when we engage in structured play, your status in the game grows in importance until it becomes an all-encompassing state of mind. Ask a tournament Magic the Gathering player: after hours of play, the game is your life. Bills, kids, the dog, friends, TV - none of them matter as much as the game.  It's where we get the expression "head in the game"; literally, the game is your mindset. When we enter this dark side, we lose our sense of the relative scale of success. Success in the game becomes as large as success in life - and with it, failure becomes larger too. Suddenly, a win streak is a holy record, meant to be unbroken; if it looks like it might end, our brain - and ego - convinces us to use any means necessary, even if it involves breaking the rules.
"Winning is a habit."
Leo Durocher
Cheating is, at its core, a high-risk low-reward action. You may gain in-game victory points and out-of-game bragging rights, but when your friends refuse to play games with you anymore, those won't mean anything. Even in a competitive setting, where it may seem like the rewards are greater, the risk is also exponentially greater - look at Lance Armstrong, who went from national hero to national embarrassment due to the steroids scandal. Again, it balances out to high-risk, low-reward: if Armstrong hadn't cheated, he might not have won, but the public would still love him. But Lance Armstrong was a winner. It was his public image: he beat cancer, he beat the French on their own turf, and he could beat anything else that came his way. In a way, he was a reflection of the very American ideal of being the best. If he lost, that illusion would be shattered. The pressure of being a winner - not being a loser - led him to doping. In the same way, the pressure we place on ourselves can lead to unscrupulous behavior in an essentially unimportant activity.
The moral of the story? Ultimately, cheating is a case-to-case thing. I would wager that most of you don't cheat or haven't cheated in a long time. I'm not calling you out for something you haven't done. Instead, view this as a cautionary tale about the power of the human ego. If you consider yourself "the best Risk player" or "the best ____ player", you may want to rethink that image of yourself - it may just lead you to betray yourself and your friends. Instead, approach each game with humility, and consider that no one cares if you win or lose - it's just fun to play the game.
That's all I have on cheating for now. I may revisit this topic at some point in the future, but for the next article, we'll be breaking away from the tabletop and going big - whether it's saving the Earth from aliens, fighting elves with foam swords, or just trying to escape a locked room. Join me next time where I'll discuss my recent experience playing a megagame and ponder their unique mix of theatre, role-playing, and board games.
- Charlie