Updated: Jun 16, 2020
by: Andrew Davidson
Why do we cheat?
In Star Trek, while studying at the academy, James T. Kirk—not yet the famous "Captain Kirk" everyone knows—rewrote a piece of code in a simulation exercise entitled the Kobayashi Maru.
The Maru, fundamentally designed to be an "unwinnable simulation exercise," tested a captain's willpower and tenacity when the chips are down to see if the applicant suffers an emotional break with the loss of his entire (simulated) spaceship. James T. Kirk attempted the Maru simulation exercise twice; however, on his third time, as luck would have it, Kirk beat an "unwinnable" scenario—he cheated.
Why do we cheat?
For the past few weeks—maybe few months—I have been asking that question. Now, there are many discussions and subjects and scenarios to discuss (from cheating on a test to cheating on your spouse); however, since this is a blog about board games, more specifically, I have been thinking about cheating in games.
Here comes the jam-packed anecdotal portion of your reading. Trust me, I get around to addressing the subject matter…eventually. Hang with me for a bit, if you can.
A few years ago, while attending a local Science Fiction and Fantasy convention, I found myself playing Elder Sign—a cooperative dice-rolling, Cthulhu game—with two complete strangers. As someone who owns a copy of Elder Sign and has played the snot out of not only the physical copy but the digital version as well, the game, its rules, and complexities, fell right into my plush covered comfort zone. The three of us started our game and things were progressing along quite smoothly. But, as every Cthulhu game by Fantasy Flight does, things go from smooth to rocky in a matter of minutes. We were nearing the end of the game and it was a close one. I shant bore you with the details, but it came down to the final move. We needed a specific combination of symbols on dice to get the clue we wanted and win the game; if not, then the doom tracker would advance and the game would be lost. Bottom of the ninth. Two outs. Bases loaded.
One of my new companions attempted the roll. He had three “re-roll” abilities so all was not lost when the first roll came up with nothing. Then second roll, also a dud. The third and final roll had everything we needed! Minus one symbol! We had lost the game. But my companions refused to feel the bitter agony of defeat. The active player used a card ability which allowed him to flip one die to the side of his or her choosing. Yeah! We had won! My companions got up from our table. They began shouting, high-fiving, making a big scene. They were excited!
However… The card my companion used in order to perform the “game-winning” action had already been exhausted and can only be used once per round. He had already used the ability much earlier in the round, therefore, he could not activate that ability again. I brought this minor error to his attention. At first, he argued that he forgot to flip over the card from when he used it LAST round; this was not the case. I pointed out he already used the ability on another challenge…this round. My companion did not accept what I had to say, but I could tell by his voice, his body language, and his demeanor that deep-down, in the back of his brain, he knew the card was spent. But, nonetheless, my two Elder Sign companions continued their celebration anyway. Boy were they excited. I simply sat at our table, alone, not really knowing what to do with myself. We lost. I know we had lost. Why would a guy at a convention come to play games with strangers only to cheat?
Why do we cheat?
Recently, I was forced (kicking and screaming) to play a game of Welcome to Your Perfect Home with some friends and well-wishers over the video platform Zoom (thank you very much, Mr. Covid-19). At the end of the game, I came out ahead for the win. Not only that, but at a game in which I typically suck the big salty one, I came out far, far ahead of any other competitor. To cut a long narrative thread short, due to the fact I was learning the game for the first time (along with any technical mishaps one may face when communicating via video chat), I inadvertently performed a few actions—while in the comfort of my bedroom, with no one around to keep me in check—that, to my knowledge, were legal moves. They were—obviously, in the end—not.
Once the dust settled, I held myself accountable and fessed up to my cheating ways. Some of my competitors teased me about "being a cheater" even though I exclaimed profusely that I did not clearly understand, or misinterpreted, that aspect of the game.
It was later that night that I tied up my swim trunks and went swimming in my own thoughts:
There are so many chances to cheat at games—bumping victory point markers on a track, shuffling cards a certain way, not discarding a card when forced to, making illegal moves when nobody is paying close attention, using card abilities more than once a round—why would a player do it?
Or, better yet, why wouldn't a player do it? If you think of it, the opportunities are ever-present. And, of course, if performed with the charm and innocence akin to a smiling salesman, one can always cite their cheating behavior as a mere accident.
First, before examining emotional and logical reasons driving an individual to play it straight, let us, for juxtaposition purposes, illuminate why an individual would consciously cheat at a game.
1. Winning—seriously, who wants to lose? Why lose and feel miserable when you can “win” and feel ever so good?!?
2. Pride/Ego—the player does not want to look dumb or not able to perform at a task.
3. Sibling Rivalry—the player does not want another player to win due to outside circumstances and other interpersonal dynamics (I call this “sibling rivalry,” but it could be anyone: a spouse, an old friend from college, a co-worker).
So, for those of you honorable and brave few still reading; why do you choose not to cheat?
1. Moral Code?—the player knows that cheating is fundamentally wrong.
2. Respect?—the player assumes that all other players are playing fair, so they should follow suit.
3. A Sour Win?—the player cheats to win the game, but does not find any satisfaction in winning because, deep down, they know it was a sour win.
All of these reasons—at least in my humble opinion—are valid reasons. Then why do people cheat at games? What is so crucial about cardboard, meeples, and dice that an individual classifies themselves as a good or bad person depending on if they win at Settlers of Catan or not? It is only Friday night game night, not cheating on an entrance exam to get into a university program that could change the shape of your future! To broaden the discussion: are the motivating factors to cheat the same for kids as they are for adults? Also, if you observe someone cheating, how do you handle it? Is it worth calling attention? Is it worth making someone feel embarrassed while subsequently making yourself feel like a jerk for addressing it? If it is such a painful experience, then, I ask again:
Why do we cheat?