Cheating and Ethical Gameplay

Originally published at: Cheating and Ethical Gameplay - Rolling for Change - Geek Therapy's Transformative Gaming Podcast

In this episode, Brian, Josue and I discuss the concept of cheating in games. Whether we acknowledge it or not, deception is a life skill. From as early as 2 we learn that fake crying may result in getting what we want. It is later through the structure of social learning that this habit becomes less cute and more annoying, that the external world starts to punish this behavior and reinforce honesty. As a result, we get more tricksy, more wiley in our lies. By the time we are adults, we are programmed by deceptive ad campaigns that suggest using this mouthwash and that deodorant will make your life better. It is not surprising that unchecked cheating in games result in more crafty cheaters. However, most of us would say that cheating is not in the spirit of playing games with others. Subversion of the rules for a personal agenda is often seen as outside of the boundaries of good taste and ethical gamesmanship. It’s a briar patch of controversy that we can dig into and perhaps gain some better understanding. This episode can start that discussion and hopefully provide some insight into cheating behaviors. The dice are loaded and the deck is stacked in this episode of Rolling For Change.

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Another enjoyable episode. Cheating seems to boil down to semantics as Josue suggests. There are games that do allow for dishonest gameplay, as stated in their written rules. In such games, cheating is not an issue (Diplomacy was a great example; the game is all about lying and manipulating to win). Is it possible to cheat at Diplomacy? Sure, but I’m in league with those who will never play it again and I don’t care.

In games without a cheating variation or where dishonest gameplay is not encouraged, there is not argument in my mind. If you are consciously altering game play outside the written regulations of the game to allow anyone an unfair advantage, it is cheating. It’s my opinion, but I’m the writing this entry.

Beyond the definition of cheating (which had many more shades of grey than I would have expected), the question of why gamers cheat is a fascinating one that wasn’t given enough time, IMHO. The desire to win seems to be a large component of the decision, but opens the question of why not sharpen your skills the honest way. Learn the rules, learn the game play, learn how to maneuver pieces/cards/abilities for your advantage as opposed to dishonestly manipulating game pieces for one’s advantages? Perhaps this discussion alone could consume several episodes and move beyond the intent of the show; it certainly asks more questions than it answers.

I enjoyed the focus on the social contract for honest gameplay. I agree whole heartedly that cheating/dishonest gameplay calls forfeiture of the game and I personally will decide to not play with cheaters again.

I would like to see you guys pursue this topic further and drill down on the subtopics.

Thanks for another great listening experience.


I, for one, would like to come back to this. Maybe in the form of a larger discussion on why negative traits creep into certain gamers’ behaviors. Why do some gamers cheat? Why do some gamers play “alpha player” in cooperative games? Why are some people poor losers/winners? I think that would be a worthwhile discussion.


Hi Sam! Thanks for chiming in. Yes, coming back to this topic from another point of view will be helpful. I have much more to say about this and I would like to see us come back to building a gaming ethics or guidelines for play. The other side is really doing a deeper dive on the motivation to cheat. We are really getting into the self talk and rationale or rationalization that goes into devious behaviors- but from the microcosm of gaming. Josue pointed out that there is a body of literature that deals with the lack of correlation from one arena to another. The way I heard it, cheating in games does not necessarily mean that you will cheat on taxes. I would like to know more of that literature.

We all have our demons. I am always interested in exploring mine, so there is a lot more to do.

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I had a client that would play Magic: the Gathering with me at the start of every session. He’s much better at it than me and he knows it. There were rare occasions that I would come close to winning, and then he would mess with his deck, think I wouldn’t notice, and miraculously he would come out of nowhere and beat me.

I let him get away with it, and then after the games he would cheat in, we had several really good discussions. Each time I would bring attention to the behavior that let me know he was cheating. Sometimes we discussed how if he wanted me to take him to a tournament (which is something he really wanted), that kind of behavior wouldn’t fly. He would make agreements to show me he could go without cheating, and then break them, so we never ended up going to a tournament.

The best conversations were about why he cheated, though. I don’t think he even really knew. This kid would call himself a “bad kid” almost every time I saw him for the first 6 months. He got into trouble a lot, serious trouble, and felt like he shouldn’t even bother making change because he’s just a “bad kid” that didn’t deserve good things. His self-esteem was practically non-existent.

When he was playing Magic, it was the only time I saw him display confidence (at least at first). He didn’t have the ego strength to handle losing at something he excelled at…especially someone who wasn’t as good as he was. It’s why I let him cheat at first. As we built his self-esteem and confidence in other areas, I was able to push back on the cheating more and more. I even won a game on my own merit with him, and he didn’t throw a fit. I didn’t put it in those words in my reports…but that’s pretty much how I knew he had met his goals and he was ready for services to end.

I guess the point of my story is…cheating can serve a purpose, other than people just trying to be jerks. Sometimes it’s a scared kid, who needs help learning that it’s okay to lose at something. That you can lose sometimes and still be good at something, that the world won’t end, and that there are other strengths you can draw on.


Thanks for sharing Lara. Very often, we easily demonize those who cheat. We take that moral high ground, when we know deep down we have all had to go through that lesson. That makes it that much easier to feel good about ourselves. However, I maintain that the selfish origins of cheating come from a constellation of psychodynamic considerations. Cheating in an obvious way, can be a subconscious cry for help, for support, for membership. I think it often emerges out of low self esteem, failure to believe in yourself or your abilities. The cheater sees the world as an obstacle to be overcome. Sometimes they believe that everyone cheats and therefore, those who cheat better come out ahead. It’s a broken mentality that needs more compassion and derision. I love that you were able to eventually address this in your sessions. Games, and the way we play them, can really showcase the challenges we are wrestling with.

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