Cheating: Accusations and Confessions

self-flagellationThere’s an old story within my family about my uncle and a now infamous game of Clue. The game had begun without any fanfare, and when it came to his turn, my uncle proceeded immediately and with clear and deliberate intention to a particular room of the mansion. Thereupon, at the earliest possible moment and on his very first attempt, having conducted no interviews whatsoever, he correctly declared the killer, weapon, and location, winning the game. When the accusations of cheating were leveled at him, he stated quite plainly: “Of course I looked in the envelope! We’re trying to solve a murder here, people. If I need to break into a lousy file cabinet, I will!”

My uncle is a prankster, and the whole event was not about winning the game for him; it was just about the joke. My sons, on the other hand, are in that learning stage where they have to get used to the idea of losing being “part of the fun.” Admittedly, that’s a hard sell. My older son’s response (quite like his father) ranges from crying to flipping the table to throwing the video game controller. Chip off the old block, that one. My younger son’s response, at least as of late, is cheating. His m.o. usually involves dice: either trying to turn the dice when people aren’t looking, or trying to “drop” the dice so that they “roll” the desired results. I suppose the capacity for deceit is some sort of developmental milestone, psychologically speaking, but of course we must now follow with the cultivation of honorable conduct. And yet, as with all “parenting moments,” every admonition I utter feels like hypocrisy, as I secretly remember my own sins. When it comes to cheating at games, I’m happy to say I racked my brain and could only recall a few clear-cut infractions, and most of these relatively minor, like not signalling a lane change. But I was given to think of a number of dubious or even false claims to cheating. So with the game gods watching over me now as I mete out fatherly retributions, it’s high time they hear my defenses… and my confessions.


  • Skipping Monopoly rent. I’m not sure how much this is actually a problem or a cheating accusation among Monopoly players, but it seems like one of my earliest and most common memories of other people getting pissed off in a game. It’s when the next player rolls the dice and you get to skip rent where you landed because the landlord wasn’t paying attention. It’s one of a handful of sadistic pleasures in Monopoly, and it’s perfectly legal, expressed right there in the rules.
  • Tipped hands. I think this one is far more contentious than skipping Monopoly rent, but I still assert that it is not cheating. In a friendly game, of course, when a player tips their hand, you just sort of remind them to play it a little closer to the vest. But when the competition is fierce… many a time have I been called a “cheater” for using knowledge I gained from a tipped hand. This isn’t a case of me leaning out of my seat or walking behind the player or looking at the reflection in the window or anything like that. I’m talking about when the player is displaying their cards. I have no remorse. This is not cheating. That’s why champion poker player bend their pocket cards only the tiniest bit necessary to see their corners. It is a player’s own responsibility to conceal their own cards.


  • Cheat codes and “turbo.” In the realm of video games, perhaps no cheat code is more famous than the Konami Code. And it’s true: I probably never would have been able to beat Contra if it weren’t for the glorious feast of thirty lives offered by that code. But let’s

    My personal “six-shooter.”

    understand something: cheat codes may be “secret” (or at least start out that way), but they are included in the programming. It’s not like I’m hacking the software (though I’ve got a friend who would…) The same goes for the “turbo” controllers that were available for NES and the like: controllers that offered some kind of machine-gun rapid fire option on the buttons and which made it possible for me to survive Gun.Smoke. But again: I didn’t build the controller. I bought it from the authorized manufacturer. As far as I’m concerned, cheat codes and turbo controllers aren’t “cheating” at all. I like to think of them as “optional difficulty settings.”

  • Nintendo Power. Nintendo’s authorized periodical offered not only game news and reviews, but helpful resources like tips, strategies, and maps. Without it, I’d probably STILL be wandering aimlessly around the very first incarnation of the land of Hyrule. These days I teach my kids not to look on the internet for these kinds of resources until they’ve solved the game at least once on their own. That’s partly sportsmanship and partly because it’s just so easy anymore to find game solutions on the internet. Far easier than it ever was in our 8-bit heyday. And back in those days, I honestly did give it my best effort before consulting an outside resource, but then again: wouldn’t a hero like Link seek out an important resource like a map before embarking on a dangerous quest? And after all: these maps were issued by the authorized manufacturer, just like my turbo controller.
  • Choose Your Own Adventure, et al. Anybody who read these books or any number of other lone-wolfsimilar game books is guilty of this: you stick your finger in the book before flipping ahead and committing to the next action/passage, just in case the current choice gets you killed. Maybe it’s cheating; I guess part of the point in these books is to “leap before you look.” Then again, what’s going to happen if you sincerely start over? Most likely you’re going to make all the exact same choices that led you to the critical juncture in the first place, and reading the same exact passages over again would just be boring. It’s not cheating. It’s just saving time and keeping the game enjoyable.
  • Divine Dungeon Master. The GMs in Dungeons & Dragons and a thousand other games have the luxury of sitting behind a screen and hiding their die rolls. Once, during a D&D session, our friend’s dad, who was from old-school Soviet Russia and had absolutely no understanding of what this game was or why six teenagers thought it was fun, pointed at the DM and declared in his heavy slavic accent, “He’s obviously cheating.” And of course, whenever it was my go to be DM, I fudged things all the time. But I’m not sure it’s cheating. RPG rules expressly give the GM varying levels of authority to arbitrate in-game situations in the interest of maintaining game balance and player enjoyment. This is particularly necessary for modules we write ourselves, since they’ve never been play-tested before being put into action, and it’s highly likely we’ve gotten the calibration wrong. If you don’t fix things like this on the fly, the game breaks and stops being fun. Now I will admit I’ve used my my power in spite: I once simply declared that my girlfriend’s dragon familiar was simply “killed in the chaos”—no rolls were made. She was distraught, but I didn’t care. From a role-playing sense, that creature was annoying, and from a game balance sense, her character was too invincible because of it. The way I see it, I was just maintaining balance and preserving player enjoyment.
  • Games that encourage cheating. Finally in this ambiguous category we have a handful of games that have a kind of meta-quality, which actually asks the players to cheat, if they can get away with it. Two that come to mind immediately are Blackbeard (the 1991 version) and Diplomacy. Both titles explicitly encourage the players to make promises they aren’t required to keep, and state that any action you don’t get called out on is a legal action. We can add to this category a wide range of bluffing-based games. If the rules tell you to break the rules, are you actually breaking the rules? Are there even any rules in the first place? It’s all very philosophical. I don’t know if this is actually cheating, per se, but I do know that people get pretty pissed off, and the notion that this is a “game” starts to lose all meaning.


  • Peeking at their shoes. Okay, now it’s time for the confessions. In grammar school, we used to play this game called “Heads Up, 7-Up.” If you don’t know it: it’s a pointless time-suck of a game where seven agents roam the classroom, touching the raised thumbs of other students who have their heads down and cannot see which agent has tapped them.

    Apparently an international phenomenon…

    Once seven students are tapped, the agents line up at the front of the room, and the tapped students elicit guesses as to the culprit. If you guess right, you trade places and become one of the agents in the next round. There is utterly no skill involved in this game, other than students who guess later in the round have a slight advantage due to process of elimination. Other than that, you have absolutely no way of deducing who tapped you. Unless you were peeking at their shoes while your head was down. Then, if you weren’t too obvious about looking at them in the line-up, and you didn’t have to stand up to see from the back of the room, you could ID them on account of their shoes. The players who were on to you would double-team it: one player would stand where you might see their shoes, while the other tapped you from the other side. Or they’d both stand there and you wouldn’t know which one it was. We all believed we had special “tapping techniques” or could read another person’s touch like a fortune teller.

  • Soldiers and ships don’t sit still. That’s right: I’ve moved my fair amount of ships in Battleship. I’ve relocated the flag in Stratego. I mean WHY are these soldiers and sailors just sitting around taking a beating!? Where’s the evasive and tactical maneuvers? Where’s the retreat? It makes no sense. Probably why I started gravitating towards more thematic games.
  • Throwing the game. Somewhat counter-intuitive to the idea of cheating, but I think “throwing the game,” “sandbagging,” “taking a fall,” etc., all count as cheating. You’re not doing it to win, but you are trying to manufacture a deliberate result by violating the rules or at least the spirit of the game, and probably without the knowledge or consent of the other players. This could be unwrapped into a whole separate argument to deal with tactics like “kingmaking” and with the ill-defined notion of a game’s “spirit.” I think the other players’ consent is an important dividing line between whether or not you are cheating, but games like Monopoly and Diplomacy have a whole lot of what we might call “gray area.” The point here is I have definitely thrown games, stacked decks, and turned dice so that I would lose, in order to increase someone else’s enjoyment of a game, especially if I thought they were having a particularly and statistically unlikely bad first round.
  • My ultimate game sin. I’m confident I’m not alone in the transgressions I’ve shared above, and like I said: I think they’re all pretty minor. I do have one, however, that ranks as my

    This is the same model as the one I had.

    most deceitful cheat. After my parents got divorced, my dad moved away, and we stayed in touch partly through a game of correspondence chess. I was so desperate to be competitive with him that I employed a computerized chess set I had. I plugged his moves in against the computer, and whatever the computer spit back, I sent to him as my moves. Looking back, I’m pretty sure he was on to me. Not only did he straight up ask me if I was using a computer (to which I lied and said I wasn’t!), but this wasn’t the first time we’d ever played together. He surely must have suspected I hadn’t recently been tutored by Garry Kasparov. The game gods were watching, however. It ended up that we had a weekend together and he suggested we finish the remainder of the game face-to-face (further evidence to suggest he was wise to me). Having what must have been a very well developed opening and a sufficient position in the middle game, I had no idea what to do with that or how to execute any sort of recognizable strategy, and I ultimately lost the game.

The moral of the story? Cheaters never prosper. Except when they do.

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