Ethics in Games: How Far Will You Go?
Bottom Line: There are no morals in games, other than the rules. Many games employ deception, even lies. You need to set your own limits, but irrational anger about deception within the rules is not necessary.
This random group of thoughts was inspired by this
And the ensuing discussion that happened on reddit as a result
Basically, there was something written on Sportsjerks.net about using deception in fantasy sports. Not necessarily all day everyday, but selectively. Some people, got a little upset, so I got to thinking, in non-cooperative games, how much deception is moral or ethical? Let’s look at real sports before we talk about games or fantasy sports.
Ethics in Real Sports
Sports have rules and have officials to enforce those rules. We’ve all seen it. We’re watching a football game or maybe a basketball game. An offensive player is streaking towards the goal and a defender mauls the hell out of him, practically assaults him, and successfully defends the goal. Now, in the NFL or the NBA, this type of behavior could easily result in a penalty. But sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes the official just doesn’t see it or fails to make a call. If a defender assaults a wide receiver, prevents a touchdown and doesn’t get called… does he have any responsibility to tell the official?
No of course not. He should be happy, his coach should come up to him and pat him on the back and tell him what a good job he did, congratulations on not getting caught. Is this ethical? Is this good sportsmanship?
Yes of course its ethical. His responsibility is to his team, and to winning. Fair play is one thing, but there’s no reason for a professional athlete to throw himself under the bus. That’s what the officials are there for. In fact, sometimes committing penalties is part of the strategy.
Ok, but what about us mere mortals? Is deception a part of games that amateurs might play (like fantasy sports)? Let me think…
Amateurs, Deception, and Morals
Last fall I participated in a flag football league, strictly community based. I read the rule book and saw the strict rules against contact. I was genuinely worried I’d be breaking the rules all the time without meaning to.
Turns out, I was fine…. other players, not so much. At one point an opposing player picked up one of our team, turned them sideways and basically let them go in mid-air. The ref, who saw everything, did not call a penalty. I don’t think I saw a single penalty called for contact the entire season. Soon, people noticed this and started playing more and more aggressive. Were they cheating? Nope. There were provisions in the rules for all of this, they just weren’t being enforced.
Some people thought the opposing players were being assholes, or immoral in some way. They weren’t, the officials basically negated the rule book. It would be wrong to apply some kind of morality to this, or say this was a symptom of a crumbling society.
Picture this, you’re playing recreational softball. You run the bases and score… but you know you didn’t touch second. Are you going to out yourself? Tell the umpire? I know I wouldn’t. If the umpire doesn’t see something, oh well. Thats what happens in sports, some things get called, some things don’t. Now, certainly my failure to admit this would be deceptive. Much more deceptive than some of the things that go on in fantasy football, and yet people get worked up over stuff don’t they?
What about non-sports. Well… would you be totally against employing deception in Monopoly, or Poker… or… fantasy sports? I’m not even talking about breaking the rules. Just being less than honest with your opponents.
“But Pat…. I play games and fantasy sports with my friends and family!”
Yea? So? If we’re playing Monopoly and considering a trade, I’ll tell you right now… I aint being honest with you. You see the pieces, you can see what I have, you can see what you have. Other than that, I’m not going to be honest with you about why I want or don’t want something, or what I plan to do with it. I might even flat out lie about how I value something so you give me more. Yes, to friends. Yes to family. Hello, it’s a game and I’m trying to win. But if your friends totally lied to you in a fantasy football context, you’d be pissed right? Even if what they did was within the rules. Furious emails get exchanged, weeks long hateful conversations, long term anxiety and fear. Why? Cause you got taken for a ride? C’mon.
What about Poker? I think we can all agree deception is a part of playing poker. Which was the whole point of the SportsJerks.net piece in the beginning. If you’re playing poker with your friends and you bluff and win… do you tell your friends what you had? Of course NOT! If you do, you’re an idiot. It’s perfectly acceptable to not tell them, to let them think you had something you didn’t. In fact, I’d even lie sometimes if they ask me what I had. Clearly this is deception and clearly lying, but is it immoral? No. Absolutely not. There’s no morality in lying during a game. This ain’t real life. This isn’t about you lying on your taxes or lying to your boss. Its a game. It has its own internal rules and logic. In real life I have no problem telling my friend anything they ask me, I have nothing to hide. But if we’re playing a game? No, they get told nothing. Less than nothing.
The Art of War: Ethics and Deception in Fantasy Sports
Now, what started all this for me? The author of the sportjerks.net piece was talking about using deception, selectively, in fantasy sports. He used an example where news broke that a player he had got injured and he immediately offered to trade that player to another league mate, hoping that fellow fake footballer would take the trade without realizing the player being offered was injured.
Now, the trade didn’t happen. But… a few people were surprisingly agitated by this example. People seemed to be saying that deception, lies, all of these were inappropriate when playing fantasy sports, especially with friends and family. But why? I would not begrudge anyone lying to me in Monopoly or poker, and I doubt many would, so why is deception in fantasy sports so reprehensible?
Suppose I offer you a trade, just for the sake of argument, lets say I want to trade you Willis McGahee for Ahmad Bradshaw. Would it be wrong for you to lie about how much you like Bradshaw, tell me you want more when really you know its a fair trade? Would it be wrong for you to squeeze out another player, or a better player? I don’t think so, and yet if you know its already a fair trade, this would be very deceitful on your part.
What if another league mate asks you about a trade they are considering, would you consider lying to them, or purposefully give them bad advice? This is your opponent we’re talking about, why should you give them good advice? I wouldn’t have a problem with you lying or being deceitful in this instance. But, people on the original reddit thread were making comparisons to the stock market, the economy, society… even claiming that deceitful players were like sociopaths.
This is a game, applying outside morality to it is silly. There’s only one morality, the rules and possible review by the other participants. Your beliefs about real life contracts, honesty, morals, character… it has nothing to do with anything.
Bottom Line: We all have to set our own personal limits for what we might do to win a game. But actions taken within the rules by other players should not illicit irrational anger.
How far are YOU willing to go and why?