The implicit consensus in gaming culture is that we should be proud when we are able to ‘trick’ our opponents into making suboptimal (or downright misguided) plays, and/or trick referees into making bad calls. This, in turn, valorizes our ability to successfully deceive others. Today I will put this assumption under scrutiny, by analyzing the underlying logic of this valuation, and studying its effects on our behavior inside the games we play.
Before we can make an informed judgement about whether deceit in games is a good or bad thing, we first have to delineate the different varieties of deceit that are most often manifested in games.
Deceit in games generally comes in three flavors: feints, bluffs, and lies.
A feint is a deceptive movement. For example: moving as if you were going to kick a soccer ball to the left, and then actually kicking it to the right, to confuse an opposing player moving to intercept the ball. The feint is also used as a tactic in boxing and fencing to manipulate an opponent’s reactions. A feint is always physical.
A bluff is a deceptive display (of intention or ability). For example: going ‘all in’ in poker when you know you have a weak hand, or making a minimal bet when you know you have a strong hand. The confusion to your opponent here stems from a mismatch between how you behave, and what you know to be true. A bluff can be a combination of physical and verbal elements.
A lie is a deceptive statement. For example: telling an opponent in Risk that you won’t attack them on your next turn, so that they attack someone else instead—and then going ahead and attacking them anyway on your next turn. A lie is always verbal.
What unifies all of these acts is the underlying intention to deceive or mislead another person that you are playing a game with. I’ll begin with what we generally take to be the most morally problematic instance of deceit in games, and then work backward to the most generally accepted practice. Finally, I will identify the analogues of all of these forms of deceit in the game of Magic.
There’s a running gag in the Peanuts comic strip, where Charlie Brown runs up to kick a football held by Lucy, and then at the last minute Lucy pulls away the ball, and Charlie Brown falls down. It’s one of the most straightforward and well-known fictional instances of lying in a game.
We might say that Lucy is playing a game with Charlie Brown, although Charlie Brown himself might not know that he is playing it: after all, he thinks he is playing or practicing football. But the real game is called ‘Sucker’, and Lucy wins it whenever Charlie Brown believes that she is going to let him kick the ball, when in fact she has no intention to do so. It is a game of pure deceit, and the only way that Charlie Brown can win is by refusing to play with Lucy (though that would mean he has to sacrifice his underlying faith in the universal goodness of human nature, or his naivety, or become less stupid or gullible in another manner).
Sucker is an unambiguously immoral game. It is a game that is parasitic on the institution of trust. It exploits people for no other purpose than sadistic amusement. There is no human excellence that can be expressed in the course of playing it. Nor is it particularly interesting in terms of its game design.
Diplomacy, on the other hand, is an interesting and well-designed game, although it is very difficult if not impossible to win without lying at one point or another. If you’re not familiar with the game, here’s a primer:
The question is: does the goodness of a game’s design nullify the badness of having to lie in order to win it?
I think it counts as an achievement to win a game of Diplomacy, even though you have to behave immorally to do so. It is an ‘evil achievement’—like murdering someone and not getting caught. What makes lying an effective strategy in-game is that very few people would expect that you would do something immoral just to win at something trivial—like a game.
In other words, Diplomacy is just Sucker writ large. Every Diplomacy player aims to be the only Lucy at the end of the evening, standing atop a pile of disillusioned and disgraced Charlie Browns. And while that might be fun to some people—just as huffing glue might be fun to others—that’s not enough to make it good.
The bluff is only possible in games of hidden information, or games of concealment. Importantly, it is possible to conceal without bluffing—Hide and Go Seek is an excellent example of a game with hidden information where bluffing is impossible. Concealment is what enables a game of hidden information: it is not equivalent to having an intent to deceive, and is thus morally unproblematic. But what about bluffing?
While no one should be lied to outright—it’s morally wrong inside or outside a game, which is why friendships are endangered or dissolved entirely in most intense games of Diplomacy—it’s more difficult to say whether bluffing is an immoral practice or not. Player intentions are part of hidden information (in some games, like chess, they are the only items of hidden information), and thus no other player has a moral claim to have knowledge of them. However, bluffing is the intentional misrepresentation of intention or ability, and as such is at least a morally suspect practice.
Bluffing almost certainly yields an advantage in many games, but that in itself is not an argument in its favor. Cheating, too, will almost certainly yield an advantage if successfully executed, but that does not mean that cheating is thereby morally warranted. Perhaps there is something to be said for bluffing as the exercise of a skill—but being a ‘good’ cheater could also be parsed as the exercise of a skill.
So, by analogy: is there some value in being a ‘skilled’ cheater? In other words, between Cheater A and Cheater B, where Cheater A is more skilled (able to successfully execute the cheat without detection) than B, is A a better person than B if they are equivalent in all other regards?
If we say ‘yes’, then we believe that skill is morally relevant, regardless of what the skill in question is.
If we say ‘no’, then being good at cheating merely indicates a defect in character, rather than a temporary lapse in judgment. Some skills might actually make us morally worse through their possession, and the less of that skill we possess, the morally better we are for it. For example: I’d feel more at ease in the company of someone who is ‘bad’ at murder than someone who was really skilled at it, all other things being equal. That puts me in the ‘no’ camp. For me, it’s important to look at whether bluffing is the kind of skill we can morally recommend, before we can blindly praise its possession in a moral agent. The fact that you were able to deceive all your friends and family in order to win at a game of Werewolf doesn’t necessarily make you a good person, in my books.
And here’s the fine line. I think that dissembling (concealing, or saying nothing about) one’s intentions and abilities in a game (or even outside a game) is fair, and in fact improves a game. However, putting on an act, indicating that one intends to do the opposite of what one really intends to do, is unduly manipulative and interfering: this is why we generally view soccer players bluffing an injury (misrepresenting their physical state) to the referees as behaving shamefully. I want to see what my opponent can do to the best of their abilities in a game—not see the worst levels they will sink to in order to steal a win. I may be in the minority, but I believe that there is an important difference in experiencing defeat, between the good feeling of appreciating the excellent play of an opponent, and the bad feeling of having been tricked or manipulated by them.
By extension, is a feint in soccer immoral? Or is it okay to intentionally trick your opponent in order to maintain possession of the ball? To answer this question, we have to step back a bit.
The reality is that in most competitive games, where the goal is to best an opponent or reach a certain objective before others do, some level of deception is strategically desirable (where possible), and in some cases (such as poker) is absolutely essential to the activity. Thus, in-game, deception is often valorized; and so mastering a good feint is part of every soccer player’s journey to competency. But, as we have said, today we are discussing the ideal case: what we should be doing (normatively) as opposed to what we actually do (descriptively).
This boils down to an underlying issue: is the intended point of a game a test or a contest?
If a game is meant to test for the presence of certain abilities, or qualities, in its players, then the ideal of the game is to reward the exhibition of those skills or powers by its players.
If a game is meant to be a contest between players to see who can secure a victory over their opponents, then the ideal of the game is winning by any means necessary.
Sometimes, these models overlap: we can have a competitive contest wherein players are tested against each other, and the player who passes the test with the highest score will be declared the winner. However, where these models come apart we need to choose between competing ideals: testing skill or achieving a win. My position is that focusing exclusively on winning deforms what makes winning valuable in the first place—namely, that it is typically associated by the possession of a desirable skill, attribute, or quality of character. To see what I mean, imagine a ‘Snakes & Ladders Grandmaster’: we could not respect such a figure (indeed, they would likely be held up to ridicule), because they would not have (and, more precisely, could not have) exhibited any skill in the process of being awarded their title.
So: what skills does the game of soccer want to reward the possession of? I’m projecting a bit here, but I think that the answer is: the speed and accuracy with which players can manipulate a soccer ball using only their feet. Deception does not enter the picture of being a core skill to be measured via playing a game of soccer, to my mind.
That being said, there is nothing in the rules of soccer that either necessitates or proscribes feinting: the rules are silent on the topic. The feint is simply a tactic for playing soccer more effectively. In that sense, feinting is analogous to ‘content’ in computer games: it is non-essential to the game’s ruleset, and the game could function just as well without it (although soccer might aesthetically look and play out very differently without it).
There are two way to demonstrate this: (1) imagine that soccer’s ruleset were identical to its current ruleset, with the exception that (the virtually unenforceable) ‘no feinting is permitted by players’ rule were added to it; or (2) imagine that soccer’s ruleset was the same, but that morally perfect players who considered feinting to be unethical were the only ones playing it. In either case, the game would become one of power, speed, and precision instead of tricky footwork: slower, less physically powerful players would be even more disadvantaged than they already are. Whether you think that is good or bad for the game is beside the point of what soccer, as we currently understand it, aims to test.
Deceit in Magic
Lying to an opponent or a judge in Magic—‘misrepresenting the game state’—gets you disqualified if caught. Both the game’s ruleset and its institutions are very clear about this. Honoring your agreements in multiplayer is a test of your character, regardless of how you rationalize it to yourself and others after breaking them. Lying is bad inside and out of the game: don’t do it, and so on, and so forth.
Bluffing, on the other hand, is part of the game’s culture, and is widely accepted and celebrated. But I believe that dissembling (concealing) does a lot of the work of what people think bluffing is does, and is actually more effective in the long run (as well as having the virtue of being more honest). It also makes a strategy game more genuinely interesting to watch when your eyes can rest on the pieces, rather than the players.
Feinting is less common in Magic, but is also used as a tactic by the professionals of the game: reaching to tap a land that produces a certain color of mana, and then making a show of untapping it without playing a spell; counting the cards in one’s graveyard at strategic times when none of one’s cards in hand refer to the graveyard; and loudly flicking one’s cards during an opponent’s key decision points in the hopes of distracting them or reducing their ability to make calculations, all count as feints. I would say that these moves, while not necessarily morally problematic, are out of line with what the game intends to measure or test, and thus count as a perversion of the game’s chief aims.
In summary: lying is bad and self-defeating; bluffing is (typically) redundant and prodigal behavior if hidden information remains well-dissembled; and feinting, while neither immoral nor redundant, is often out of line with the spirit of any game which is designed as a test.
Magic, as it is designed, wants to test whether you can make the correct strategic moves in choosing or building your deck, and the correct tactical moves in playing it in an actual match. Treating it like a contest where ‘psyching out’ your opponent is the chief focus of your efforts deforms the game, and turns it into something relatively petty, antagonistic, and trivial. To ignore this conclusion would only be to fool yourself into thinking that the game is something it is not.