Theory: There’s No Such Thing As “Accidental Cheating”

The number-one most reliable way to start a fight around the gaming table is to call someone a cheater. It’s the nuclear option, the thrown gauntlet that says I don’t want to play anymore, I want to talk about how terrible you are instead. As a result, it’s important only to use “cheat,” “cheater,” and “cheating” when you really mean it—when you want to start that adversarial confrontation. Using those words to discuss innocent play errors, as with “unintentional cheating” and the like, only serves to make fixing problems impossible.

All unfair advantages in games are bad, but not all of them are moral issues. Just like there’s a difference between accidentally knocking into someone and intentionally shoving them, there’s a difference between breaking the rules through error or ignorance and intentionally violating the rules to get a leg up on an opponent. The former situation in each case is unfortunate, but only the latter involves an ethical failure.

We make this distinction between the innocent and the unethical, in life and in the law, because it matters. If John accidentally knocks Fred down, we want John to help Fred pick up his things. If John shoves Fred to the floor, we want John to back off. We also want the endgame for John to be different: accident-John probably doesn’t need to go to jail, but shove-John might deserve it.

Unfortunately, over the past year or so I’ve seen people crossing the streams with terms like “accidental cheating” or “unintentional cheating.” Introducing the language of cheating into situations of accident makes it difficult to sustain the vital distinction between the two ideas, and to get the results we want out of each situation.

First, calling accidents—even serious, game-deciding accidents—cheating gives rise to the wrong final result. It puts accident-John in jail. What should have been cause for an apology and perhaps an effort at setting things right becomes a source of shame and even punishment.

Second, the word “cheating” makes people defensive and discourages them from taking remedial steps. If I say to someone “I think you made a rules mistake,” they’re likely to listen to what I’m saying and to fix any problems that have resulted. If I say “I think you cheated,” they’ll try to defend what they did or just walk away from the table. They’re not going to be in a receptive frame of mind.

What’s worse, the first problem feeds into the second. Since there’s a penalty to being a cheater, the incentive to resist an accusation of cheating-via-mistake is very strong. It becomes difficult to say “yep, looks like I messed up, let’s figure out what to do” when that might be admitting guilt.

The ironic—and regrettable—result is that the idea of “unintentional cheating,” meant to promote clean play and better games, ends up making things worse. Rather than encouraging players to play correctly, it demands that they play defensively. As soon as a rules issue comes up the collaborative effort to play a great game devolves into a joyless multi-tiered conflict, the fight on the board and the fight between the players, with the goal of maintaining a healthy game state lost.

I think those using terms like accidental cheating intend to take the sting–and the conflict it produces–out by specifying that the cheating was unintentional. It’s a good-hearted effort, but as a practical matter “accidental cheating” is always going to sound like (accidental) CHEATING. “Cheat” is too loaded a word to be managed so precisely.

None of this is to say that we should never say anyone is cheating. Rather, my point is that we should call a spade a spade. If someone is intentionally breaking the rules, say that they’re cheating. If someone is making an innocent mistake, don’t use terms that imply something else.

The law also cares a great deal about using the correct word. Some of that is motivated by a desire to be technically correct. Much, however, arises from the fact that different things need to be treated differently. “Unintentional cheating” and “accidental cheating” are phrases that use the wrong words, and in the process they get undesired results. They should be abandoned in favor of older, less exciting, but ultimately more precise terms: “mistake,” “error,” and similar words that make it easy for everyone involved to admit their missteps and rectify problems.

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