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Ethics in Gaming 1.0

Yehuda Berlinger

June, 2005

The Unwritten Rules of the Game

The same questions regarding ethical issues seem to pop up on the sites I read again and again. I have reflected on these questions for a while and would like to put my thoughts down in writing. I intend to eventually cover every aspect of ethics and gaming, if the muse lets me.

I have been gaming since I was little, first the usual dull children games, then Bridge, D&D and Cosmic Encounter throughout the 1980s, and Magic: the Gathering and the Catan games in the 1990s. For the last five years I have run the Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club, the first of its kind in my area of the world. I am married, with children, and religious, but not overly fanatical. I am also a long time fan of Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners), which should give you an idea of where I'm coming from.

This article will tackle the following question: what is permissible in a game that the rules don't specify?

I have two guiding principles in my approach: ethics and sportsmanship.


Ethics is the overriding general principle for all moral, civilized behavior. Not all principles of ethics are straightforward or universally agreed upon, e.g. to allow abortion or to prevent abortion is a question of ethics. Obviously, it is not my intention to tackle deep subjects such as this in my articles. However, ethics also deals with the very rules we employ when discussing contentious issues, which may indeed arise.

Ethics with regards to games includes at the very least honesty and sensitivity.

It is dishonest to peek at hidden information. It is also dishonest to make conscious use of accidentally peeked at information. It may be hard not to make some unconscious use of information; if you keep uppermost in your mind that playing a game is about doing your best within the confines of the rules, and not about winning or losing, it is certainly possible. Strictly speaking, you should fess up to any unfairly gained information. Consider what behavior you would want to see from your opponent in a similar situation.

It is dishonest to play a game with the full understanding of the rules that your opponent does not have. You should ensure that all players know the rules fully before the game starts if there is a possibility that someone doesn't. If your opponent is unaware of a major game rule, it is likely that a large portion of his play is going to be sub optimal. A win in this situation is therefore undeserved.

On the other hand, it is not dishonest to play with an understanding of basic strategies of which your opponent does not have access. However, this may be a violation of sportsmanship.

In any game, all participants are ethically bound to preserve the dignity of all other participants. Games are meant to be fun. Every game is an opportunity to provide a good experience for each player. Even if they don't win often, or at all, players can still feel good about the efforts they have made if others do not ridicule these efforts. In fact, the selection of what game to play is, itself, an ethical decision, if some of the players are good at different types of games.


With regards to sportsmanship, you could say that most principles of sportsmanship are also basically ethical, with a few exceptions. Basically, the principles of sportsmanship are: don't quit, don't whine, do your best, play fairly, win gracefully, lose gracefully, abide by any decisions of the referees, and keep the game moving. All of these principles ensure that people a) don't feel that their time has been wasted, and b) have fun in the process.

In certain situations, ethics and sportsmanship clash. For instance, a person who is feeling ill should continue playing so as to be a good sport. Nevertheless, other players may decide to let this person quit, rather than force them to continue. In another instance, when playing against children you may want to lose purposefully, while sportsmanship requires us to play our best. These topics are worthy of another discussion.

Back to our question: what is permissible in a game that the rules don't specify? I will break this down into a number of different situations that arise that are not covered by the rules of a game.


One meaning of metagaming is the act of using the game that you are playing for purposes other than the game itself. For instance, a person might play a game of chess to embarrass a person whom they don't like. This is both unethical and unsporting.

Another commonly used meaning of metagaming is playing the game based on information or the results from another game. There are many situations where this is perfectly ethical. For instance, bringing a specific type of Magic deck to a tournament based on the assumption that others will be bringing certain other types. It is also acceptable to use another player's known disadvantage against him, if this person is assumed to be aware of his own disadvantage and will not be humiliated by you taking advantage of it.


I encountered a situation where one person in a game attacked another player, and, rather than continue the game in a straightforward fashion, the offended player chose to enact a vendetta against the offending player. His justification was that he wanted to persuade the offending player not to attack him again in future games, which was his way of trying to win the next game. He was, effectively, roleplaying an "offended character" during a board game. It is safe to say that this is unethical behavior outside of a roleplaying game, being both metagaming and kingmaking at once.

A more interesting question is if the action is justified to prevent the offending player from attacking him further within the same game. My answer to that is: it depends on the game. An example: player A robs from player B in Settlers of Catan. Player B then robs player A at his next three opportunities, hoping that this will discourage player A from robbing player B again this game. Even if there was a specific reason to rob player A, i.e. all opponents were equally advanced, including player A, player B is not acting ethically. Why?

Settlers of Catan players assume certain rules about the game at the start of the game. The rules of the game indicate that the only consequences of using the robber is blocking off a hex and stealing a resource. They assume that the goal of the game is to reach ten victory points, and that all players have this goal. A person who sacrifices his shot for winning the game to take vengeance on another player has changed the goal of the game. The other player is now playing a game that is hopeless and frustrating through no fault of his own, because, effectively, one player has compromised the spirit of the game. Even if a person warns every other player that they will take vengeance on the first person who robs them, it is still unsporting, as this does not let each player play the game according to the real rules to the best of their ability, but forces them to play a different game which they may not be interested in playing.

What about war and negotiation games? Diplomacy is a game of promises and betrayal. And wargames are warfare! Is it ok to take vengeance within this game? Here the answer is a qualified "yes". In this case, the rules of the game are understood to include that short term alliances will be rewarded and punished as incentive to diplomacy and alliances. People must expect to anticipate, or guard against, betrayal. Indeed, for many people that is an integral part of the fun of these games. Naturally, all players must be agreeable to this idea of fun before the game starts. However, the person enacting judgment is still expected to have winning the game as his objective. Judgment for the sake of vengeance that will not actually benefit you in this game, but is instead intended to convince another player to behave differently in the next game, is still problematic.


Regarding tournaments that consist of a series of games: many people seem to treat a tournament as a single game, and each of the sub-games like a round of the "big game that is the tournament". This type of attitude falls under the category of metagaming and leads to situations where, within a sub-game of the tournament, players throw games, quit games, stall, and all sorts of other unethical behavior, because they are trying to "play the tournament". This is a gross violation of ethics. Every game you start, within or outside of a tournament, is a complete game, and should be approached with the same spirit of ethics and sportsmanship as any other game. That means: give it your best shot, play fair, win gracefully, lose gracefully, and don't cause bad feelings.

Just because you will advance in a tournament through unsporting actions is not an excuse as far as one particular game is concerned. Neither is the argument that "everybody else does it". It is far better, ethically speaking, to lose a tournament than to win by "playing the tournament, rather than the game".


Often in a multiplayer game you no longer have a chance at winning. You then have several options:

  • Make your moves such that it allows a particular person to win (kingmaking). Generally speaking, this is a bad idea, as it is most likely an instance of metagaming. In certain situations, such as one game in a tournament, where it will benefit your standings if a particular person wins it is still both unethical and unsporting to do this.

  • Make your moves to maximize your score. This is generally acceptable, although it depends if the game can be judged in this manner. As an example, in Settlers of Catan you can set a goal of, say, 5 or 6 points by the end of the game.

  • Find a sub goal and work towards achieving it by the end of the game. For instance: attain a certain number of points, place second, beat your previous score, etc. This is usually fine, assuming the secondary goal you are trying to achieve does not differ substantively from the original goal of the game. However, this is made more difficult as a game nears its conclusion since kingmaking decisions sometimes occur on the last round of the game (such as, do I take Captain, Mayor, or Builder, when none of them help me, and the game is about to end?).

  • If you have no choice, but must simply decide between two choices that neither help nor hurt you but decides the game in favor of a third person, you should strive to "do the least" possible, so that the outcome will be swayed as little as possible by your direct actions. The first principle of the surgery is "Firstly, do not harm"; the same applies to the player in a losing position.

Trash Talking

This is the deliberate distraction of opponents in order to confuse them so as to increase the chances that they will make a mistake. I have heard of people doing this at Magic tournaments, justifying it as "playing to win". I can't see how this could be considered anything other than rude behavior. Rudeness is never justifiable, even, or perhaps especially, in response to rudeness.

Writing Down / Counting Cards

Many games specifically state that you can write down or record information so that you don't have to remember it. For instance, the scoreboard of El Grande is open, so that you don't have to remember other player's scores. Some games specifically state that you can count the bank's supply.Acquire stock certificates For instance, in the version of Acquire that I have, the rules specifically state that you can count the number of shares remaining for any company. Of course, some games specifically forbid you to count certain items. The castillo in El Grande is quite obviously a "hidden" element, even though only a little memory work is required to figure out what's inside.

When a game does not specify what you may do, the players must all decide, before the game starts, whether counting or recording is permissible. If you do not all agree before starting the game, then the action should automatically be considered forbidden. Some people argue that not permitting this only rewards the players with better memories, but I don't see much merit in that argument.

Yes, it does favor skill in memorizing, but why is that less important than any other cognitive skill, like spatial reasoning or hand-eye coordination? If you don't like playing games that require that type of skill, you must convince other people to dispense with the requirement before play begins.

Once the game has started, you should not then ask for that part of the game to be dropped. The timing of a request to change the rules in the middle of a game may give somebody an unfair advantage. Changing the rules should wait until you are between games.


For instance, letting the clock run out, preventing others from playing their turn, etc. People, even professionals, do this when they are winning and want to continue winning until the end of the game. It is unethical; of course, my saying so isn't going to stop it from happening when there is big money involved. "Playing the time" is not playing the game, and makes people want to quit playing the game altogether.


By hurrying, I mean showing impatience, and verbally or non-verbally trying to force another player to play their turns faster than they are comfortable with. When hurrying is like trash-talking, it is rude. When hurrying is used in a small game group so that a player can finish the game before, let's say, his mother picks him up, it is acceptable if done with sensitivity and good manners. If you have to leave early, make sure people know this before the game begins.

When playing with a new player, you can (politely and infrequently) ask them if they want help with either the rules or the basic strategies.

In game groups with slow players, a universal system of time limits (using an egg timer, for instance), which entail consequences, is a good idea only if all players are comfortable with that. Some people don't like to be rushed, however. It is advisable not to play games that lead to lots of "analysis paralysis" with such people.

Table Talk / Collusion / Advice

Games are social; a large part of the fun of any game is the conversation. Still, it is generally unsporting, though not necessarily unethical, to give advice at the table. If a player is new to the game, advice about rules is actually called for, and a small amount of unsolicited advice about strategy may be welcome. Otherwise, advice is annoying when unasked for, slows down the game, is detrimental to the other players, and does not help the person in the long run figure out the game or feel good about winning in the long run. But your mileage may vary. Some groups enjoy free flowing advice at the table. Some people would prefer to at least be warned before making a catastrophic mistake that will just make them feel stupid for the rest of the game. There should be a general consensus on how much table talk is allowed before the game starts, and one should be sensitive to the feelings of others when they speak.

Like many other cases, the rule here is: if it hasn't been specifically permitted, it is forbidden.

In my group, I allow collusive advice for moves that are worthless without it, such as the +/-3 cards in Amun-Re (which I permit to be played after the bids are revealed) and the reinforcement cards in Cosmic Encounter. In each of these cases, these cards are often worth playing only if two people are willing to play them together.

It should go without saying that purposely misleading advice is always deplorable, with the exception of the game of Diplomacy or another game where it is explicitly understood before the game starts that people often give advice which may be false. Even then, someone may get hurt when this happens, which is why I don't play Diplomacy very often. Misleading advice is a fine way of turning people off games, and alienating your entire social circle, permanently.

Similarly, you should be careful about mentioning to the other players that some person is winning and that all players should act in concert to prevent this. The second in line for victory is likely to be saying this to his own advantage, and the determination as to who is winning is often incorrect. The subject of this discussion, as well as one who is being called on to sacrifice what he'd rather do to undermine the so-called winner, are often both made to feel uncomfortable.

On the other hand, it is not at all unethical for each player to attack whomever is the front runner in their own estimation, if doing so is likely to extend the game in their favor. All games have front-runners, and they should expect to be attacked more often.


Taking back your move is bad sportsmanship. Not allowing someone to take back his or her move is equally bad sportsmanship, unless you are playing professionally. This is a situation where each person should be concerned with other players feelings, rather than their own.

In general, a player should strive to live with a decision he has made. The game is not important enough to justify irritating people who expect that you have completed your move. This is especially true when takebacks become a habit. Try instead to think of it as a bad die roll that you have to accept. These things happen.

In my group, I generally let people take back unless some other action has been taken that could have influenced the decision to take back the move. Usually this is something like the next player taking a role in Puerto Rico. In an auction game, simple hesitation is enough to influence a takeback, so it is probably best to insist on a two second pause before all bids in general, which gives enough time for a reasonable person to take back an erroneously dropped chip or the like.

All of this should be made clear before the game starts.


The unwritten rules of all games are basically similar: make the game an enjoyable experience for all participants. Don't disrupt games either by asking or assuming that something not covered by the rules is permissible; wait until you are between games. And remember the cliché: winning really isn't everything.

- Yehuda Berlinger

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