The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Ethics in Gaming 4.0

Yehuda Berlinger

September, 2005

The Game Trade

In this article, I look at some issues involved in the trading and selling of games. These issues are not specific to games, but there is a large game trading culture and it may be useful to think about these issues when discussing games and game stores, or when you consider getting involved in a game trade. For the purposes of this article, selling is another form of trading, where one side gives one or more games and the other gives money.

The Basics

The basic aim of a trade is for both parties to be happy at the end of it for the long term. You are, within reason, responsible for ensuring that the other person does not have cause to regret having done the trade; you are also responsible for ensuring that you do not have reasonable cause to regret the trade.

In order for this to happen, all aspects of the trade should be fully known to both parties, including:

  • The total number, quality, and type of games. Whenever possible, you should try to think about any confusion that may linger in the other party, to ensure that they will not be surprised or disappointed after the deal. Don't pass off one type of game as another. For instance, avoid showing someone a box of Magic cards with the rares on top and the commons on the bottom.
  • Any parts of the game that are less than new, unsuitable, or not fully functional. For example: bent corners; missing, broken, or less than perfect pieces; the inability to play without some other item; etc.
  • The original and current market values of the games being traded, even if some or all of these markets are irrelevant because they are inaccessible. In the world of games, there is not always one market value, as value depends on location, timing, condition, hassle, reprints, distribution channels, shipping, taxes, etc. On the secondary market, a more generally desirable game is of higher value that a less generally desirable game. In addition, personal desire also comes into play (see the next section).
  • The liquidity of the games—that is, the likelihood of being able to resell the games on the secondary market. High liquidity games are more valuable in their being closer to cash, minus the hassle and cost of resale. Low liquidity games are likely to be difficult to resell. Liquidity is closely linked to scarcity.
  • The scarcity of the game, in whatever context that means. If you know a game is scarce now, but is being reprinted, you should tell the other party.
  • Any shipping, handling, or other material costs associated with sending the games.

In other words, everything you would want to know about the games before you bought them yourself.

I don't mean to imply that both sides of a trade must equal in market value, or that equal market value trades must always be accepted. Nor do I mean to imply that market value is even a clearly determinable quantity. That is economics, not ethics.

Desperation, Reluctance, and Pressure

What is the market value of desperation? For example, you may be at a Magic: The Gathering tournament when someone tells you that he must have that Disintegrate card, and he'll pay you ten times what it is worth. An ethical person should not accept more than the estimated value of the game, give or take 5%. "Value" in the previous sentence refers either to market value or to the value at which you would trade the card under normal circumstances. A person, who is taken advantage of when he or she is desperate, even at his or her own request, is not going to be happy in the long run.

Note: This applies to personal desperation. General market demands place a value on desperation due to scarcity (otherwise know as "supply and demand") and this can dictate the market value of a game.

Similarly, one should factor in the reluctance to give up a game. Two equally valuable games on the marketplace may not be of similar interest to one or more of the parties. They may be more interested in keeping the game that they already have. In this situation, you may be willing to trade only if you are offered more than the typical market value of the game. On the one hand, if someone offers me $80 in cash for my Puerto Rico, I should tell them that they can get it for $25 plus shipping at most online stores—accepting $80 for it would be unethical unless they at least knew this (and even then). On the other hand, if someone offers me $80 worth of games for my Puerto Rico, I can ethically accept this assuming that they know the market values of the games.

Pressing someone to make a trade in which he or she is clearly not interested, or trying to conclude a trade by arousing a sense of loss or panic in the other party (by claiming that someone else is on the way to buy the game, or because the deal they will get expires if they don't agree immediately), is also unethical. If there really is time pressure (you are on your way to catch a flight), it may be best to forget the whole thing, because it may then be impossible to reverse the deal if there is sincere regret on either side. Don't pressure, especially if you know that the other person will be unhappy if he or she completes the trade (because he or she can't really afford it, or his or her spouse will object to it).

Other Issues

  • Promising one game for sale, when you have none or few of those games, and then offering some other game for sale when someone is disappointed but in your store, is called "Bait and Switch". This is a dishonest practice.
  • Undercutting prices in order to drive someone out of business, with the intention of raising your prices afterwards, or simply because you don't want competition on your other items, is unethical. If you are making a sustainable profit on the lower priced games, or you are just getting rid of unwanted games, this is fine.
  • Artificially creating scarcity by hoarding to drive up prices and flooding the market to drive down prices are both problematic actions. The first causes damage to consumers and the second causes damage to businesses.


Great people talk about great ideas, average people talk about average ideas, and small people talk about other people.


I define slander as telling lies about other people but I'm not going to cover that here as I think we all know that it is unethical. Instead I will talk about gossip.

I define gossip as telling true but damaging information. Many people seem to feel that talking about other people is fine so long as "it's true"; in fact, this is not the case. Gossip has a way of taking on a life of its own. Even when started with good intentions, such as warning people from dealing with a dishonest store, gossip often becomes exaggerated, vindictive, and far more damaging than required. Most gossip is either petty or unverified. Let's face it—gossip is a way of feeling powerful, and (unfortunately) a more socially acceptable means of causing damage to other people than doing direct physical or financial harm. To this end, it is incumbent on us to tread very carefully when saying negative things about people or businesses, even when we are obligated to do so in order to warn others.

First of all, you can praise your own virtues and the virtues of your games, but you should not deride someone else or their games. When I say "not deride someone else's games", I don't mean that you shouldn't write negative things about particular games. What I mean is that if you are selling a copy of a game, and someone else is selling a copy of the same game, you can say how nice your copy is, but should not say how poor this other person's copy is.

Simple matters of poor customer service, backing out of verbal agreements, not going beyond the call of duty, slightly degraded games (scratched or dented boxes), higher prices, etc. should not be considered "gross" and "unfair" business practices. Keep such incidents to yourself. Taking money and not delivering games and then not responding to email, sending misrepresented or broken games and not providing refunds or exchanges, and illegal or slanderous practices are gross violations of ethics.

Even if you know that some person or company is dishonest, don't go shouting around the Internet that so-and-so is a thief. Instead, post that you have something to say privately to anyone considering dealing with this person, or respond privately to people looking for opinions about companies or a specific person. (If you aspire to an angelic level of ethics, don't go around excessively praising someone in open forums either, as some twit is sure to pipe up and tell you why you're wrong.)

If you know someone is considering trading with someone whom you know to be grossly dishonest, you must warn them if, and only if, all of the following apply:

  • You know for certain that this person is dishonest, either first hand, or from such a reliable source (preferably multiple) that the information is entirely trustable.
  • You know that efforts have been made to resolve the problems with this person, and the victim was ignored or unfairly treated anyway.
  • You don't exaggerate the information in the warning. You give only the facts, not your opinions. You indicate where your information comes from.
  • If you can provide a warning without disclosing any personal or confidential information, you should do so.
  • The warning should be given without permanently damaging the person about whom you are revealing information, if possible. This is so that there remains a possibility for that person to continue to do business after he has changed his ways.

Modern online rating systems, such as eBay, work fairly well, so long as they are known to be reasonably fair and free; these ratings should, in any case, be taken with a grain of salt. Ratings and comments about both people and games should be clear, to the point, not exaggerated, and first hand.

Regarding people: whenever possible, you should assume that negative comments about someone or some business are the result of mistakes or misunderstandings. Nevertheless, you should exercise caution.

Regarding games: excessive and unwarranted positive comments about games can cause people to waste money on inferior games. Excessive and unwarranted negative comments can cause undeserved damage to game companies. Remember that different people like different things about games. Be clear and to the point about your experiences, so that readers can judge for themselves whether your experiences are relevant to their own requirements in a game.

Corrections and Cancellations

If you have verbally committed to a transaction, you should try to follow through, assuming that the facts about both sides of the transaction were fully known to both parties when the agreement was made.

The time period for cancellation or restitution is inherently indefinite assuming that the games can be re-exchanged at the same values. Practically speaking, however, a specified time limit is usual and reasonable. Both parties should be allowed to inspect the games and correct or cancel the transaction within this time limit.

If the games are not exactly as promised, but a correction is possible, then correction should be attempted if the games are close to what was expected. If the games are far from what was expected, either side should be able to cancel the trade entirely. If the games were misrepresented or turn out to be faulty, then full cancellation is usually in order, unless the person who received the short end of the deal is agreeable to a replacement. (This is in the case of games that were already open; for unopened games, the manufacturer should be contacted instead.)

Caveat Emptor

Caveat Emptor, or "Let the Buyer Beware", is one of the most well-known principles operating in Western legal systems today. However, it plays only a minor part in ethics considerations. Yes, you should be aware of what you are getting into; you can't rely on others to perfectly analyze all aspects of a deal to ensure that the deal is fair. Nevertheless, both parties to the trade are equally responsible in ensuring that both parties come away from a deal happy.

"Under-promise and over-deliver" is a good rule; certainly it is better to error toward giving more rather than giving less than what is expected. Don't go crazy, however, or you may come to regret it.

- Yehuda Berlinger

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