Game Design, Gamification, Learning Design and Assorted Other Strangeness

Cheating vs Smart Play


It is impossible to win a game and at the same time to break one of its rules. – The Grasshopper

One of the major arguments expounded on in education—by the adherents of the cult of rigor—is that the increase in plagiarism, cheating and pay for production can only be combated by instituting more and more draconian rules. In so doing, they are codifying and outlining the penalties for certain strategies that students may choose to adopt.

If education is viewed through the lens of investigative gamification, however, a very different picture emerges of how to address these issues.

Cheating from a gamification perspective can be defined as an action taken by a player which destroys the game. This can either be done by doing something which is the optimal method of reaching the Pre-Lusory Goal, while ignoring the injunctions of the rules.

For example, cutting across the infield of a race track to reach the finish line first, the Pre-Lusory Goal in racing being to cross the finish line first.

Alternatively, there are actions which could be seen as breaking the Magic Circle, so that it crashes the players out of the socially constructed game state. The resultant effects of cheating are so extreme as to destroy the game because it affects the constitutive rules. These are the rules without which it is impossible to engage with the game at all.

Smart Play

Smart play is not interested in dealing with the constitutive rules, but in dealing with another rule set entirely—rules of skill.

To break a rule of skill is to normally fail to win, but it does not have the effect of destroying the game. For example, it is possible to play Ice Hockey without a goalie. While not a good idea in most circumstances, it may have some advantages during certain situations.

This is the essential difference between smart play and cheating. Smart play is looking at the reward to risk ratio and making decisions based on these calculations.

Problems Of Cheating

The problems of cheating in education tend to occur in three distinct ways.

In the first place cheating occurs when there are different views of which rules are constitutive and which are merely rules of skill. Secondly when there is too much emphasis placed on the Pre-Lusory Goals in a game. Finally, the placing of a prohibition with a penalty often tacitly legalizes the play. These three forces often act in concert to encourage cheating.

An example of the different views on one problem in education would be plagiarism in essays.

There are distinctly different views of what an essay is supposed to do in different cultures. In western culture an essay is supposed to be a way of testing out the ideas of the student using specific methods. In many eastern cultures, however, it is supposed to answer the question posed in the best way possible.

The Pre-Lusory goal can be the same in both cultures—write 1,500 words on X—but because the inherent goal of a western essay game is to display the authors thinking, portraying someone else’s thought as their own breaks the constitutive rules. However as the eastern essay game is more interested in identifying and repeating the best possible answer, the use of another’s words or ideas is seen as simply smart play.

In effect, these problems can be seen as individuals not understanding clearly the type of game being played. It would be similar to one player engaging in a sprint while the other is hurdling, they both want to reach the end first, but are using different means.

The second factor that can lead to cheating is the placing of too much emphasis on the goal.

To borrow an analogy from The Grasshopper, if there is a bomb at the finish line of a race that only you can disarm, the rules of the race are no longer important. Academic cheating is fostered in environments where high pressure is placed on students to perform. When a student is told that their life will be ruined if they do not get an A+ on the test, the rules of the test no longer matter.

Finally, there is the instance of a prohibition leading to de facto legalizing.

If the use of a cellphone is prohibited in an exam with a penalty of  20% being deducted from the paper, the student is left with a choice: Is getting caught using the phone going to cost me more than I could gain by using it? If the answer is no, then a student will use the phone.

What can educators do?

Educators need to understand which rules are constitutive in the activities that the students are engaged in. They also need to make clear the nature of the game being played.

Educators can reduce the use of high stakes testing, replacing it with more formative forms of assessment, wherever possible. They should also try not to use fear as a motivational tool in their classroom.

For more information you can check out

Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty

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