Any game requires rules, or else chaos follows. How such rules are imposed and administered is another matter. They may be self-imposed or imposed by others. As the game becomes institutionalized, the responsibility of conduct on the playing field is shifted from players to regulators. Officiating becomes necessary (although participants in sports such as golf and Ultimate Frisbee call fouls on themselves) and part of the new game is to see whether the officials make correct decisions. If the game is transmitted to an audience by television, officiating is literally magnified and transformed as a component of the spectacle and is judged on the basis of accuracy. This process impacts the player on whom the nuances and capability of fooling the officials—deceit, in other words—are added to his or her necessary skills in order to play the game.
Close-ups, slow motion, freeze-frames and replays have transformed the spectators into armchair arbiters of the theatrical and sometimes cruel skills that were once a secret art—much as surveillance cameras opened our eyes to street crimes and deceptions by pickpockets and bag-snatchers.1 Watching on television requires the two-fold task of judging not only the actor or act in the game or whatever is being "covered," but also the medium itself. We make ethical assumptions based in part on our understanding and trust of this intervening variable—the television medium. Athletic skill and performance in sports is altered by the mediation of the sporting event. Mediated sports change the relationship of players and officials to the game and the relationship of audience/fans to players and officials. The mediation of sports facilitates cheating. New ethical issues have emerged since cheating has become integral to the game.
Cheating was surprisingly absent in old-fashioned street games because they were self-regulated. Imposed external regulations automatically transform any game because ethical responsibility is shifted from self to other. Dishonesty is transformed into a tactic of the game. Strangely, the contemporary spectator enjoys both the athleticism of the game and the artistry of deceit.
In a different media era, the senior author of this article once wrote an essay called "The Telltale Tape, or The Video Replay and Sportsmanship."2 The essay began with “The Case of the Short-hopped Ball": a description of a common baseball occurrence. A line drive is hit into short center field and the centerfielder dives head first, arms out-stretched and exuberantly jumps up proudly displaying the ball safely embedded in the webbing of his glove.
Twenty-five years ago partisan television fans became hysterical because the video replay clearly indicated that the ball had not been caught and that the batter ought to have been credited with a base hit. But the umpire had ruled the batter out. Oh, the inhumanity of it all! Who was at fault? Clearly, the stupid and incompetent umpire! But the fans who were actually in the ball park could not be sure. Only those who witnessed the crime on television had definite proof—with their own eyes—that the outfielder had "trapped" the ball.
So a question plaguing Major League Baseball for decades has been whether to institute videotape replays in all those situations where it was difficult for the on-field umpire to reach a definitive decision.
On August 28, 2008, the MLB instituted the "instant replay." However, according to the MLB, its use was to be limited to disputed "boundary calls," which include whether a fly ball is a home run, whether a potential home run ball is fair or foul, and whether a potential home run was interfered with by a fan. So the sanctity of the game was preserved. Except for the matter of home runs, technology will not determine the outcome of a game.
On June 2, 2010 Armando Galarraga, a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, was one out away from a perfect game when a missed call by umpire Jim Joyce robbed the star of this rare achievement. A replay of the video clearly showed a blown call by the umpire, that he had erred when he called the runner safe at first base in what would have been the final out of the game and thus would have preserved Galarraga’s perfect game for the record books. Joyce later admitted his mistake and tearfully apologized. The Commissioner of Baseball refused to overturn the decision.
MLB Executive Vice President for Baseball Operations Joe Torre noted "most in the game recognize that the human element always will be part of baseball and instant replay can never replace all judgment calls by umpires."3
Is deception the same as cheating? Is there a difference between planned and opportunistic cheating? When Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter faked getting hit by a pitch (when the ball actually hit the bottom of his bat), was his winning theatrical performance indicating that the ball hit his hand, merely a reaction to the circumstance? Is this, in any way, different from "cheating aforethought?" If he had corked the bat by filling it with a substance making the bat lighter (a technique practiced by some ballplayers in the recent past) would that in some way have been different? In other words, is premeditated dishonesty a difference of kind or a matter of degree?
Strangely, the artistry of deceit is based upon the transference of focus from the athlete and the game to the fan as a participant in the game. It is a strange ritual defined by interactivity and illusion. It has been that way for some time. We scream and yell, cross our fingers, curl our tongue, knock on wood, believing at some level, that we have the power to alter the unfolding circumstance and event. It is a process accentuated by the digital media mindset. An audience weaned on digital involvement embraces the illusion of participation. The fans are actively engaged in the game.
Digital technology, which moved from the television set to the stadium environment, encourages orchestrated passion. The audience is moved by the technology of frenzy—deafening sound, moving screens—with the athlete in the background and the ritual in the foreground. The modern stadium has been transformed into a multimedia spectacle. The fan equipped with an iPhone or an iPad further applies a digital filter to the game.
The fan is inundated with data galore—background information, statistics, close-ups and replays of anything that might have been missed. Nothing escapes the notice of multiple cameras, microphones, scoreboards and screens. The game itself, the physical non-mediated game with its human participants, is pushed into the background, yet magnified by the all-powerful wizard. The more the action is electronically magnified, with the ballplayer simply another necessary accessory to the game, the further away are the ethical roots of the game. The mediated game of today emerged from the rules that governed the interaction of humans who play the game.
Digital media increase the illusion of personal control by spectators, and heighten the sense of power held by the fan. In an environment of choice, contact, content, time, and device, the fan assumes the persona of a judge. In the context of baseball, the athlete and the spectator are on the same side—judging the capability of the "umpire" to "get it right." The interlocutory broadcast team, with the full panoply of digital resources, connects the television audience to the events of the field and further accentuates the ability and failures of the ballplayer—including his acting skills.
The video game ends the journey that began with the self-regulated game. In the beginning of this article our argument was simplistic—that the rituals of organized sports have an impact upon the nature of ethical behavior. Furthermore, the imposition of organized sports and the addition of communication technology at athletic events are primary culprits in the process. You may or may not agree with our position that the outfielder who short-hopped the ball violated the rules of the game, that he or she had entered into a more complicated ethical domain. But we wonder whether you, the fan, also condone that act.
Our path, thus far, made what we thought was a logical leap—that the baseball stadium had been transformed into a video game. Eureka! Subtract the stadium, eliminate the ballplayers, eradicate the crowds and play ball! What remains is baseball, the video game. Cheat codes abound for virtual baseball so that a player can enter a code to hit unhittable pitches, make a wall climb catch, hit five home runs in a game or strike out 15 batters. Might there be a connection between cheating and video games?
Wikipedia indicated that:
Cheating in video games involves a video game player using non-standard methods for creating an advantage beyond normal gameplay, usually to make the game easier, or may also create unusual effects which do not necessarily make the game easier to play, such as giving characters different appearances, such as large heads. Cheats sometimes may take the form of "secrets" placed by game developers themselves.
Cheats may be activated from within the game itself (a cheat code implemented by the original game developers); or created by third-party software (a game trainer) or hardware (a cheat cartridge).
For a more scholarly and reliable source we turned to Mia Consalvo’s 2009 Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames.4 This is a cultural history of cheating in video games in which Consalvo (a professor of Telecommunications at Ohio University) explores cheating (alone and in groups), examines various ways the players and industry define cheating and describes how the game industry itself has helped systematize cheating (p.3). Is it cheating when the opportunities to cheat are programmed into the game itself? Consalvo considers the ethical choices in gameplay and examines how cheating has become an industry through selling "cheat-enablers" including "cheat books," and the rise of secondary game industries that produce information about games rather than actual games.
We discovered that "cheating" is endemic to video game playing. A Google search results in 21 million hits in which "cheats," "cheat codes," and "how to cheat at video games" are there for you in case you have nothing else to do. Somewhere along this path we see a trend—the transformation of cheating from a negative to a positive ethical imperative. Maybe the outfielder is right. Maybe we can learn from the video game. Cheating is part of the game and the good player is one who knows how to play the game.
Consalvo offers an interesting perspective on how cheating is viewed in gaming. She anticipated that most people viewed cheating as a negative activity in which a player sought unfair or unearned advantage and perhaps suggesting a player was deficient in some way. Yet, in researching why people cheat and how they cheat, she found that cheating actually implies that a player is actively engaged in a game and wants to do well.
Steven J. Dubner, the co-author of Freakonomics, has posited that cheating is actually good for sports. In exploring the "hidden side of everything" he suggests cheating is part of the appeal of sports, "…a natural extension of sport that people condemn on moral grounds but secretly embrace as what makes sports most compelling. For all the talk of how cheating 'destroys the integrity of the game,' maybe that’s not true at all? Perhaps cheating actually adds a layer of interest—a cat-and-mouse element, a detective-story element—that complements the game?"5
The use of media technology in sports officiating has led to fan frustration that clearly fuels a sense of outrage. Some fans looking to enforce ethical obligations have sought legal recourse. A former St. Louis Rams football player and three fans filed a lawsuit against the New England Patriots and Coach Bill Belichick in February 2008, alleging that the Patriots fraudulently gained an unfair advantage by taping the Rams' walk-through practice the day before the teams played in the 2002 Super Bowl game.6 The cases hinged on whether the Patriots actually taped the Rams’ walk-through, and the establishment of a cause-and-effect link between the taping and the Rams’ 20-17 loss to the underdog Patriots—a difficult if not impossible proposition to prove. One suit relied upon racketeering laws, the second lawsuit filed against the Patriots was filed by a Jets fan in New Jersey and alleged the Patriots’ filming “violated the integrity of the game.”
John Pauly argues we should ground ethical discourse in understanding everyday activity, suggesting the need to explore the evolving sense of right and wrong associated with cheating in the common activity of mediated sports and video gaming.7 Whether media as coverage or media use as part of the game, the ethical relationship between the medium, cheating and sports continues to metamorphose.
Our conclusion? Cheating is fine if you can get away with it, but errors are unforgivable –especially when provable and replayable.
1. Warburton, Nigel. (2007, July 26). "Cheating in Sports: Virtual Philosopher." Site visited April 5, 2011. http://virtualphilosopher.com/2007/07/cheating-in-spo.html
2. Gumpert, Gary. (1989). "The Telltape Tape, or The Video Replay and Sportsmanship," in Gary Gumpert, Talking Tombstones and other Tales of the Media Age. New York: Oxford University Press.
3. Calcaterra, Craig. (2011, July 27). Site visited Aug. 5, 2011. http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2011/07/27/joe-torre-major-league-baseball-embrace-the-human-element/
4. Consalvo, Mia. (2009). Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
5. Dubner, Stephen J. (2008, Feb. 21). "Is Cheating Good for Sports?" Site visited April 3, 2011. http://www.freakonomics.com/2008/02/21/is-cheating-good-for-sports/
6. Branch, John and Bishop, Greg. (2008, Feb. 20). "Ex-Patriot Employee Key Factor in Spy Case." The New York Times, Site visited April 12, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/20/sports/football/20nfl.html?scp=2&sq=Branch%20+%20Bishop%20+%20Belacheck&st=cse.
7. Pauly, John. (2004). "La Femme Nikita and the Ethics of Organizational Life." (Paper presented at the International Communication Association Convention, New Orleans, May).