The Deadbolt Effect

I was talking to some folks about cheating and game design not too long ago, and it was such a fun conversation I figured I’d share some of the conclusions. Basically, it boils down to recognizing three types of people.

1) A small number of people will basically never cheat, even if an easy opportunity presents itself.
2) A large number of people will cheat, but only if it is relatively easy and seems to carry low risk of getting caught.
3) A small number of people will almost always cheat, even if it’s very difficult, time-consuming and/or risky.

You don’t really have to worry about group #1 or group #3 – well, you do have to worry about #3, but only so far as catching them. You won’t be able to deter them, though; no matter how hard you make it for them to cheat, they will try it anyway. (There are many reasons why they are so persistent, but that’s another discussion for another day.) The trick is setting up the rules to make cheating just difficult and/or risky enough to deter group #2, the people who are normally honest but don’t mind taking shortcuts, especially when they see others doing it. Or to put it another way, you need to balance putting in so many safeguards the test becomes impossibly long and complex against having so few that the honest people find themselves wondering why they didn’t just take a few shortcuts. It’s what security experts call the “deadbolt effect” – you don’t need a deadbolt to keep out honest people, and it won’t stop determined criminals either. But it will deter casual snooping, amateur criminals and other crimes of opportunity.

One of the things that undermines a lot of good game design is the designers feel they have to go beyond deadbolts and install a full-on laser grid. They work endlessly to plug loopholes, scale back rules and abilities to avoid abuse, and otherwise make their games as airtight as possible. The problem is that, after a certain point, avoiding abuse starts diminishing the game itself. This is particularly true when it comes to combat, where a lot of games spend so much time trying to close possible cheating problems that they forget the purpose of gaming is fun, not making sure no one can ever possibly abuse it. They underestimate the power of the table, namely, that game groups can and should police their own.

That very notion, in fact, is one of my favorite trends that has emerged in tabletop gaming, especially in the indie field – the idea that rather than design a game to foil cheaters and power gamers, folks should simply design games the way they want them to be, and let groups worry about sending losers and creeps packing. Houses of the Blooded has my personal favorite mechanic for this: Bad Form. Whenever a player tries to manipulate the rules to do things they oughtn’t, the Narrator simply says “Bad Form” and that’s it. No need to argue rules for hours – if it violates the spirit of having fun, just say “Bad Form” and move on. Elegant simplicity.

Don’t get me wrong – I think deterring cheating is still an important element of game design, whether it means trying to plug a loophole or simply calling attention to it so that groups know it might come up during play. But the more people learn the value of the deadbolt effect, the more time we can spend creating awesome games, and the less time we have to devote in trying to discourage jerks from breaking in an rifling our stuff.

Game on!

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