Not all heroes wear capes


When we’ve written about degenerate play in the past, the focus has been on the condemnable strategies deployed by players that violate the spirits of games while staying within their legal limits. Thus far, degenerate play has been treated as a nasty, if ubiquitous, social wart: an outgrowth born from the tension between spirit and letter, from the impossible problem of properly aligning the incentive structures of games with the all-too-human desire to win (or to lose on your own terms).

Degenerate plays have been treated, for the most part, as dishonorable. The kind of plays that elicit sighs of C’mon man’, that set bad examples for other players, that make the game just plainly less fun to play. Players who deploy these strategies will often, and should, incur some level of reputational damage, if not from game designers or referees, than from the community of players and, if present, an audience.

This perspective on degenerate strategies assumes that what’s in the best interest of all parties involved—both game designers and players—is deploying strategies that celebrate the spirit of games. Which is a good assumption to have! Part of the collective conceit of game playing is that we all let go a little bit of that will to power so we can enjoy playing together, agreeing to let the best’ (whether that be the most skilled or, in some cases, luckiest) player win. Degenerate plays will always crop up, but the hope is that either a top-down disincentivization by rule-keepers & designers, or a collective enforcement of the game’s spirit by the community of players, will be enough to keep them at bay.

It’s also a fact that some game states are higher stakes than others. Whether due to a large public profile or potential payouts, no-holds-barred, down-right-dirty winning can supersede any collective faith in the game’s spirit if becoming a champion is really worth it. In such high stakes environments, competitive advantages tend to shrink, and degenerate plays can, at least sometimes, become edges worth exploiting.

Professional sports are a fine example of this kind of situation, none more obvious than the exploitation of certain fouls. Fouls in theory exist to punish players for breaking the rules of the game, but they can also be exploitatively utilized by players who know how to draw fouls in certain high leverage situations. Suspended Reason has written about fouls and flopping in professional basketball before, specifically with respect to the optikratic nature of how these fouls are administered—i.e. fouls are, by necessity, doled out based on appearances (the referees determine whether it looks like’ he’s been interfered with, pushed, blocked out, etc.). Because of the optikratic nature of (most) fouls, there exists an incentive for players to appear as if they have been interfered with in order to draw a foul in a given context, specifically in close-game situations when an extra shot attempt (in basketball) or a few extra yards (in football) might be the difference between win and a loss.

These attempts at hacking the game might go unpunished within the game state itself (some sports have developed penalties for flopping, but they are, at best, unevenly enforced), but they don’t go unpunished in the grander scheme of the sport. Certain players who use these degenerative strategies gain less-than-ideal reputations for exploiting the system, specifically among the viewers of the sport. And as they should: encouraging degenerate strategies regardless of the game is–most likely at least–bad for game playing in general.

But from a team’s perspective, specifically the team for which our degenerate player plays, this degenerate player might be something of a hero. He is incurring, on behalf of the team, a reputational hit by putting his integrity on the line to draw fouls in high leverage situations, which, if successful, can give a very valuable edge to a team right when they might need one. And if his attempt fails, then the optics are just awful: Look at X-player, flopping in crunch time to get a foul? He’s a cheat!’

Team sports are nothing if not about the team, meaning that selflessness, especially when the game’s on the line, is one of the most valuable traits to have. A player electing to push the rules to their limits by playing them like a fiddle is, in an ironic sense, acting selflessly in the greater context of the situation. With the eyes of the audience on him, he embraces the social mark of a flopper or a foul-drawer in order to force an opportunity for his team to tie or take a lead. While we as viewers might not appreciate the ethical totality of his actions, I would be willing to reckon that his teammates do.

My point here is that it takes all kinds to win. While incentivizing degenerate strategies is a net negative for both individual games and game playing on a whole, players who are willing to take on a reputational scar for the good of the team represent a kind of selflessness that is, in its own way, aspirational. For as long as degenerate strategies exist as viable strategies within a given game state, they will be exploited until they are corrected for, at which point new strategies will arise to take their place. It’s no surprise that the most consistently competitive teams in sports tend to find edges in the untraveled footnotes of the rule book, forcing referees and competition committees alike to reevaluate the state of the game as such.

In high stakes games, to see the bounds of what’s acceptable as limits worth bending, not bending to, is, on an ontological level, an advantage with no counter, as long as you have players willing to fall on the sword when your acting falls short.

When we ethically browbeat all deployments of degenerate strategies, we conflate the ethical differences between those that are unilaterally selfish and those that, in benefitting a team, are something in the realm of selfless. In other words, in focusing on the individual actor in both situations, we risk severing the player from the team, who might very well be the actor who should be held accountable for coaching or scheming up degenerate strategies as competitive advantages.