What Cheating in MTG Can Teach Us About Punishment Models in Digital Competition - chicityshogun - August 22

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My excitement to tune into the Magic Grand Prix this past weekend turned to shock as commentator Jacob Van Lunen (in hindsight, hilariously) announced before the last round of swiss: “Well… I suppose we have to tell you who’s playing in this feature match. It’s Alex Bertoncini.” That shock turned to outrage as it became clear that Bertoncini was going to win and enter the top eight as the first seed! For those who are unaware, Bertoncini was a rising star in the Magic community until he was caught cheating on multiple occasions (described in detail here) and received a suspension, which he has now served and is eligible to play again.

A wide spectrum of magic players from across the community have expressed important concerns in response. Does Bertoncini’s success and visibility undercut the deterrent value of suspensions if all the offender needs to do is wait it out? Maybe. Is Bertoncini still cheating? He might be. Players at GPLA playing next to Bertoncini reported suspicious behaviors including extra upticks on Teferi and convincing the opposing player that they couldn’t take an EOT action because he had already untapped. Even if Bertoncini is not cheating, many players, including top pros like Paulo Vitor Damo de Rosa, have reported a kind of “psychic drain” that creates a competitive disadvantage against those who have cheated because the opposing player must be constantly vigilant to ensure there is no cheating.

The expansion of organized play into digital card games only increases the importance of finding the right solution to this issue. Valve will be hosting a tournament with a $1 million dollar prize pool and Dire Wolf Digital has announced plans for competitive play with cash prizes. While digital games solve some pathways for cheating because you can’t stack your deck or palm cards, it creates opportunities for new schemes. Competitors in Magic Online tournaments have reported being flooded with trade requests when they were close to timing out, Hearthstone tournament rules violations have been documented, and there are actions which border the line between unethical and cheating such as streamers losing in events because they are being ghosted. If we can’t effectively deal with cheaters in Magic, the original TCG, then what hope can we hold for the handling of cheaters in Artifact and Eternal?

The question of how controlling entities can better respond to cheating is a difficult one. The return and success of Bertoncini has created a call for harsher punishments, including lifetime bans. While appealing, there are good reasons to temper such impulses in favor of nuance and consideration provided to the offender. Brian David Marshall refuted calls for a ban after a first offense because “I know multiple people who have made mistakes when they were young and gone on to become exemplary Magic players.” (He was, however, advocating for a ban after multiple offenses). David Williams, one of my very favorite magic personalities and one of the games best ambassadors, was once DQ’d from the World Championships for what was, in my opinion, a somewhat spurious claim of marked cards and manipulated draws. Foreign players have made an important argument that the rules enforcement system is biased against non-native English speakers who may be accused of cheating unfairly because of miscommunication resulting from language issues. Given that people are capable of changing, investigations of rules violations are imperfect, and we have all in our lives made horrible mistakes that we hope to be forgiven for, we should have a system of punishment whose goals include both protection of victims and the larger community, as well as assistance in transforming offenders.

The current “time out” punishment scheme fails at both goals. No reassurance is given to victims, nor the magic playing community when the offender comes back after waiting out their sentence. There is no reason to believe that they have done any transformative work. If gaming communities wish to move beyond the “time out model,” there are lots of places to look to for ideas about how improvements can be made. Offenders need to acknowledge the harm they’ve done and take responsibility for their actions. Popular gaming streamer Dr. Lupo has started requiring people banned from his chat to write a 1000 word essay explaining why what they did was wrong and why they are sorry before they can come back. However, words alone aren’t enough. My good friend, and law professor, Lesley Wexler has co-written a piece on offender reintegration in the #MeToo movement that provides some useful insights and notes of caution. While the difference in magnitude between cheating at a card game and sexual harassment/assault is vast, there are still lessons that can be applied across the two areas, (and perhaps set the stage for dealing with sexual harassment/assault in the magic community, an area which deserves to have a lot of attention and thought applied to it as well). Wexler et al caution that there is a definite risk that offenders will be “quick to apologize, slow to change.” As Bishop Desmond Tutu says, “If you take my pen and say you are sorry, but don’t give me the pen back, nothing has happened.” Offenders should be required to repair some of the harm they caused, including financial compensation and community service.

Getting the punishment right matters. “Community responses to the wrongdoing and what communities require from an offender communicate something about the collective’s view of the violation, the underlying social norms, and the relative status of the offender and survivor.” (Wexler et al). Simply asking that an offender take a “time out” does not communicate the importance of the harm done to victims or place a high value on the need for offender transformation. I don’t have all the answers, but I know that in order for competitive play to have legitimacy it must be set on a firm foundation. Hopefully the communities and organizations developing around Artifact and Eternal will do better. What do you think is needed to build an honest competitive environment? Does a digital media really stop the problem? How do we keep competition fair while we raise the competitive stakes?

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