Were those Harvard students cheating or collaborating? Game design may have the answer.

Last week, Harvard announced that “unprecedented” levels of cheating had taken place in a government course and the university would investigate more than 100 students.

(Students cheat, regardless of their supposed intelligence. In fact, that this story made dozens of national outlets only furthers the idea that Harvard kids are somehow “better” than everyone else.)

Regardless, cheating is special interest of mine as it’s one of the few areas where game behavior comes into direct, non-metaphorical application with the real-world. What constitutes cheating in games — whether it’s Zerg-rushing, botting or the host of other activities that merit its own Wikipedia page — is always up for debate. So what’s the big deal?

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At Slate, Farhad Manjoo takes the Slate-ian position that students at Harvard should be applauded for demonstrating collaborative abilities rather than punished for breaking the rules. Manjoo blames the non-teamwork spirit of academia and the test itself for the resultant uproar:

In this case, it’s the test’s design, rather than the students’ conduct, that we should criticize. In allowing students to consult a wide variety of sources, the Harvard exam was looking to assess something deeper than how well they could memorize and recall facts. Judging from some leaked questions, the test seemed to be designed to measure how students could think about some of the contradictions inherent in American government. (An essay question began, “Do interest groups make Congress more or less representative as an institution?”) But if you want to determine how well students think, why force them to think alone?

This may sound ridiculous to some. While open-book, class guidelines stated that “students may not discuss the exam with others” including “resident tutors, writing centers, etc.” Besides, since when are tests a group effort? After all, individuals receive grades, not the entire class collectively. This is America, land of individual responsibility.

But Manjoo’s point is well-taken. Systems encourage certain types of behaviors and we shouldn’t blame individual actors alone for making sense of the position they’ve been put in. In fact, cheating, in a game context can be considered a simple survival technique employed by players to achieve. Visiting NYU prof Liel Leibovitz, for example, takes a wide view:

Then, however, I understood that cheating was actually a rather sophisticated mechanism of game design: as each game is likely to attract a wide variety of players, each with different gaming experience and diverging expectations, game designers need to find some way to allow beginners and experts alike to find their way through the game. Cheating is a terrific solution. It’s a way for the novice player to progress through parts he or she might’ve otherwise found impassable, and it allows the veteran player to leisurely explore the world of the game without worrying about the natural progression of play.

For students who naturally understood the test’s questions, “cheating” wasn’t an appealing option, but for everyone else, collaborating may have been the most sensible option. From this viewpoint, students were doing the best that they could within the rules that they presumed to perform as best they could. If the test doesn’t makes the terms ambiguous, then why wouldn’t they employ all the tools in their toolkit.

Liebovitz, who I interviewed a couple years back, told me that cheating, in fact, doesn’t exist. Short of hacking a console or breaking a game, if you can perform it in the game, it’s the game designer’s responsibility to manage that system, not the player’s. 

Of course, the elephant in the room is, well, morals. Part of what makes cheating actually cheating is the community of players who deem an action to be unfair. What may be acceptable by the letter of Liebovitz’s definition, doesn’t always mesh with the messy reality of social conventions. Can you imagine being one of the students who didn’t get in with the 100 others? To he or she, teaming up on a test is likely reprehensible

But maybe classes at my alma mater just need better tuning.