Thursday - Jan 21, 2021

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KEEPING AHEAD: Let’s Get Ethical

“We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” – Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter)

I’ll admit it: this was a hard article around which to wrap my head. I may have started and stopped writing this opening 10 times. I keep thinking of different directions, different angles and different anecdotes with which to begin. If you are interested in only the player stuff for your lineups, go ahead and flip to the second page. For those of you who stay, we are going to be talking ethics today. For that, I need to go all the way back to the seventh grade.

Remember Game Genie?

For those of you who aren’t 37 and didn’t grow up in a household of Nintendo or Sega Genesis, let me attempt to explain what Game Genie was.

See, before video game consoles hooked up to the internet and were able to download updates, plugins, etc. they simply existed as essentially video game “VCRs,” appliances that you would purchase games, controllers and accessories for, and subsequently physically plug them in or insert them, and enjoy. This made for a fairly simple gaming experience with minimal bells and whistles. The games simply worked, as the manufacturers intended, warts and all.

Game Genie changed that, however.

Using a system that essentially worked as a patch code for certain games, the Game Genie was a physical cartridge that you could insert into your Nintendo or Sega Genesis, and enter a series of codes that would then allow you to “cheat” in your video games. Maybe it gave you unlimited lives, or all the best weapons. Some games allowed you skip levels or “manufacture” high scores to make it seem like you accomplished something organically in the game that you definitely did not. In essence, it was a way to cheat that was readily available as long as you purchased their cartridges.

This, as you can imagine, was met with people on both sides of an ethical issue. Nintendo was furious, opening a lawsuit against the makers of Game Genie claiming that the product violated copyright on their intellectual properties. Sega fully embraced Game Genie and even embraced it as an unavoidable, if not profitable, appendage to their existing library of games.

As for myself? Well, I owned both a Nintendo and a Game Genie. My best childhood friend had a Sega and owned one for that as well. You are telling me there was a way to make a difficult game infinitely easier, and all I had to do was purchase this cartridge??? Sign. Me. Up.

But video games weren’t my only vice.

When it is not fantasy football season, the other hobby that I have obsessed over since the seventh grade is a game called Magic: The Gathering. Again, for those not in the know or who didn’t grow up as dateless nerds, let me explain:

Magic is a fantasy card game in which two opponents face off against one another with the goal of reducing each other’s “life” from 20 to zero. This involves a lot of complicated details that I don’t need to get into now, but at its core, Magic is like a strange hybrid of poker, Dungeons and Dragons, chess and strategy.

Now, since its inception, the game of Magic has grown incredibly. What started as a relatively small hobby played in comic book stores or game shops on the weekend has ballooned into a multi-million-dollar enterprise. It netted Hasbro $500 million last year alone. Tournaments for the game are held both in person and online with grand prizes reaching astronomical limits and, with printings in over 11 languages and sold worldwide, Magic has soared far beyond its humble beginnings in 1994.

With this kind of success, however, comes a price. For years the barrier to entering the game at the highest levels of competition has been the physical cost of the cards themselves, with some individual cards costing as much as a new car or down payment on a house. Don’t believe me? Go ahead, Google the price of a mint “Black Lotus” and get back to me when you pick your jaw up off the desk. [Editors Note: I did a check on EBay to save you some time and mint or mint- varieties were listed in the hundreds of thousands of dollars!]

Prohibitive costs such as these have resulted in everything from lawsuits, to theft, to the lucrative printing of fake copies of these cards being printed, all serving to erode the faith in the game itself as well as the enjoyment of its players.

Even worse, cheating has been rampant.

Now this is to be expected, right? At literally every level of competition, and in every hobby, cheating occurs. If people cheat to win the Tour de France or hit the ball farther in Major League Baseball, then certainly things like card and video games are no different, right? Heck, you probably play pickup basketball with a friend who calls fouls when they are barely touched or secretly Googles words when playing scrabble to make sure they know how to spell things. At every level, if there is a way to win, people will cheat. Magic is no different and the amount of cheaters that have been caught is staggering, if ultimately unsurprising.

So how exactly do they cheat?

Well, there are a number of ways. Sleight of hand techniques when shuffling their own cards is the most common, and there have been plenty of players banned for manipulating the random nature of the game to their advantage. Others have been caught breaking the fundamental rules of the game, drawing an additional card per turn, playing cards illegally, etc. As you can imagine, this has become a black mark on tournaments, the players, and, in many ways, the game itself.

You (right now): Isn’t this a fantasy football column?

Me (when I wrote this): Yes, I’m getting there.

The common thread through both of these stories is, of course, me. I played Nintendo back in seventh grade and absolutely used the Game Genie to great success. I have also played Magic since approximately the same time, and yet, despite the allure of big prize winnings, local notoriety and pure competitive spirit, have never once cheated, even in practice.

Why?

This is the question I found myself asking this week. See, situations have come up this year in my fantasy league of record that have teetered on the edge of unethical behavior from some members. This has come in several forms:

– Accepting a trade via text or email and then abruptly making a different trade with another owner

– Illegally submitting rosters and/or backup/substitute players based on performance

– “Tanking” and helping another team

– “Loaning” players for a week and then returning them to their original owner the week after

– Not disclosing known changes to a player’s status when making a trade to an unsuspecting owner.

In every situation, as commissioner of the league, I was put in the unenviable position of making a judgment on these moments, each of which could have lasting ramifications on the league not only this year, but for years to come (as this is a keeper league). This usually involved some combination of public and private chastising of owners, as well as a general reminder of why we play fantasy football to begin with and the importance of being ethical.

And perhaps this is why I decided to write about this topic today. Our nation currently sits at a precipice of ethics itself, frozen in claims of rigged elections, disinformation, mob mentality and manipulation. All around us, every day, we see evidence of an erosion of ethics and ethical behavior, and while clearly not harmful to our lives, these little moments in fantasy football add up to what seem to be a larger picture of acting in the best interests of ourselves, not others.

And perhaps this is where I began thinking of that seventh grade internal battle with myself.

Why is it OK, and perfectly acceptable, for me to cheat in a video game using Game Genie, but absolutely not while playing Magic with my friends or opponent? How did I rationalize the two then, and what does that choice say about me today?

In essence, I think the answer lies, not in myself, but in the communal aspect of each hobby.

Fantasy football is an experience we all share. Together. It’s a brother/sisterhood of camaraderie, built around the premise that we love the NFL so much, that we too want to share a part in the successes and failures of our favorite teams and players. We too want to know what it feels like to score a touchdown, even from our couches or barstool, and revel in the victory of the player whose jersey we adorn. That community, that shared experience, is why we play fantasy football, and it’s why you are still reading this column. We don’t just play it for ourselves, we play it for each other, win or lose.

And if we cheat that? We cheat everyone. The whole institution. Not just our own team, but our brothers, our sisters, our opponents, our league and even the industry as a whole. If anything, this column hopefully will serve as a reminder that we all know the benefits of cheating or being unethical, just like I did when I got unlimited lives with the Game Genie. It makes the game easier, makes your team better, and allows you to reap the rewards. But the damage it can cause?

Far, far, far worse.

Read on for this week’s Hits, Holds and Folds …

About MJ Brown

MJ Brown has been an avid fantasy football keeper league enthusiast and player for over a decade. A member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association, MJ delivers weekly content on multiple platforms, bringing a combination of advice, humor, and tips to keep your team at the top of your league.