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Dealing with Cheaters in Game Thinking

In creating and organizing my work in strategizing dealing with cheaters has become a major element of my work in game thinking. I’m always surprised when a “so-called” skilled game player complains that another player has cheated but can’t really prove that it is so. Often these strategists don’t understand the difference between a cheating strategy and a “Trickster strategy”. In a Trickster strategy a player thinks, acts, and behaves in ways that are outside the norm, are paradoxical, counterintuitive or ambiguous.   Initially, these strategies would appear to be cheating but when addressed or studied they are found to be within the rules and acceptable within the game structure, even if just barely so.  This can be very frustrating for traditional players using traditional strategies. The highly skilled game thinker and strategist may make certain moves that seem to be the right move but at the wrong time. They may apply skills or resources in situations where they would seem to be ineffective. They may seem to lose every subgame* while winning the end game.  Donald Trumps’ race for the American Presidency appears to have all of the elements of this type of strategizing. Of course, whether he is actually a cheater or just a skilled game thinker will not be known for four or even maybe eight years. Ultimately the American legal and political system will provide that answer.

Much of my work in Applied Game Thinking is based on the concept that in any zero-sum game there is likely to be a player who understands the rules and intentionally breaks them as a strategy to win in spite of the consequences. Part of what many cheaters hope to gain is an undue reward for behavior that violates the rules of the game. Legitimizing such behavior offers an undue reward, blunts motivation to play fair, exacerbates complacency and fuels conflict with other cheaters and with those who have chosen to play by the rules.

The most effective cheaters have already decided that even if caught the benefits of cheating are greater than the penalty for being caught. In HAGT strategies are designed with the assumption that in a game with a large enough number of players, and a large enough payoff that at least one and likely more than one of the players is likely to cheat. There are many ways, however, the most common include lying, telling half-truths, manufacturing information, disseminating Fake News, engaging in procedural manipulation, outright deception,  intentional omission and the avoidance of truthful information.


With rare exception, liars and cheaters present subtle clues called “leaks” that indicate their likely thoughts and behavior. This is because most of us believe that it is desirable to be truthful though doing so might not always seem to be in our best interest or serve our strategy for winning. Still lying and cheating or the intention to do so can often cause psychological distress.  Recently social scientists have developed ways to program computers to isolate the linguistic tics and leaks that indicate psychological distress. Most of this research has been conducted for the purpose of detecting depression and suicidal thoughts in teen speech but it can also be applied to flushing out cheaters and liars in game environments.

John Pestian, a psychiatrist and expert in biomedical informatics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, developed the app that helps mental health experts detect depression and suicidal thoughts in teen speech.  The technology that is the foundation of these apps – machine learning algorithms – relies on an understanding of distress patterns that Pestian’s team has isolated through research on speech and psychology. What master stage mentalists know is that what is core to all of this are thought markers*.” Thought markers indicate a person’s state of mind as expressed vocally and acoustically. An example of a thought marker would include “Vowel spacing”.  This refers to ways of pronouncing and articulating words that render speech more or less garbled. Reduced vowel space makes speech sound less intelligible, articulated, or clear. Recent research has shown that stress can influence motor control function especially speech production. Pestian investigated whether a machine could spot distinct mental illnesses based on vowel space frequency patterns. For the game thinker scanning for nonverbal cues of lying and cheating can help detect patterns through the app. Pestian developed a program called SAM, or Spreading Activation Mobile.

Master cheaters and liars can go unnoticed in human exchanges but can be isolated with computational analysis. SAM’s analytic abilities were tested on the vocal characteristics of 379 subjects. The technology correctly classified subjects into one of three groups related to teen depression and suicide:

  1. Suicidal,
  2. Mentally ill but not suicidal,
  3. Controls

The app produced with 85% accuracy.  In a game setting, the app might work by a competitor recording another player’s conversations. Of course, this brings in ethical and legal issues.  That being said, the app can then scan for thought markers signaling lying and or cheating. It’s searching for the very things not commonly picked up on or understood in conversation, like vocal intensity, speech rates, and voice fluctuations.

The platform also detects the more subtle differences between indications of angst and genuine psychological distress. Pestian is working now on extending the algorithmic analysis to visual cues, collecting video data on gazing; a tendency to avert eye contact can indicate psychological distress, he says.

But machines can only go so far in addressing the problem, he notes, even if they pick up on subtle clues humans miss. For the game theorist,  this means that the technology is not going to stop a player from lying and cheating.  The technology can only say: We have a liar or a cheater here and any strategy we develop in this game will need to take the likelihood of this into consideration.



Lewis Harrison is the director of the professional Coaching Training Program at the International Association of Healing Professionals

He is  founder of the RealUGuru Project Think Tank is a is a life coach, peak performance expert, writer, mentor, content-rich, motivational speaker, and an entrepreneur specializing in problem solving and strategizing  based on game thinking, applied game theory and Game Thinking.

He is the author of over twenty-two books published in five languages.

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If you are interested in business success in the 21st Century in the arts or in any other endeavor you need to study with Lewis Harrison. Begin by reading Lewis’ books.

If you are an entrepreneur you will want to begin with his books on game theory and business success.  Here are two basic ones to start with:


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