Fools and Firebrands (The Ethics of Deceit in Gameplay)

Like a madman who throws firebrands is the man who deceives and says, ‘Just kidding!’
(Prov. 26:18-19)

From lying in a game of Survivor in front of millions of viewers in order to win the million dollars, to a dummy pass in rugby for a clear run to the try line: a great deal of gameplay involves deceit to some degree. The question raised is, how much of this is innocent fun and how much is sinful?

We cannot take the question lightly, Proverbs 26:18-19 reads, “Like a madman who throws firebrands is the man who deceives and says, ‘Just kidding!’”. The Bible has no qualms about saying that “lying lips are an abomination to the LORD” (Prov. 12:22) and lest we have the idea that the Old Testament is the condemnatory one, “all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur” (Rev. 21:8) sits far within the New Testament. Of course, we must beware of the Pharisaical avoidance of harmless fun for the sake of what is essentially legalism. The question remains though: when we play a game of Mafia at a church social, are we just Christians having a good time or are we fools with firebrands?

This essay will construct a framework of three evaluative questions which will provide guidelines by which we can evaluate deception situations arising in games. In my original work, I applied these questions to various situations and if the present reader is interested, comments are welcome but as this is already too long, they have been removed. The cases I originally examined were extreme and certainly not every game will involve such cases but, as Thielicke (1968:460) points out, “only against this background of the borderline cases do phenomena come to light which are generally concealed by the more normal cases”.

Due to the complexity and nuance associated with trying to define terms accurately (especially when with a view to using them as ethical standards1), this essay will not attempt to define “lying”. The subject involves questions of intent, knowledge, method as well as means of communication all of which weigh in to create a complex subject. We can, however, agree broadly that deception occurs in gameplay. Therefore, rather than subjecting a scenario to a cumbersome definition that attempts to take every iteration into account, it would be more fruitful to develop a framework in which to think about deception in gameplay. We therefore turn to three questions by which we will evaluate deceit in games.

Three Evaluative Questions
        1. Behaviour Tolerance and Manipulation:
In Graham Houston’s (1998:54) book on morality in the virtual world, he raises the concern that exposure to the virtual world can cause, “thresholds of acceptable thought or behaviour to be shifted by such experience, so that actions which were repugnant become less so”. In other words, Houston is pointing out a twofold danger of virtual reality: that behaviour which may be intolerant in reality becomes increasingly acceptable after exposure in virtual reality. It is twofold because it leads to both tolerance of deviant behaviour in others, and can also be manipulation towards that behaviour in oneself.

The objection is that the exposure to “Game World” environments deadens our normal reactions to behaviour that would, outside of Game World be unacceptable. A Game World like Mafia or Survivor encourages or even requires players to do things that they would not normally do and teaches them to do these things effectively against the natural inclination to the contrary. It is a combination of the vulnerability of players to this manipulation and the duration of their exposure that poses the real problem. Just as movies receive age restrictions based on their content which has the potential to psychologically affect its audience, Game Worlds have the potential to change the way players think about and react in different situations.

Ultimately, wisdom will play the biggest role in determining whether prolonged exposure to a particular game is giving rise to a genuine problem. It is important, however, to bear this in mind and to consider the vulnerability of the players engaged in the game.

        2. Transsubjective Reality:
Perhaps a more significant point is how Game World ethics relates to “Real World” ethics. Thielicke considers the way reality confronts people in their lives through, for example, work, politics or economics. Ethical problems arise, according to Thielicke (1968:459), “out of our confrontation with reality”. This reality is not the transcendent kind of reality in which we all find ourselves, but the micro-realities of work or home or the pub where demands on our behaviour or manner differ from the transcendent demands of true reality, or “Real World”. “The scope of ethics is thus illegitimately reduced if it is limited only to the sphere of disposition and does not also embrace the problem of that transsubjective reality into which man is thrust and by which the free play of his action is restricted” (Thielicke, 1968:459). Thielicke is saying, for our purposes, that Game World is not outside of reality; Game World cannot escape the jurisdiction of the Real World.

Does this mean that Real World rules out the possibility of Game World? Surely not, it would be difficult to make a case that Christians cannot play games simply because games have their own sets of rules2. In addition, Thielicke’s point is that we all engage in micro-realities with their own sets of rules all the time. Each reality has differing demands on our interaction. For example, Thielicke (1968:545) offers, “Whenever I try to observe the canons of common etiquette I find myself uttering a constant stream of untruths.” His examples culminate in his explanation, “I often say “Goodbye,” a shortened form of “God be with you,” when what I really mean is “Go to the devil”” (Thielicke, 1968:545).

Sometimes Transcedent Reality collides with Subjective Reality. The criticism of “Transsubjective Reality” is, simply put, that some aspects of games are not confined to Game World and so Real World penetrates Game World in some respects. For example, a game in which players are randomly picked to be executed (in actuality), is not merely a game. An execution results in the death of someone in Real World, not merely in Game World: an unacceptable outcome. For this reason, Real World ethics preclude such Game World activity. Transsubjective Reality is saying that the reality in which we live – objective (transcendent) reality (without going down the rabbit hole of what that means) – transcends the subjective realities of game worlds: it is a “Transsubjective Reality”.

In the micro-reality of a game of Mafia, players understand that any other player could be their enemy and so they are all willing to deceive each other3. The evaluation of Transsubjective Reality asks whether the deceit is confined to Game World. A dummy pass in Rugby is clearly a strategic manoeuvre, misdirecting the opponent as a part of Game World. Similarly, we would be hard pressed to find fault in poker bluff since it is a part of Game World. We should note that both these scenarios could, potentially, have significant Real World consequences beyond merely victory or defeat: for instance, substantial financial rewards are associated with both games. The deceit, however, is confined to Game World. In a game of Truth or Dare, however, a deceit may well pervade Real World and so be unethical. To make a judgement on Mafia would be pre-emptive but this will become clearer when applied in the following section. What is important to see is that sometimes, aspects of a game escape Game World and reside, at least partially, in Real World.

        3. Love the Final Ethic:
Having just enumerated commandments in Romans 13 and reaching verse 10, Paul suddenly explains, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour”. “Therefore,” Paul concludes, “love is the fulfilling of the law”. While the question of behaviour tolerance and manipulation investigated the effects of the game on the individual player, we have not yet considered the other players. With a topic that can be the source of great controversy we need to carefully consider the effect of deceit in gameplay on Real World relationships of the players. This is not merely an extension of the previous point: even if worlds are shown not to interact at all and the point is nullified, the biblical imperative must pervade our every thought, word and deed.

To begin with, the biblical imperative demands that we take into account the rule of conscience. Paul tells us that our conscience “bears witness, and [our] conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse [us]” (Rom. 2:15). Therefore, he requires that we submit to the government “for the sake of conscience” (Rom. 13:5). This means that if our conscience decries our deceit, we should not be involved in the game since, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin”4.

The ethic of love, though, is not about our own consciences, it is about that of others: love bids us consider the weaker brother. Paul’s discourse in Romans 13 is aptly summarised in verse 21, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble”. I cannot do better than to quote Paul at length, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat [or your deception, though in Game World], you are no longer walking in love” (Rom. 13:14-15) so Paul’s exhortation applies here also, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 13:19).

Finally, Paul says something interesting in Romans 12:17. He has been exhorting the church to use their gifts and in the vein of “living in harmony”, loving “genuinely” and “with brotherly affection” we find Paul urge us not simply to do what is good but to “give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all” (Rom. 12:17). This is interesting because it means that we need to think twice about doing something that brothers and sisters in Christ would frown upon. It is a high calling, especially considering we have weaker siblings but it is the calling to which he calls us.

All this does not mean that no one can play poker any more because it causes one Christian brother or sister to stumble. It does mean that in an effort to love one another and build one another up, we should be willing to forego a game of poker when that brother or sister is in our company. In addition should our own consciences be disturbed by whatever we are doing, we should excuse ourselves from the game without casting judgement on the remaining players.

Some Further Considerations
If I were to write this paper a second time there are some thing I would change. The first is that I now feel that the idea of Transubjective Reality is the only question that is being asked and so it would umbrella the other two questions and undergird the entire project. I also have not dealt with any real criticism (originally I had written something which did not truly deal with potential arguments against this take) and I am considering taking potential criticism more seriously (it is, therefore, welcome below). Some particularly relevant criticisms are: (1) on what basis may we say that game world can ethically exist? (2) rats, this is what happens when you don’t write things down. Of course, this paragraph is simply an appendage for the sake of a blog and so I’m not going to belabour it any further.

When it comes to deceit in gameplay, unless we are to take a hardline and condemn it all, it must be taken on a case by case basis. We have looked at three aspects germane to the consideration of deceit in gameplay and have seen how these considerations help us to determine the morality of deceitful actions in different circumstances. Hopefully now, we can participate in games as mature Christians, assured of our faith and never being found fools with firebrands.

I have included a pdf of my appendices: Appendix A explains the games in case anyone is unfamiliar with them. Appendix B lists some interesting case studies.
You can download it by clicking here.


  1. Initially this approach was considered but was ruled out because it is difficult for a definition to account for the nuances of reality. For such a discussion, see Don Fallis’ Lying and Deception (2010:1-22).  return
  2. Although, a strong case could be made against specific games whose rules are unethical. A game of Russian Roulette could be argued to be unethical because part of its rules requires killing someone in Real World. With deceit in gameplay it is harder to nail down. The trouble is that a game cannot have true deception unless deception is not required (otherwise trust which can be betrayed could never be built) and so if deception is not a requisite of the game, how can we argue that the game is unethical? At most we can say that the players are unethical.  return
  3. I have even been witness to citizens deceiving citizens in an attempt to “assist” the citizens who are deceived in identifying Mafia. Ironically, the only real exception to this is that the Mafia don’t deceive one another.  return
  4. Paul is arguing for Christian liberty but not at the expense of conscience specifically in the context of dietary restrictions, he writes that “whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith” and concludes explaining that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23).  return


  1. FALLIS, D. 2010. Lying and deception. Philosophers’ imprint, 10(11):1-22, Nov.
  2. HOUSTON, G. 1998. Virtual morality: Christian ethics in a computer age. Leicester : Apollos.
  3. MARSHALL, J. 2007. “Survivor” ethics: the saga of Dreamz and Yau-Man. [Web:] [Date of access: 14 May 2011].
  4. STASSEN, G. H. & GUSHEE, D. P. 2003. Kingdom ethics: following Jesus in contemporary context. Downers Grove, IL : IVP.
  5. THIELICKE, H. 1968. Theolgical ethics: volume 1: foundations. London : Adam & Charles Black.
  6. YIN, T. 2007. “Survivor: Fiji”: ethics and lying in games. [Web:] [Date of access: 14 May 2011].
James Cuénod
Student at Wheaton College
I love Jesus, preach his Gospel, disciple his children, study his word and I am incurably passionate about the glory of God.
Inching my way towards teaching pastors in South Africa. Student at Wheaton College. Excited by Hermeneutics, Old Testament and Biblical Theology.