Day1b: Cheating is inevitable in business games

Frustrated man in front of laptop
Students find free-riding to be one the biggest problems with group work

|Matt Offord

Games are increasingly popular in business schools but claims for the benefits of games to encourage teamworking are overstated, failing to acknowledge factors which make free-riding inevitable and very serious. How can we protect groups from this type of academic dishonesty? 

The pros and cons of games in business education

Games are seen as having specific educational benefits such as supporting desirable graduate attributes, including group work (Barr 2017). Many games incorporate groupwork which is often cited positively in terms of teamwork (Sridharan et al. 2018; Opdecam and Everaert 2018).  Games can be anything from making learning projects competitive (gamification using points or badges) to full-blown serious games and simulations.

However, free-riding is often cited as the most important reason for the failure of groupwork (Sridharan et al. 2018; Opdecam and Everaert 2018; Hall and Buzwell 2013).  Free-riding is the failure of team members to collaborate with the larger group (Opdecam and Everaert 2018 ).  By withholding effort, team members aim to benefit from the labours of the group while contributing as little as possible.  Free-riding can be seen as a form of cheating. 

Can games be used to reduce cheating?

Some Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) use ethical game mechanics to emulate moral dimensions of decision making (Bartle 2012 p.193). However, these games have limitations and their specific use in business education is dubious.  As Bartlett (2012) points out the suspension of real-world ethics in ludic spaces is overstated, players are still governed by personal and social morality (p.194) and therefore resistant to the moral lessons incorporated in games.

Woman with head resting on pile of books
Free-riding leads to frustration and disengagement

Free-riding in the real world

Since games do not deal explicitly with free-riding we might turn our focus to how society deals with defectors, using cultural evolution theory (theories concerning the generation of cultural practices) (Mesoudi 2016).  Despite their hypersociality human societies are still blighted by free-riders (Turchin 2016, p.15).  The reason for this is due to the co-operator’s dilemma (Ibid. p. 57).  The dilemma is that although it makes sense to contribute to society, the amount of benefit received by individuals is outweighed by the cost (given the alternative of doing nothing and still reaping the rewards (loc cit.)).  It is entirely rational to defect even though it is often portrayed as devious behaviour.  Rules and methods of control have evolved in human culture which include a spectrum of penalties for free-riders (Turchin 2016,p.57; Boehm 2012, p.51.).   Consider that the penalties for plagiarism are significantly higher than for free-riding which could be argued as being equally serious. 

The applicability of game theories to free-riding in business games

Educators often expect the team-based elements of serious games, or video games, to simply improve team-work despite the fact that free-riding continues to be a serious problem with group based education (Opdecam and Everaert 2018).  This originates from an essentialist approach where groupwork is simply expected to cure known teamwork problems (Ibid.).

Davies (2009) suggests robust penalties for free-riders, such as being ejected from groups.  Such tactics are like those observed in ethnographic studies of small-scale societies (Turchin 2016, p.57).  In such groups, the cost of free-riding can be unbearable and severe sanctions are the only way to cause free-riders to recalculate the odds of the co-operator’s dilemma (Ibid.). 

We need to police groupwork and (therefore) games

Groupwork in business has been uncritically adopted (Hall and Buzwell 2013) and we may include serious games and simulations among these instrumentalist solutions to achieving collaborative business alumni.  However, the failure to understand the mechanisms of free-riding has severely compromised the ability of games to promote teamworking outcomes.  Video and serious games often lack specific mechanics to deal with teamwork and do not deal specifically with free-riding.  Educators need to police free-riders and to give participants the power to police themselves (Davies 2009).   This gap in free-riding game mechanics could also be bridged by developing games with specific structures for dealing with defectors.

This blog is based on an essay submitted for the Digital Games, Play and the Psychology of Learning course on the MSc in Digital Education by Matt Offord (November 2021)

List of References

Barr, M. (2017). Video games can develop graduate skills in higher education students: A randomised trial. Computers and Education, 113, 86–97.

Bartle R.A. (2012) MMO Morality. In: Fromme J., Unger A. (eds) Computer Games and New Media Cultures. Springer, Dordrecht.

Boehm, C., (2012). Moral origins: The evolution of virtue, altruism, and shame. Soft Skull Press.

Consalvo, M., Busch, T., & Jong, C. (2019). Playing a Better Me: How Players Rehearse Their Ethos via Moral Choices. Games and Culture, 14(3), 216–235.

Coovert, M. D., Winner, J., Bennett, W., & Howard, D. J. (2017). Serious Games are a Serious Tool for Team Research. International Journal of Serious Games, 4(1), 41–55.

Davies, W. M. (2009). Groupwork as a form of assessment: Common problems and recommended solutions. Higher Education, 58(4), 563–584.

Gee, J.P., (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Computers in Entertainment (CIE)1(1), pp.20-20.

Glas, R. (2015). Chapter 6:  Breaking reality: Exploring pervasive cheating in Foursquare. In Frissen, V., Lammes, S., de Lange, M., de Mul, J., & Raessens, J. (Eds.). (2015). Playful identities: The ludification of digital media cultures. Amsterdam University Press.

Hall, D., & Buzwell, S. (2013). The problem of free-riding in group projects: Looking beyond social loafing as reason for non-contribution. Active Learning in Higher Education, 14(1), 37–49.

Hamlen, K. R. (2012). Academic dishonesty and video game play: Is new media use changing conceptions of cheating? Computers and Education, 59(4), 1145–1152.

Mesoudi, A. (2016). Cultural evolution: Integrating psychology, evolution and culture. Current Opinion in Psychology, 7, 17–22.

Melzer, A., & Holl, E. (2021). Players’ Moral Decisions in Virtual Worlds. The Oxford Handbook of Entertainment Theory, October, 670–689.

Opdecam, E., & Everaert, P. (2018). Seven disagreements about cooperative learning. Accounting Education, 27(3), 223–233.

Turchin, P., (2016). Ultrasociety: How 10,000 years of war made humans the greatest co-operators on earth. Chaplin, CT: Beresta Books.

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