Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Let's Talk About Words: "Investigations"

Words, as a concept, are near and dear to my heart (you can tell, because of all the writing that I seem to do). Verbal and written communication are beautiful things, but they can also foster paralyzing perceptions and create roadblocks to development and understanding.

One of my goals with this blog is to break down these barriers around scorekeeping--it's not as mysterious or arcane as it's portrayed to be, and while the software is far from perfect, it is mostly functional--both scorekeepers and those who interact with them. These barriers don't just apply to scorekeeping, though. They apply equally, perhaps even more so, to other concepts in judging that we use specific words to describe.


Back in November, Jared Sylva (L4 and former Mid-Atlantic RC), presented on investigations in two time slots at the North Carolina judge conference. His presentation was adapted from one he had given a few months prior, at the conference in Richmond. The notable thing about his approach to the topic was that he started off with a bit of an unconventional definition of what it means to perform an investigation.

This is the first line of my notes from the first seminar, which was about types and techniques:

EVERYTHING is an investigation--calls, deck checks, end of round, watching games.

In all of those situations, the goal is to gather information and determine an outcome. Sometimes the outcome is that nothing needs to be done--the deck check reveals no infractions, matches finish in turns--and sometimes action is necessary--a rules question needs to be answered or a player made a mistake that needs to be corrected.

Notice that there's nothing explicit about Cheating in this approach to investigations. That's what we might discover as a result of our inquiry, but the process is all about questions. (I love questions.)

While I picked up on the difference between Jared's approach and the general way "investigation" is perceived by the judging community from the outset of his presentation, it didn't strike me as particularly important until halfway through the second seminar, which was about common investigations.

Jared's list of topics included things like determining whether a trigger had been missed, resolving life total discrepancies and performing natural counts for information. About halfway through, someone raised their hand and said something like this (this is exactly what I have in my notes, but it might be paraphrased):

"Can you  give more examples? When I signed up for this class, that's what I thought it was about--specific things to look out for."

If I had overlooked the importance of the distinction between these approaches to investigations before, it was certainly staring me in the face now. A judge in the audience had expected this seminar to be about red flags, signals that a player might be intentionally rather than accidentally committing an infraction, and how to deal with them. He hadn't expected strategies for approaching "run-of-the-mill" judging situations.

And I couldn't fault him for that expectation because of what's inherent in our community's understanding of what "investigation" means.

  • You probably want to investigate for Cheating, but...
  • After investigating, I was confident that the player wasn't trying to gain an advantage.
  • Let's assume that you've already investigated for Cheating.

Phrases like these get thrown around all the time. In fact, many policy discussion forums, like the Mid-Atlantic Judge Slack's #policy channel, have a house rule that excludes the mention of Cheating from the discussion about handling specific situations.

These two approaches--"EVERYTHING is an investigation" and "If you think they might be cheating, investigate" aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, I think that both of them are valid.


And this is a pretty big However.

One of them is problematic.

A Brief Sojourn in the Past

Once upon a time, we were all new to the tournament official side of things. For me, it was in the summer of 2008, when I was judging my first event: WoW TCG Nationals at GenCon (talk about a trial by fire). I had read quite a few articles on judging leading up to the event, most of them written by Magic judges.

There were a few common threads among them, and the one that sticks out to me the most is the imperative that, if something seemed shady, the Head Judge should be involved immediately to investigate.

This instantly put investigations squarely in the court of judges who had more knowledge and experience than I did. They made them out to be something scary, that could only be handled by a judge in a leadership role, and they made the process feel like something that I not only shouldn't do, but something that I couldn't do.

It created a sort of stigma around investigating that made it unapproachable. As an L1 with basically no large-tournament experience, I didn't feel like I had the foundation I needed to ask the right questions or appropriately identify when "shady" and "not sporting" crossed the line into Cheating

I advanced to L2 that same weekend, but the stigma around "investigations" didn't magically go away with my shiny new judge level.

After many events, including the first major event I Head Judged, I figured it out enough to get by as an L3. Functionally, I could ask questions and make a decision about what I think happened, what the player's intent probably was, and whether that intent purposefully violated the rules.

But I still wasn't comfortable. I could do it, but the idea that investigating was something for judges with more levels and experience than I had still lingered. (For context, at the time, WoW only had three judge levels.) The stigma from my early encounters with what "investigating" means persisted.

The Things We Say

As I interacted with judges around the world, I learned that my experience wasn't unique.

I wasn't the only one who initially found that the idea of investigating was overwhelming and a little bit foreign.

I had trouble pinpointing why I felt that way, and I certainly had trouble helping judges I was mentoring overcome their own inhibitions around "investigations."

Questions like "What should I ask?" had veiled, complicated answers when it came to "investigations," and the responses usually went something like these:

  • It depends on the situation.
  • You don't want to ask leading questions.
  • You want to be direct.
  • You want to ask a questions that might catch the player in a lie.

All of these answers have something in common. They're vague. They're all accurate to varying degrees, but they're not helpful to someone trying to learn the process. They keep "investigations" cloaked in mystery, hidden away behind doors through which only the most experienced judges can pass.

Except that, in Real Life, tournaments aren't Head Judged by only the most experienced judges. They're Head Judged by you and me, and we have to investigate. We have to ask the right questions and make the hard choices, but the way judges tend to talk about "investigations," and thus many of the written resources that we have readily available while we're trying to learn, is hand-wavy:

  • Get the Head Judge involved right away.
  • Ask some questions to determine whether the player is Cheating first.

If someone is trying to learn techniques for "investigating," these answers can be frustrating. They present a barrier to understanding that masquerades as insight.

The Things We Do

Deck checks are pretty straightforward. There are lots of different techniques, but they're just different ways of answering the same question: did the player present a legal deck to his opponent?

Watching games is pretty straightforward. There are lots of things to pay attention to, like life totals and available resources. Are the players making legal choices?

End-of-round is pretty straightforward. What's the status of the matches that are still playing? Do they have time extensions? What turn are they on? What are the possible outcomes, and who benefits from the situation?

A player whose sleeves are worn might notice the pattern. A player might agree with his opponent that he had life totals wrong without asking any other questions. A player might hope that the current game ends in a draw near the end of a round.

We're observing these situations. Sometimes we're asking questions to ourselves or the players about the things we've observed:

  • Could the pattern of markings on the sleeves provide an advantage?
  • What led to the discrepancy in life totals?
  • What's the game count?

These questions are ones you'd want to ask if you're concerned that a player is intentionally violating the rules to gain an advantage. The player with marked cards might have noticed the markings two rounds ago. The life total discrepancy could lead to opportunistic cheating. A player who's up a game at the end of the round might be playing slowly on purpose.

But you know what?

These are also questions judges ask regularly when they don't suspect that something untoward is happening.

When you're on the deck checks team, you might be deciding whether to upgrade the Marked Cards penalty to a Game Loss. When you're called to a table where players disagree on life totals, you might need to help them establish where things went wrong. When you sit down to watch a match near the end of the round with an extension, you might want to know whether there's the possibility of another game after this one.

The line between "investigations" and "judge calls" isn't so distinct after all.

Changing the Discussion

As a community, we investigate all the time. As floor judges. As scorekeepers. Sometimes even as players and spectators. We ask questions and we make decisions based on the answers we get.

But, we reserve the word "investigations" for that thing that only the Head Judge is supposed to do, and only when a player has done Something Bad that might be worthy of a DQ.

This distinction isn't helpful.

There's dissonance between the things we say about investigations and the things we do on the floor of events. That dissonance creates, for many judges, a mental block about "investigations" that can be hard to overcome, and it's one that doesn't need to be created in the first place.

I mentioned earlier that I think that these two perspectives on investigations are both valid.

That's not entirely true.

I think that these two perspectives are the same.

Investigations aren't scary. How can they be? You do them all the time.

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