Ethics Quiz: The Peculiar Ethics of Carnival Games

The AARP website has a post about rigged carnival games, a topic that I have always found intriguing from an ethics perspective. The games…The Basketball Shoot, The Balloon Dart Throw, The Ring Toss, The Milk Bottle Pyramid, The Duck Pond and the rest…are rigged, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know they were rigged. It didn’t stop me from playing the silly things. A carnival is a state of mind, a flashback to the days of P.T. Barnum and flim-flam artists. An ethical carnival? Isn’t that an oxymoron? We eat terrible food, pay to go on disappointing rides, listen to barkers who we know are lying through their teeth, and play games that are scams in order to win cheesy prizes worth a fraction of what we paid out to win them and that we wouldn’t dream of buying outside a carnival anyway. That’s the carnival experience. It’s all unethical, and we consent to it.

Or is this just a rationalization? Is capitulation the proper ethical course, or should we carefully regulate carnival games, make sure all of the food is cholesterol-lite and sugar-free, and force the barkers to issue disclaimers and warnings like the recitations in TV drug commercials?

That’s your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz for the day, my friends:

Do traditional unethical practices become ethical in the culture of a carnival and similar environments, where the public voluntarily participates in and consents to its own victimization?

With cotton candy dancing in my head, corn dogs singing their siren song and images of the Wild Man of Borneo howling in my fevered brain, I have to confess that my inclination is to say, “Yes.”

And you?


Spark: AARP

Graphic: Photolibra

21 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Peculiar Ethics of Carnival Games

  1. Neither yes nor no — it just is what it is — is a mosquito ethical? Anyway, carnival resulted in one of the most beautiful and affecting pieces of American theatre, adapted from Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 play, “Liliom”. It was, of course, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel”. Rodgers said in his autobiography, “Musical Stages”, that it was his favorite score of all he composed. I agree. It’s hard to beat the “Carousel Waltz”, worthy of anything by Strauss pere et fils. B illy’s soliloquy, “My Boy Bill” — one of the great arias of any musical stage, one that baritones loove to sink their teeth into. Molnar himself saw a dress rehearsal and told R&S that he absolutely loved it. This is off the subject of ethics; but it’s a favorite hobby horse. I got to play Starkeeper/Dr. Selden in several productions.

    • With you all the way. The Overture is right up there with “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” as the best think Rodgers ever composed—“My Boy Bill” is the greatest male solo in American musical history, and I’d also add “If I loved you,” the most lovely of all romantic duets.

      Never been crazy about the story. Billy is such a putz that I get annoyed.

      • Agreed on character of the wife-beater, Billy Bigelow. And the victimized wife, Julie Jordan, later tells their daughter, Louise, that someone can hit you and it doesn’t even hurt — she’s such a spineless dishrag.

        Nevertheless, “Carousel” is a perennial favorite to leave audiences weeping happily in their seats at the end (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”).

        Altogether, a real nice clambake.

  2. Your premise is sound. Another example: It’s highly unethical to commit identity fraud and claim to be someone who you are not. But in movies/TV/theater, actors do exactly that and it’s okay because we KNOW that they are doing so and it’s for our own benefit because the (hopefully) entertaining show would not be possible without the actors lying to us*.

    And that’s the key distinction. Rigging the games is not to the benefit of those being lied to (the carnival patrons in this case) but rather to the benefit of the liars (“It’s easy to win!”). That there is an indirect benefit (the fun atmosphere) to the patrons does not make it okay. The fun atmosphere would still be there with fair games.

    And I should clarify that I’m specifically limiting my comments to the rigged games and not the prices or relative cost of the prizes, which are all out in the open.


    * If you have not already, take this time to go see Galaxy Quest, starring Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver. The story relates directly to this topic!

    • No — theatre actors don’t lie to us. My late father, a pretty good lawyer, told me a definition of a lie: “a deliberate attempt to deceive someone who has a right to know the truth.”

      The implied contract between actors and audience is this: “We’re going to tell you an entertaining story by pretending to be people we are not.”
      And the audience part of the contract is to pretend for a little while that the actors are those peo;ple.

      The technical term for what the audience does is “the willing suspension of disbelief”.

      Chidren call the game “Let’s Pretend”.

      • When my little girl was small, I would read her bed-time stories, acting out the handsome hero, the beautiful princess, the scary monster, whatever. She loved it. Fast forward a few years: she was a professional ballerina Back East, and she would tell the audience stories by pretending, in dance, to be the beautiful princess, the swan, the wicked witch, whatever. Audiences loved it. “Let’s Pretend”.

        She’s in a whole different field now, but she had fun with Let’s Pretend for those years.

      • We’re not in disagreement. My example was a single sentence used to set up part of a larger point. Please don’t mistake succinctness for misunderstanding.

        And, to be honest, the whole of what you’ve written just supports my point.


  3. Unless the carnival posts a sign announcing that its games are rigged and that the players have virtually no chance of winning on their own, then the carnival (or the individual game) is taking their money under false pretenses. It is called “theft” in “all 57 states”.

    My job description once included “monitoring ” these things, both from a permitting point and from an enforcement point. Cities like them because they generate revenue (permitting fees) and it makes otherwise dreadful places (some cities) look like actually fun places to be.

    The truly unethical are those city officials who, knowing that the games are rigged and the citizens who can least afford it will lose their money, will overlook a negative pre-permit report and issue the permit.

    • Are there really people who don’t know the games are rigged? Isn’t it like the shell game or three card monte? Don’t we tolerate unethical carnivals because the alternative is no carnivals at all? How many people play roulette without knowing that the “o” and ‘OO” stack the odds so the house can’t lose? Should the house have to explain that to them?

  4. Do traditional unethical practices become ethical in the culture of a carnival and similar environments, where the public voluntarily participates in and consents to its own victimization?

    You mean, like playing the lottery and going to casinos?

    Yeah, probably. But at least with casinos and lotteries, there is some fine print to educate yourself. With regards to carnivals, I believe all the games can be won if you know the “trick”. I don’t expect to be able to identify the trick and suddenly win, but as long as it is possible to win, I don’t feel cheated.

    The carnival can make the odds of winning as low as they want…as long as there’s a chance. (Also, it’s bad business not to let anyone win. Seeing someone walk around with their trophy only encourages more business, for others to try to get their own trophy.)

  5. I’m with Tim on this, practically word for word. The people who are entertained by spending on the carnival games (and who are of sound mind) do not consider themselves victims, no matter how well (or poorly) they know how lopsidedly the odds are stacked against them.

  6. I really hate to sound like a stickler (sp?) but here I go… Regardless if the public consents (purchases, participates ) in unethical practices even though traditional, it’s still unethical. And the public should be warned, even in fine print to maintain the fantasy/imagery of the carnival. We cannot assume the public is always aware they are being bamboozled…some folks may spend a day (and tons of $$) trying to win that pesky bear from the rigged bottles game. I’m not saying mandate everything be equal and fair when it comes to carnival games and the like, but at least throw a disclaimer in there….and leave it up to the public to care/acknowledge the disclaimer. It’s only right. PS with the new calorie intake postings on food selections, I am constantly reminded about my choices and I usually opt for the healthier choice.

  7. Having been around this Industry, in the Fair & Carnival sides, I have to say that perception is the bigger theif of ehtics than the Carnivals. The Carnivals have made tremendous conciencious positve strides in the past 10-15 years. The games can be difficult to win BUT are now much less a scam today than their reputation paints them. Public perception is poor when it comes to the Fairs/Carnivals. Towns and Cities have a dislike for them because they come into town and take all of their dollars earned on the rides, games & food to their winter quarters. Not true! A lot of that money stays in town and has a very postive economic impact because the Carnivals SPEND MONEY on goods and services everywhere they set up. They give a percentage back to the Fair, which is actually an intregal part of the community. The Fair gets the gate (admission tickets). A lot of the money made by the Carnivals goes to pay for competent personnel to set up/operate/maintain/tear down and move to next venue. They are buying and using diesel fuel to run their generators on the midway to power the rides and concession stands. They have huge insurance premiums and have to meet different building, health, electric and safety codes in each place they set up. They dress & train their employees and screen for drug use as well as do background checks. Does all this always work? No but it is much better than 10-15 years ago. If you have not been to a Carnival or Fair in awhile, it might be time to toss your preconceived perceptions about this event out the door and take a new look. I’m not going to gurarantee that you will win a huge stuffed snoopy but you WILL have fun without feeling victimized. The perceptions need to change and that is always a difficult thing to change. Time and positive experiences will fix that.
    The Industry has heard the rumblings about ehtics and the change has come and is being tweaked all the time.
    John Owens, CFE

  8. You may remember that I tend to embrace deontological ethics. But I’ll be the first to admit that such systems are utopian and sometimes impractical. In the real world, where lying is commonplace and frequently treated as a multi-shade grey area, there is a social benefit to be had from training people to contend with deception.

    Therefore, it is with a heavy heart that I argue that there is a decidedly ethical dimension to environments in which seemingly unethical practices are the norm. Each time I have walked through a carnival, I have felt a little on-guard. The simultaneous promise of fun and disappointment urged me to train a skeptical eye on most everything and encouraged me to carefully weigh the costs and benefits.

    Deceiving in an environment where people know they are going to be deceived helps to provide them with this training. It’s an important skill to learn, and it’s much more ethically sound if it’s learned in a fun and stimulus-rich environment, as opposed to, say, in a pyramid scheme.

    I still consider it unethical to lie in any circumstances, but as you may also know, I maintain a pretty strict definition of “lie.” If I’m told I have a one-in-three chance of winning if I pick randomly at three card monte, when in fact I have a zero percent chance, no amount of fun that I have in playing excuses that. If I’m told that I look strong enough to ring the bell with the mallet, I warrant that the barker is probably just being incredibly generous.

  9. “The games…The Basketball Shoot, The Balloon Dart Throw, The Ring Toss, The Milk Bottle Pyramid, The Duck Pond and the rest…are rigged, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know they were rigged.”

    1. one freely pays money to play a game.
    2. Some of the games mentioned are extremely difficult to win or take quite a bit of skill on the player.
    3. People do win the games. Sometimes by dumb luck, and sometimes by skill.
    Jack has no dumb luck and no skill therefore the games are rigged.

    ” It’s all unethical, and we consent to it.” Change the ‘we’ to an ‘I’. Dude, your ‘new’ reaction to what you already know to be the truth is un ethical.

    Jacko, yours is the rational of the insane person.

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