Lie Detector: A Scientific Crime Game

Type “how to tell if someone is lying” into a search engine and the query will return about 32 million pages. (I’m not lying-or am I?) Ferreting out falsifiers has long absorbed humans. The ancient Chinese concocted a test wherein dry rice was put in an alleged liar’s mouth. The suspect was asked relevant questions, then the rice was removed. If the rice remained dry the suspect was assumed to be a liar. The Chinese believed-and this has been supported by more recent evidence-that nervous tension limited or curtailed the flow of saliva.

In the Middle Ages certain inquisitors used boiling water to detect presumed liars as it was believed that truthful men would withstand it better than liars…not very scientific.

Flash forward to the 1920s in America, a period known as the Jazz Age. The first humanoid robot was built-a milestone in thinking about artificial intelligence-and Binet’s IQ test was refined in an attempt to measure intelligence. Science was rapidly unlocking the ways of the brain and the body. Psychiatrists and social reformers of the era believed they too could use science to create a mechanical device that could suss out truth from deception by psychophysiological reactions in blood pressure, pulse rate, and breathing. And so the polygraph, better known as the lie detector, was invented in 1921 by John Larson.

Psychiatrist William Moulton Marston invented another early lie detector that focused on blood pressure. (He also created the character Wonder Woman, who was known to raise blood pressure.) Marston’s machine was the first to be used (unsuccessfully) in court cases. Yet Marston’s publications and the shilling of his device to sell razors for Gillette helped bring the polygraph into popular consciousness. Radio shows, the comics, even Gertrude Stein all used the lie detector to stoke narrative. In 1960, Mattel got in on the act with a board offering, Lie Detector: A Scientific Crime Game.

The scientific aspect of the Lie Detector is showcased at the game’s onset. A Guilty card is placed into the Lie Detector apparatus, which will help ascertain which suspect is guilty. Each game has a different guilty suspect determined by an unseen Guilty card. The goal of the game is to figure out which of the suspects is guilty by analyzing testimony. Each player is dealt Suspect cards as well as two Summons cards and one Arrest card. All cards have holes punched in them, which will correspond with a true or false reading in the Lie Detector machine.

Suspect cards are dealt faceup. Starting with the dealer each player takes a Suspect card and places it in the front of the Lie Detector. The Lie Detector will tell if the testimony the suspect gives is true or false. The game features 24 natty, batty, and catty suspects. For example there is the Gambler, who claims the suspect was Friendly. On the back of the Gambler card the player can recite dialogue. In this case, the Gambler gives the following testimony, “I don’t give out with hot tips just because someone looks Friendly. That goes for you too…”

A probe is placed into the Lie Detector that registers whether the Gambler’s statement is true or false. If the probe shows true, then you look for suspects who look friendly. All players turn facedown any Suspect card in front of them who does not look friendly. Or a player may try to baffle opponents by not turning a card facedown.

The Summons card can be given to test a suspect who has been turned facedown. Then that Suspect has to take a lie detector test. Summons cards can be used just once.

A player may use a Secret Information card when that player’s turn comes up. The Secret Information card provides a tip. For example, one may read: “Report from the Grapevine: There is good reason to suspect somebody with a beard or moustache.” Only that player sees the results of the test. At any time, a player can make an arrest by turning an Arrest card onto the suspect deemed guilty. That card is put into the Lie Detector. If the player has correctly identified the guilty party, there is an award of 5 points plus 1 point extra for each Suspect that is still faceup. If the accusation was false, the player sits out the rest of the round. A pegboard tracks players’ point progress as they pass through the ranks. The first player who reaches the rank of Chief of Detectives is the winner. The game involves a bit of strategy: deciding whether or not to turn cards facedown, remembering to look at the board game cover to check out suspects that are facedown, and determining the best time to make your arrest.

The guilty glory of the game lies in the Suspect cards, which are caricatures of 1960s occupations, replete with the era’s sexism. For instance the Hat Check Girl’s dialogue reads, “The boss says little girls should be seen and not heard. Besides I never had anything to do with that overweight character.” A quarter of the suspects are shown smoking and there are “professions” such as Playboy and Racketeer.

In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court restricted the use of lie detectors in legal proceedings. In particular, defense attorneys could no longer use evidence that their client passed a polygraph test as establishing innocence of a crime.

Regardless, this game remains a lot of fun to play. No lie.