In its simplest form, a badger game proceeds thus: X, a man married to Y, engages in an extramarital affair with W (another woman). During a tryst, Z (another man) discovers them in the act. Z, posing as W's husband or brother, demands money from X to keep the affair secret. Unknown to X, W and Z are conspiring together against X.
Variants of the trick involve luring the mark with the promise of a homosexual act, underage children, child pornography, a bizarre sexual fetish, or some other activity carrying a legal penalty and/or social stigma. In the most typical form of the trick, an attractive woman approaches a man, preferably a lonely married man of considerable financial means from out of town, and entices him to a private place with the intent of maneuvering him into a compromising position, usually sexual. Afterward an accomplice blackmails the victim with photographs or similar evidence.
Another form involves accusations of professional misconduct. In an example of this form of the trick, a "sick" woman visits a physician, describing symptoms that require her to disrobe for the examination, require the doctor to examine the genitals, or ensure similar scrutiny from the doctor. During the examination an "outraged husband" or "outraged father" enters the room and accuses the doctor of misconduct. The "sick" woman, who is of course part of the deception, takes the side of her accomplice and threatens the doctor with criminal charges or a lawsuit. This form of the badger game was first widely publicized in an article in the August 25, 1930 edition of the Time magazine.
Non-sexual versions of this trick also exist, particularly among ethnic and religious groups with strong social taboos, for example inducing a Mormon to gamble or drink alcohol in violation of his religious vows, and then demanding money to keep the indulgence secret and thus preserve his reputation.
One explanation is that the term originated in the practice of badger baiting.
Sometimes the accomplice will simply burst into the room during the act, claiming to be the woman's husband, father, brother, etc., and "demand justice". The trick was particularly effective in the 19th and earlier 20th century when the social repercussions of adultery were much greater. A famous person known to have been victimized by the scheme was the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, whose adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds was used by her husband to extort money and information from him.
The badger game has been featured as a plot device in numerous books, movies and television shows.