Debate and Game Design

Maybe you get this with other hobbies too, but my favorite part of coaching debate is getting to have the exact same conversation with people every time they first hear that I coach debate. Goes a little something like this:

Me: "So I coach a high school debate team."
Them: "Oh really? What do they... uh... debate about?"
Me: "Well, the topic changes every year, this years is Alternative Energy"
Them: "So, uh, what side are you on?"
Me: "You have to debate both sides of the resolution."
Them: "ohhh..."

Switch-side debate is a pretty mundane feature of the activity for anyone who's been doing it more than 10 minutes, but it's fundamentally incongruous from the image that most people get in their heads when I say the words "debate team." Debate is about advocacy, and advocacy surely involves taking a side.

This, like most of the big misconceptions people have about debate, stems from the fact that they don't understand that it is a game, and designed top-to-bottom to function as a game. Debate has much more in common with Chess, Counter-Strike, and Judo than it does with, say, actual policymaking. All four activities are games, but the reason that I use those particular examples is because they share another important commonality: they are all games that are inspired by something in the real world. I use inspired by rather than simulate here very intentionally; these four games are all much closer to each other than the "real world" activities they are connected to (Politics/Legal System, Medieval war, Modern war, and Hand-to-hand combat, respectively).

Quick aside: I'm using this particular set of activities (Chess, Counterstrike, Judo), in hopes that you if you aren't familiar with board games, video games, or martial arts, you are at least familiar with one of the above. And feel free to substitute Risk, Football, or Call of Duty if they're more familiar to you.

The common thread between Debate, Chess, Counter-Strike, and Judo is that they were all designed, and that their designers had to make choices over what exactly in the real-world thing should be included in the game and how and why. A student of Judo would learn many techniques that they could use to defend themselves from real-world attackers, but there are valid defensive moves that are not legal in Judo. You can't kick someone in the groin, for instnace, or use a weapon. Counter-strike is one of the first video games to feature realistic models of real-world firearms, but a character that takes a bullet in the leg can still move around as normal.

The point of Judo and Countestrike and Chess isn't to provide the most realistic simulation of their real-world equivalents. The game designers hand-pick elements of the source material because they provide for an interesting and balanced game. Some "rules" in the source material provde an interesting gameplay twist - the Terrorists and Counter-Terrorists have different weapons available, you can't capture/kill the king and instead must get him to surrender - but others must be excluded for the good of the game. After all, if Judo were a faithful simulation of hand-to-hand combat, someone might end up dead at the end of every match.

Now, just because these games all have designers, that doesn't mean that that designer is a single person. Dozens of people have been involved in the design of Counterstrike and probably hundreds or thousands have been involved with the design of Chess. Think, for instance, of how many people have ever served on an offical rules-making committee for American Football, a game not even 200 years old. Of course, this form of distributed design is taken to the extreme for policy debate. Just who is the designer for policy debate, anyway?

If you've ever judged or participated in a policy debate round, you should answer "Me." Any time a meta-debate issue is brought up in a debate round (including Topicality, Conditionality, K Framework), we are designing the game. Together. As we play it. Pretty trippy, huh? This is part of the magic of this game we call debate: we can participate in its design merely by playing it.

I'd like to see meta-debates involve a more deep discussion of what makes a good game. I think that "fairness" and "education" are really shallow ways to look at game desgin. Yahtzee is fair. SAT flash cards are educational. I wouldn't devote hours and hours of my life to either one, though. How many viable strategies are there to winning a policy debate round? Do they interact in interesting ways? What type of skills does the game reward, and with what tradeoffs? How can we make the game more fun and accessible without sacrificing the deeply satisfying experience it provides.

I think that the best piece of marketing ever done for a game is for the boardgame Othello. It says it right on the box - "A minute to learn, a lifetime to master." This is the holy grail of game design - something that is intuitive and fun and easy to pick up, but has enough depth to satisfy a lifetime of study. The reason that Chess and Judo and Counter-Strike have stayed around for so long (10 years is an eternity in PC games) is that they are great at this. We do a pretty good job in debate as well, even if people don't really consider "game design" when they are extending their T argument in the 2NC.

And I swear to god, the first debater to win a theory argument by citing Sirlin or Rouse or Koster gets a 30, no questions asked.

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