A number of events in the past few weeks have led to me sitting here, writing this post without quite knowing where it’s going to lead. I got to teach at 2 different debate camps, which was a simultaneously delightful and stressful experience. I had a good but sobering conversation about the worst parts of the board game community. I hit something of a breaking point with how many awful things I was seeing and hearing about on social media. And I read a short essay a friend posted on facebook about culture-building that helped realign and refocus my thoughts.
Coaching high school debate is a wonderful opportunity and blessing I have, as participating in academic debate has, most than most things, shaped who I am today. I was obsessed with it throughout high school and college, and I still think it’s one of the best possible things you can do during that time.
However, there is all kinds of drama around the activity and how it should look that has shaped the leagues we see today. Debate leagues tend to become faster-speaking and more technical as they continue to exist. This is simply a function of a couple of attributes inherent in the game. First, speeches are limited by time, and speaking more quickly allows you to get more arguments within the time limits, increasing the chances that the opponent runs out of time and drops any response, or simply doesn’t respond to things adequately. Second, highly technical arguments about debate theory (among other things) tend to be the kinds of arguments debaters call “voters”, or arguments that they think they can argue warrant a decision in their favor by themselves. Leagues that see these developments as negative fight a constant battle to keep debate more conversational and real-world.
All of that to say that participants in debate, in part because they’re in an intellectual activity, in part because that activity can become extremely insular, and partially because they actually are gaining knowledge their peers do not have, can become very arrogant. I’m constantly at war with my own hubris. When I do get taken down a notch, it hurts far too much.
When I’m coaching students I occasionally see the spark of that kind of arrogance in them. I don’t know how to stop it. I try to tell them about what really matters but I know I wouldn’t have soaked up much of that when I was their age. Scratch that. I had wonderful coaches in high school and college, and I think a lot of the important things they taught me buried itself deep, into my bones, when perhaps on the exterior I didn’t quite get it.
As much as we complain about Asmodee buying up everybody or huge Kickstarter campaigns overshaddowing the smaller endeavors, modern board games are remarkably decentralized. I can imagine in years past someone with a design would have their immediate geographical community to show it off to, unless they were fortunate/wealthy enough to attend one of the few conventions or get their product in a…magazine? Ignore Kickstarter–just look at social media. If I wanted to, I could easily contact a huge swath of the most famous board game designers working today and get a response from most of them within a day or two. Also, digital file sharing and PnP’s! I could make a design and immediately proliferate it to whoever wants it. And as rough as it can be, both in content and in presentation, BGG is a truly immense resource.
The downsides to all of this inter-web goodness, of course, are the well documented problems with pseudo anonymous communication. Absent in-flesh social regulations of bad behavior (which also aren’t perfect), behavior gets worse on the whole. I’m not saying that people are worse now, just that worse behavior is more open online because there are fewer ways to healthily shame people who display aberrant behavior.
On top of that, there seems to be (at least to my non-expert eyes) a trend where awful behavior found on the internet seeps into non-digital interactions that are internet-adjacent. Thus, we see a lot of problems in places like nerd conventions. I suspect this happens to a greater degree, both quantitatively and qualitatively, compared to a world in which social media isn’t such a pervasive force.
Armchair sociology aside, it’s hit me that even in the places where I have a decent amount of influence (like debate class), the influence I have to make significant, immediate change is pathetically small. In the board game/nerd/internet world it’s smaller still. Yet most of the talk I see about the problems in our various cultures is around macro problems and macro/institutional solutions.
I’m not one to downplay the importance of institutions–many of my political views are centered around the importance of institutions–but they’re difficult to change and frequently disappointing. Institutional change can be immensely powerful and significant, but institutions reflect the people who make them.
That’s to say nothing about the complexity of both cultures and institutions. Debate culture is both rewarding and problematic, for many of the same root reasons. Nerd culture can bring people together and viciously divide them, for many of the same root reasons.
Ultimately both are frivolous in and of themselves. When you die, your opinion on Star Wars or Agricola will not matter one iota. Whatever skills I gained from debate, by themselves, will be useless in the face of finality. Yet this is where we wage our wars and fight our battles–on the macro surface level of culture.
There’s a simpler, less glamorous level of culture building that won’t get you likes or upvotes. It won’t be profitable. It’s the simple everyday acts of kindness, patience, and understanding that are a necessary groundwork for everything else. We have access to an unlimited torrent of dramatics–both great evils and courageous heroics. But that torrent is neverending, and if we fight against the great evils only with our social media shouting and our macro solutions we’re missing the most significant part. Culture changes from the ground up. If we neglect to live our lives with virtue we’re constructing a rotting foundation. If we try to fight the good fight on message boards and twitter but fail our close friends and families, what was the point?
I always thought I’d end up a lawyer or professor or economist. I was told, growing up, that I was intelligent and could change the world. That’s something we heard all the time in debate–that we were training to be people who could change the world. I failed to complete even a bachelor’s degree and grew resentful of that charge. I’ve failed even the basic first steps to becoming that kind of person, so clearly I’ve failed. Full stop.
Now I just want to be a good husband. Someday, hopefully, a good father. I want to be a good friend and a good son. If I can do that, then I can reclaim the charge–I can, in that way, change the world. Maybe this is that old familiar arrogance that keeps following around, but in this I think, and hope, I’m right.