The Easy Argument More Thoughts On Debate, Board Games, and Culture

posted in: Commentary | 0

Again my mind is on debate, community, and board games. If you read my article from last week you’ll have some idea of the state of my mind right now and the ideas floating around in my mind.

Debate

As I mentioned last week, time limits are a fundamental aspect of competitive debate that shape nearly everything about the activity. Something I encounter fairly frequently when coaching debate is a situation where a team wants to try a particular strategy or argument, and the best advice, strategically, is to probably find a different approach because the argument is too complicated to explain succinctly and clearly within the confines of the speech times.

It’s an unfortunate but necessary side effect of the parameters of the activity, but I think I’m going to be more careful with this situation going forward. While it’s important to teach good strategy and to utilize the currency of speech time effectively in debate, for my more advanced students, I want to encourage creativity and their exploration into complicated issues. My fear is that they’ll end up over-simplifying a nuanced topic and make themselves look ridiculous. But if the ultimate goal of debate as an activity is to equip the students to be able to find truth in the world, they need to know how to wrestle with complicated arguments.

The other problem that can occur is that the students might latch onto their pet argument and lose perspective for how it’s received by their judges. I know I did this a lot as a young debater, where I found some kind of new and shiny argument, lost with it, and then blamed that loss on bad judging. However, if you have the right argument, and you’re able to explain it clearly and persuasively, and you understand how to leverage it into a winning position, you’re ultimately going to come out ahead of your peers.

Board Games

There’s an interesting parallel here to strategies in board games. I’ve written before about first order optimal strategies before and while I think they can be helpful to bring players into the game, more recently I’ve been thinking about games that don’t really blossom until you’ve played them a few times. There’s a divide among publishers and designers over this question. Is a game balanced if different strategies have relatively equal chances of winning for newer players, or for more experienced players? Obviously the optimal situation is a game that’s more or less balanced all the way through different experience levels, but that’s extremely difficult to do.

If there has to be a tradeoff, I suspect most publishers would err towards making the new player experience and most designers would fall the opposite way. This guess is based off of basic incentives–while both publishes and designers want their games to sell, I think, on net, that designers probably have more of a desire to create what is considered a great game rather than merely a game that sells well. Games that are more new-player friendly will probably be easier to sell. Again, this is entirely guesswork on my part.

Tom Russell has written about this a bit, here. Part of what makes Hollandspiele such an interesting company is Tom’s ardent pushback against sacrificing depth for the sake of the new player experience, even if the first few games seem egregiously imbalanced (we’ll save what “balance” actually means for another time).

On either extreme both views fail. If it takes hundreds of plays of a multi-hour game before the nuances of a particular faction can be teased out, I don’t think there would be many people who would support that. If the experience completely falls apart on the 2nd play, people would call that a bad design. What’s best is somewhere in the middle, and reasonable people can disagree on it.

Another parallel issue is the question of variability. If you have a normal 6-sided die and compare it to a die that has 3 faces with a 1 and 3 faces with a 6, both have the same average, but the latter die is significantly more variable. Different strategies have different risks, and highly variable strategies can mess with the perception of balance from inexperienced players. If someone takes a risk and gets away with it, their opponents might see that strategy as overly powerful.

I think this is the root of some of my minor criticisms of Roll For The Galaxy. I mentioned something about starting planet balance in my review way back when, and one of the designers took issue with that when I posted the review on BGG. In hindsight my wording was sloppy. I believe the designer when he says that he charted hundreds of playtests to fine-tune the balance of the starting tiles. I suspect, though I could be wrong, that certain strategic paths are simply more difficult to pull off and/or more risky.

What’s the answer here? I don’t think there’s a succinct one. But as I play more and more games and feel the pressure to plow through them and review them, I lament not being able to spend more time really getting into a deep game and teasing out those nuances. I’ve done this a few times–most notably with Netrunner where I, on a surface level, have been able to follow the best players in the world–and it’s been wonderful.

Culture

Much of our discourse has been progressively haunted by time and experience limitations. In some cases, like with twitter’s character limits, it’s more explicit. In other cases, like with the constant bombardment of different information and news, which causes us to constantly switch our attention from one thing to another with minimal time for reflection, the limitations are more hidden.

But the effect is the same: the loudest, easiest arguments get seen more because they’re easier to see. They’re not only easier to see, but they’re easier to parrot, and therefore propagate. Even if you wanted to hold onto your principles and not reduce yourself to the surface-level argument, the response you’d get, by and large, would completely miss the point.

Again, I’m speaking in generalities. With a lot of persistence you can shape a social media or internet community to value the kind of base-line principles you believe in w/r/t discourse. But that’s hard, and on the internet easy typically wins.

As an endeavor, I’m banking on The Thoughtful Gamer not going big, but being valuable enough to people that I can make a decent living at it (despite all of my missed opportunities and inadequacies at doing what I want to do with it). Is there enough space in the internet information marketplace for me? I sure hope so. (Shameless plug: to help me out, go to patreon!)

But I’m more concerned about what all of this means for our culture generally. Maybe the state of discourse is just as bad as it’s always been, but I suspect it’s worse. When the structure of the way we communicate so heavily incentivizes the easy argument over the true argument, it’s going to be a constant uphill battle to not fall into the trap of that way of thinking and communicating. Don’t let the easy argument win because it’s easy.

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