Debate is a Game – Moving From Tautology to a Robust Theory of Competition

Raffi Piliero | Jul 28, 2021
12 min read

The Opinions Expressed In This Blog Post Are Solely Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of DebateDrills

Listen to a T 2NR from the past few years (or twenty) and you’d struggle to avoid hearing the exclamation that “debate is a game!” in some form or another. Meanwhile, many who answer T will either reject the foundational premise that debate is a game, or will posit that while it may be a game, certain elements to that game are more important than competitive aspects that topical debates attempt to preserve.

This article accepts the initial premise that debate is a game; debate does have axiomatic elements of competition that render it what many would consider “a game”. However, there are gaps in explanations and understanding on both sides of this debate, from disagreements over what the central purpose of debate is and how to best effectuate that, to even foundational disagreements over terminology, or what makes something a “game”. This article aims to clarify some initial premises of what it means for something to be a game, as well as to forward a more nuanced theory of competition that moves beyond simple, well-worn tautologies that often go no further than “debate is a game which must be fair since it’s a game.” Instead, I posit that the negative should defend that there exist a set of benefits to be garnered from debate, and that none of those benefits can be effectuated sans the competitive elements of debate.

What does it mean for something to be a “game” to begin with? Colloquially, people use a game to just refer to something we do for fun. Monopoly, Yahtzee, soccer, etc. are all “games” in that people play them for fun; however, one important through line is that they do have some element of competition to them, insofar as they involve multiple parties attempting to achieve some zero-sum goal (Player A winning at the expense of Player B winning). Accordingly, one can adopt a rough definition of a game (at least in a context most analogous to debate) as a voluntary activity players partake that has a “winner” and a “loser”. As such, it’s irrefutable that in the purest sense of the word, debate is a game. There are two team, only one of whom can win, and they show up to a series of competitions to vie for a set of prizes that are zero sum. Many object that debate is more than a game; calling it a game compares it to meaningless competitive like flipping coins or playing Minecraft, but debate offers some educational potential that exceeds said meaningless games. However, this objection conflates something being a game with it exclusively being a game. Put differently, debate might be much more than “just a game”. In fact, it might be qualitatively different than any other game that we choose to play, with value greater than something like Minecraft. However, the fact that it’s a game and something more does not refute that it is, at a fundamental level, still a game.

However, the neg going for T and winning that it’s a game doesn’t mean the neg automatically wins, nor does it mean the Aff automatically loses. Unfortunately, the level of sophistication and nuance that a lot of these debates take place at treats such a premise as such; if it’s a game, then obviously things related to games (i.e., fairness) should be preserved, and if not, then there’s zero reason to care about fairness, with neither team moving beyond this. Yet, there are ways that this can be handled better on both sides. Although this will vary depending on the debate and the specifics of the positions on both sides, teams would do better to take for granted that there are, descriptively, axiomatic elements of competition that render debate a game. However, the neg should need to defend that preserving those elements is valuable; in contrast, the aff should have to defend that there are changes to such aspects of competition that would be valuable, or that even if the Aff makes the game a bit less fair, the benefits from such a deviation are worth it. I’ll go into each of those lines of offense and how each side can thoroughly and persuasively unpack some of that in ways that go deeper than how it’s usually debated.

As mentioned above, the neg’s arguments here are usually circular at best and tautological at worst. The neg will typically identify correctly that debate is a game, but leave it at that, with a question-begging assertion about how games need to be fair because they’re games and games require rules to make competition even. Further, the neg will often have difficulty explaining what makes fairness an “intrinsic good”; who cares if it’s axiomatic of competition? Why does it matter if the Aff makes the game a little less fair, or even breaks the game down? There needs to be some reason to partake in that game to begin with, and a reason the game is made meaningfully worse by the Aff’s model of debate. However, the set of reasons why preserving competitive equity enhance the quality of debates and viability of the activity readily present themselves, without having to resort to tautologies that preserve the game just because it’s a game.

At a fundamental level, what distinguishes debate from a classroom conversation or an academic conference is that not everyone is on the same side; there’s a winner, and there’s a loser, and only one of each. This adversarial relationship between parties in the discussion has a series of effects on the ways the conversation or argument goes down; in a non-adversarial setting, everyone could just agree and move on, but in debate there need to be meaningful points of differences for the judge to make a determination that one side was better than the other. This necessitates rejoinder by the negative of the affirmative, and structurally distinguishes debate from a non-adversarial activity. Put differently, any conversation will have someone being “affirmative” insofar as they say something, but only debate has a “negative”, or someone tasked with disagreeing.

For any competitive activity to function, there needs to be a set of rules that govern what players can or cannot do. Regardless of whether these limits on what people do are imposed externally or more organically created, games always carry expectations for what behavior is allowed and what behavior is not. For example, in a game of soccer, you can’t grab the ball with your hands. Imagine a player did that; many would just accept that this isn’t allowed and leave it at that. However, also imagine the player makes a series of arguments about why they should be allowed to handball (perhaps that it helps build stronger arms and that maximizing exercise should be the goal of soccer). Just asserting that they “broke the rules” no longer suffices; you’ve made a descriptive claim about a set of rules and they’ve questioned whether those rules or the game as currently constructed should exist that way. Instead, you need to force yourself to actually think about why fidelity to some set of rules is good and why this practice should not be allowed. Without engaging this player on the specifics of why handballing might be good exercise, you instinctually would think that some agreed upon rules are valuable, because players in any competitive game need to know what’s necessary to win, what’s allowed, and what is not. Absent such a set of “predictable win conditions”, how would the game function? Player A might think exercise is the ultimate goal and handball to boost muscle, Player B might think training for track is the most important goal and run across the field without time constraints, and Player C might like tennis more and just bring a racquet onto the field. Different people relate to soccer in different ways and find different things valuable, and all of those things can reasonably be construed as being the most important thing from the game. But, fundamentally, the game itself breaks down if everyone can deviate from a shared, intersubjective norm (i.e., the rules people agree upon), and it achieves none of those benefits.

This example is obviously hyperbolic, and of a much greater magnitude than anything that goes on in debates when the Aff doesn’t read a plan. But, the example should illustrate how the neg should conceptualize such circumstances: the “predictable win condition” that defines debate is that the negative has to rejoin the affirmative. Just as soccer’s win condition is scoring more goals, debate’s is disproving an affirmative. While not perfect, the norm that has developed over a period of time is that there is a topic, and the predictable win condition is for the negative to rejoin that. The negative should argue that while there can still be viable win conditions that deviate from the topic (i.e., negating a separate topic), it’s fundamentally ad hoc and unpredictable, no different than being told a soccer game is decided by who hits more home runs; while the neg can successfully compete under such a win condition, they shouldn’t have to.

The above example gives a hopefully more tailored illustration of what’s going on in some of these debates; the neg’s objection shouldn’t be that debate was made harder or whatnot by having to rejoin things other than the topic, but that competitive games require predictable win conditions to work, and that deviating from the topic jettisons the only viable, ex ante way to decide who wins or loses a debate. But that still begs the question of why such a game is worth preserving. The easiest answer (and the path that I think the neg should usually take) is one that is fundamentally agnostic to the types of benefits people get out of debate, or even defining one fundamental telos of debate itself. Debate means a lot of things to a lot of different people; some do it for the research benefits, some do it to make friends, and perhaps some because they thought trophies were cool but were bad at sports (I unfortunately include myself in this latter category). People get different things from the game, and it’s certainly more than “just a game”, but the only real way to actualize those benefits is to keep it as an operational game. There might be benefits for individuals that come from deviating from established norms; speaking for 15 minutes might allow you to say more about a particularly interesting topic, or giving a 3NR might allow for extra in depth argument resolution. But once the Rubicon is crossed of deviating from a set of norms and procedures that are ex ante defined, all bets are off. Debate is still a game, and individuals still care about winning, and they will make a series of choices that slant the game in their favor, through a series of zero-sum choices that hamper the ability for the other side to actualize a lot of the other benefits of debate. To get any of these benefits, there needs to be a predictable set of rules and “win conditions”. To use an extreme example, just as soccer might not work as well if Team A can change the rules to make the winner whoever handballs the most, predictably and consistently actualizing a lot of the benefits of debate becomes meaningfully less likely if a topic can be picked by one team that risks self-servingly narrowing the range of things the other team can say.

I’ve merely attempted to outline what a more warranted version of that argument would say; there are a myriad of convincing affirmative answers (namely, that some of the educational benefits created by injecting alternative forms of scholarship are more important than even the competition itself, that deviations from the topic don’t meaningfully collapse the game or render it non-operational, etc.). Notably, I avoid the language of “fairness is just an internal link” or “fairness is not a voter” since I think couching it in those terms creates a strange duality between “something being an impact” and “something mattering”, and I think muddies the water far more than it helps. Much, if not everything, of what we presume matters in debates is “just an internal link”. Nuclear war is just an internal link to massive death, which is just an internal link to not allowing people to experience value, which is just an internal link to having the potential to experience happiness. While there can be argument comparison at all levels of that chain (i.e., claiming that value to life is more important than the existence of life itself), few judges would take seriously the claim that “nuclear war is only an internal link, therefore it’s insufficient to vote neg” if not comparatively outweighed by aff offense. Similarly, while fairness may “just be an internal link” or “not a voting issue”, if the neg has won that a loss in fairness is meaningfully harmful to the ability for debate to operate as a competitive activity, and that such operation is valuable, it makes little sense to not vote neg, sans the Aff winning that something else matters more. Teams on both sides would be better served to just explain comparatively why their offense outweighs their opponents, without artificially siloeing one set of arguments as “internal links” and elevating another to the status of “impacts”.

In conclusion, I hope that this article helped to present an alternative explanation of what the neg really means when they claim that “debate is a game” or that “games should be fair”. As mentioned earlier, the claim that preserving debate as a competitive activity with predictable win conditions has value is something eminently contestable, and my outline of this argument is by no means meant to indicate this is a premise that should be taken for granted. To win this debate, the neg needs to win that preserving debate as a competitive activity with predictable win conditions is valuable, and there are a slew of convincing affirmative objections to what a model of topical debate prioritizes as most important, and the extent to which the aff’s model precludes such benefits. However, the question being about whether or not preserving the game is valuable (and, relatedly, a predictable win condition vital to the continuation of said game) allows the debate to occur at a level of nuance beyond a tautology (that games require fairness which matters because debate is a game), and will lead many debaters to deploy these arguments in a more comparative and responsive way, leading to better debates.

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