How RPGs Teach Debating vs Fighting

The romanticized board game night is a harmonious and whimsical night where you laugh, clink glasses, and spend the night enjoying the challenges of a board game. With this ideal image in mind, any disagreement can feel like a step toward a ruined night of bickering, arguing about rules, and unhealthy competition. Like most things in life, the best case scenario is somewhere in between. 

When a group of people agree to share a game together, we agree to sets of rules of how to interact with a narrative that we are all sharing. This narrative can be in the form of a board, where components represent our decisions. In more complex games like Dungeons & Dragons, we share a narrative as a story, and each contribute to the narrative. The decisions and ways we contribute have rules, both socially and logistically, and we often have a referee of sorts to arbitrate, like the Dungeon or Game Master. When agreeing to these rules, for the sake of a game, it can be easy to overlook the fact that the  most prominent reason for spending time with people is the intent to have fun and enjoy each others company.

When agreeing to these rules, for the sake of a game, it can be easy to overlook the fact that you are most prominently spending time with people with the intent to have fun and enjoy each others company.

“..we can challenge each other and, by doing so, grow as people.” 

When a disagreement arises, we all cope with it differently as individuals, some more effectively than others. It was Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) that best taught me how to look at these incidents as opportunity for the most important part about these social gatherings: we can challenge each other and, by doing so, grow as people. 

It can be difficult to believe if any sort of disagreement or debate can have merit if every incident feels like a fight, so it is important to see how they are different. A fight is something we intuitively understand: you don’t need anyone to tell you that an exchange of flailing arms or weapons is both emotionally and physically harmful. However, you might see a debate as just the precursor to a fight. If you have not experienced respectful debates before, who could blame you? Additionally, if you have never experienced a debate, you may not trust yourself to control your own emotions. It might feel like any sort of disagreement in words is an attack at you as a person. 

Thankfully, we have social gatherings to teach us. D&D has a complex rule system, the specifics and details are simply impossible for a human being to remember at all times. So, it must eventually happen that you forget about a rule, mistakenly understand a decision, or simply do something wrong. This is where your friend is likely to recall the correction and offer it to you. How that correction is offered and how you receive it is where the heart of the matter is. Many questions arise in this precise scenario:

  • Can you accept and offer corrections without feeling personally attacked?
  • Can you offer criticism without judgment?
  • Can you compromise or collaborate?
  • Can you and your friends discuss something without making it personal?
  • How do you propose an argument for your case?

In this process, you can learn that an argument is a set of reasons or rationale to convey an idea, which is far different than an insult or attack that is meant to hurt or harm another.

In this process, you can learn that a fight is meant to make the other person feel the hurt that you feel, but a debate is meant to talk about ideas, reasoning, or explanations. 

In this process, we learn what is personal to our friends. We learn what they are comfortable with, and where we can meet to exchange ideas. We learn where we can help each other grow.

“It is just a game!”

“It is just a game!” you might say, and I’d like to challenge you on that statement. Our history carries with us with everything we do. Our beliefs and feelings drive all of our decisions. When we interact, those enormous and dynamically different backgrounds meet. In meeting, we are bound to find differences and disagreements, and that is precisely why they are good for us; because we learn to unfold that history we carry with us, and use it to make our relationships deeper. 

“The most important thing is not that you have fun, but that you accept your friends and family for who they are..”

One of the most often quoted rules I hear is, “the most important thing is that you have fun”, but this is not true. What is fun for you might not be fun for someone else. If you are having fun with your friends, it is not because you ensured that “having fun” was the priority, but that you accepted your friends and family for who they are, the mistakes you both make, and how you challenge each other. You enjoy your time spent together because acceptance was the priority over selfishness

“ other game can offer such depth of thought and mental exchange, especially in such a simple thing as a spell check.”

In D&D, you might cast a spell wrong, and the DM will have to correct you. It is a simple thing that actually happens rather frequently, and in every group. The player and the DM exchange arguments on why they might think something will work vs not work in the narrative in every sing session. A decision has to be made based upon some rules in the book versus what the DM thinks makes the most sense in the world. It’s the player’s job to challenge the world, to change it, and affect it. It’s the DM’s job to ensure that the world makes sense, and has consistency. Almost no other game can offer such depth of thought and mental exchange, especially in such a simple thing as a spell check. 

These differences always vary in how they arise, and sometimes it never happens! Some people are content with remaining silent, never challenging others, for the sake of maintaining that romanticized version of the game. It can be easy to believe that, if you just keep quiet, you can keep that peaceful scene going. If you and your social group can learn to address differences, grow from them, and be honest with each other, then you actually do achieve that peaceful scene that you originally wanted. When you can accept your differences, then you know that any possible disagreements can be spoken about honestly, respectfully, and with genuine interest to better each other, not just as gamers, but as people. 

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