Monash Association of Debaters

Stephen M. Llano

The Disinformation Slide

This article makes the case that use of Information Slides subverts the activity of debating in ways that we should be wary of.

Information slides have become ubiquitous in recent BP competitions. It is becoming more and more rare, if not already impossible, to attend a BP competition that does not have at least one information or context slide. Offered by well-meaning adjudication teams, these slides intend to improve debate by expanding the range of potential motions, and improving the quality of arguments by educating debaters about where the debate lies. Both of these intents are harmful to debating.

Information slides arose to solve problems. They were created and are used by people who want nothing but the best for debate tournaments. These people are driven by a desire to have good debates. Information slides are used in cases where the motion might be unfamiliar to the debaters, or in cases where the potential scope of the debate is so broad that the adjudication core believes some context will help. It is my thesis that in both cases, debate is harmed. Information slides restrict the potential good that can come from debating, as well as harm the already good structure of BP – for one of BP’s best advantages is that it provides space for debaters to experiment in argumentation and rhetoric.

Specifically, there are several reasons to reject information slides. First, they are symptomatic of a poor theory of game design. Information slides appear to be contributing in a positive way to the design of the competition, but upon closer examination they restrict the debaters, which is where the benefits of the competition arise. Secondly, they violate established rules of debating – they are not something a reasonable person would accept as a part of a debate. Finally, they harm one of the goals of offering information slides, which is to expand the attention of the participants in debating to issues they might not be aware of, and are insulting to the capacity of the participants.

We must accept that at some level, debating is considered a “game.” This is because it is a competitive, structured event where those restrictions enable there to be a winner. It is not dissimilar to bridge, chess, or any other game in that respect. The important thing here is that the rules of games are set up in order to allow for play. Play, in this case, is assembly of various strategies that attempt to achieve a desired result.

Information slides are introduced as a contribution to this strategy, but are in fact, an addition to the rules of the game. Those who offer information slides believe that the debate will be improved by the addition of elements that will focus the debate on what it ‘should be about.’ This desire for focus is a restriction on other possible interpretations of the motion. The players are not allowed to play on their own terms, but must follow the terms set forth in the information slide.

Information slides fit well within the theory of game design known as proceduralism. This is the philosophy that a game’s value to the players is achieved only through the rules of the game. “Games, procedurally understood, convey messages and create aesthetic and cultural experiences by making players think and reflect about the very nature of the rules, in the way the rules allow them to.” 1 This approach to game design sees the players as a mere ‘acting out’ of those restrictions:

“In essence, procedural rhetoric argues that it is in the formal properties of the rules where the meaning of a game can be found. And what players do is actively complete the meaning suggested and guided by the rules. For proceduralists, which are after all a class of formalists, the game is the rules, both in terms of its ontological definition (the what in what is a game), and in its function as an object that creates meaning in the contexts in which specific users use it.” 2

To put this into a debate context, the information slide is advanced by those who believe the value of any given debate is getting that debate “right” – it must identify and circulate around the correct clash.  The information slide is warranted when the game designers – the adjudication core – feel that the benefits of debating a particular motion would be lost due to a lack of proper structure.  Seen this way, information slides are a rule that must be followed in order for the game to have value.

In proceduralism, “players are important, but only as activators of the process that sets the meanings contained in the game in motion. The rules constitute the procedural argumentation of the game, and play is just an actualization of that process.” 2 Once the information slide is set, the adjudication team breathes a sigh of relief. All that remains is for the debaters to act out the debate within the terms set for them on the information slide. The risk of a player playing the game wrong is minimized. The debaters wonder if they are getting the debate right by the suggested contours of the slide, not by their own means. They are secondary to this process. Like prophecy, the debaters work to try to make the information slide’s pronouncement of the debate ‘come true.’

The problem here is that the debaters are now restricted in their ability to play. Play is where the value of the game resides, as such:

The proceduralist discourse can be said to deny the player as an individual, rather considering it as another formal element in the meaning-production system of the game. The player is instrumentally rational, engaging with play with the idea of, by being exposed to procedural rhetoric, become educated or persuaded. But play is not that simple, as play is not exclusively a child of reason. Play is activity between rite and reason, between rationality and emotion – and as such, it cannot, and ought not to be instrumentalized. 2

All games, by definition, must have rules. The function of those rules is to permit play. Play is where the value of the game-as-action resides. When designers attempt to add rules to create value instead of a place of value, this reduces the ability of the game to generate value. In BP, information slides are an addition to to the rule that the debate must be about the motion. They attempt to correct a possible error in the derivation of value in the game by adding in more rules to an extant rule. This restricts the field of play, instrumentalizing the debate around what appears on the slide more than what appears in the minds of the debaters. Instrumentalizing the debate around the one clash suggested by the information slide eliminates the play between feeling and reason. It is here that debaters will find value in debating, it is here where we find debate to be most memorable, challenging, and fun. The rush one gets from the intellectual panic that results from engaging the unfamiliar is stamped out by the information slide. This denies the value of playing around with ‘what one knows’ within the confines of ‘what one does not know.’

Also important is the idea that information slides violate one of BP’s most cherished rules. Judging debates should be done from the perspective of the reasonable person – someone who is interested, and knowledgeable about events in the world, but holds back their own opinion about the issue until the arguments have all been heard. A reasonable person would not accept a few lines on a Power Point slide as information that must be included in a debate. Without a source, and without the normal contours that information arrives with (context, reference points, author, etc.) would a reasonable person accept this as proper information?

This would be far more questionable to such an audience than the introduction of said information by a speaker. The speaker would, as a part of normal deliberative discourse, provide context for the information such as where it was from, how we know it to be believable, and how and why it matters for this controversy. These elements are missing from information slides, yet we are to use them as if they arrived in a believable manner. No reasonable person would accept information without context. It is much more reasonable to leave it up to the speakers to provide the context and importance of why the debate is happening. Information slides deny them this important strategic element to their speeches. In addition, it threatens the orientation of BP itself toward speaking and reasoning with the reasonable person.

Given that we are meant to be persuading a reasonable audience, the information slide’s acceptance puts the entire event in serious question. Either we are engaging the reasonable person and leaving the specialist issues out of debate, or we are not. If we want to have specialized debates that require more information than a reasonable person would have access to, then we need to alter the parameters of judging.  The reasonable person standard is important because it opens debate to a large field of participants. When CAs start to choose issues that they think are important, or issues that they believe should matter more than what is in circulation among the reasonable public, that is when BP begins to close to general audiences and participants. Debating BP should not be about arguing about specialist issues. It should be about arguing issues that reasonable people would have been exposed to, and how to speak to, with, and about those audiences.

Furthermore, who is to say that someone knows or does not know about a particular topic? The information slide is insulting to debaters as it is based on the idea that their thoughts and their engagement with controversial issues is not as valuable as the interpretation of the issue that comes from the designers. Just because the debaters are not as experienced as the adjudication team in debating, it doesn’t mean that they will be unable to speak on these issues convincingly. The information slide ruins the variance of play in debate with an interpretation from on high of what the debate is about. This is especially true with slides that present an indisputable fact or a definition. Although these appear very useful, the idea of a fact being indisputable or a term having a definition are places of play set out by the motion already. Restricting it further is the CA (read: designer) arguing that this indisputable fact is the only way this game can have value. It is a strange sort of superiority to think that on an issue of foreign relations, international finance, religion, or culture that identification of a controversy comes with it the ability to identify the very heart, soul, and center of that controversy at the same time.

There are many reasons for wanting an information slide. Two of the most common are to advance an important issue in the minds of others, or to innovate in debate with a motion that will push the limits of the form. I have talked to CAs that feel a motion is of utmost importance for the debaters, but worry the debaters will improperly address it. Often, the motion setters feel that their topic is of great social importance. Other times, motion setters smile with great satisfaction that they have crafted a very unique and clever motion. When you ask them what the debate is about, their eyes light up, and they can barely contain their excitement about the possibilities present in the debate about this motion. Here we have two different theories behind motion writing: One is excited about expanding the social attention around an issue, the other by the possibilities the topic affords to the game of debate. Both could be satisfied by this alternative: distribute literature about the controversy to the attendees before the competition, and have a public debate on the motion. This accomplishes both the goal of showmanship and activism, allows the CA to possibly debate the motion he or she invented, and also sows the seeds for this issue becoming a motion for everyone at a later tournament. This “plenary” debate could be worked in as a public debate the evening before or the night in between tournament competition as well.

An information slide is not going to expand discussion or knowledge on an important issue, or contribute to some innovative technique of debating. What it does is shut down interest and discussion, as the debaters take the slide at face-value, then have a debate based on that very limited amount of data. Without a spirit of inquiry underpinning the introduction of an unfamiliar controversy, debaters are very likely to stick close to the most empirical thing they have available. Under a rubric of competition, the attention to the issue in the motion will be ignored in favor of discerning strategies to win debates. Under a rubric of a public debate, the motives change.  Attention to the complexities of the controversy are foregrounded. These debates also provide the pedagogical benefit of letting less experienced teams see a variety of complex argumentation. The information slide is a poor substitute.

Getting the debate right is a desire of all players, not just the adjudication team. It is noble to try to provide a valuable experience that is rich and full to debaters. But the best way to do this is for tournament administration to get out of the way of the debaters. Getting a debate right is up to the debaters. The value that those who now serve as CAs and DCAs got from debate was not because of the information slide. It was because they were free to engage motions in a multiplicity of possibilities. Debate’s value comes from empowering the participants to strategize and speak how they wish, even if that speech might be considered “terrible” by those setting the motion. If we want to keep debate for debaters and centered around the idea of reasonable people, we should forego the information slide.

  1. Miguel Sicart, “Against Procedurality,” Game Studies 11, no. 3 (December 2011): online.

  2. Sicart, “Against Procedurality.”

  3. Sicart, “Against Procedurality.”

  4. Sicart, “Against Procedurality.”