Using two level discourse as a tool of thought

This is a game I thought of to explore ideas. I haven’t tried it yet, so it might be horribly cumbersome in practice.

You will need:

  • A question which you wish to explore competing answers to
  • A partner to play with. I think this works better online than in person, but you can probably do it in person too
  • Some sort of versioned collaborative document system. As a programmer, I’d probably just use git, but google docs or something like etherpad should work too
  • Some means of communicating with your partner. If you’re face to face, that’s easy. If not, use an instant messenging client

You and your partner should take two sides of the question. They don’t have to be sides you agree with. Indeed, if you have a difference of opinion on the subject then you might want to consider taking the side that is the opposite of your opinion.

Your goal is not to debate this topic. This is important. You are not the ones debating.

Your goal is to create a written document in which two fictional characters debate this topic.

In order to achieve this goal, you will play a game. Decide which one of you goes first. They then play their opening move, which is to state their character’s name and belief. e.g. “My name is Dr Cornelius Frugalmuffin. I believe that people have a moral obligation to wear hats”. “My name is Joe Colinsworth. I think people should be free to leave their heads bare if they want to”.

Play now proceeds as follows. You take it in turns. On a player’s turn they may do the following:

  1. They may submit a draft response
  2. They may edit their current draft response
  3. They may commit to their current draft response, at which point play passes to the other player
  4. They may request to wind back time. They pick a previous response from the other player and request to reset to that point. The other player may accept or refuse. If they accept, all responses past that point are deleted, and play proceeds with the other player with that past response as their current draft (which they may just immediately commit to if they want)
  5. They may request to end the session. If the other player agrees, they make their closing statement. The other player then also has the opportunity to make their closing statement. The game now ends

During this play, the two players should be talking on the back channel a lot. In particular the period between initial draft response and submission should be spent discussing the draft, and providing constructive criticism on your partner’s character’s argument.

Care should be taken to make sure that the back channel discussion is kept collaborative and the debate does not move there. This is very much a co-op game. The goal is not to “win” the debate, and a request to end the session is not a concession. The goal is to produce a debate that is as informative as possible and explores the ideas as thoroughly as possible. The back channel is a place for saying things like “I don’t understand this particular point” or “I think there might be a flaw in this argument, but it could be fixed in this way”, not “You’re wrong because”.

The request to wind back time is to give the impression that the characters in your dialogue have thought through the issues much more thoroughly than you have: Anything you learn over the course of the discussion can be sent backwards in time to your characters so that they had already thought of it. This ensures they can give the strongest argument possible for their case.

The back channel can also simply be used to ask your partner for advice. “What’s the argument your character is hoping I’m not going to notice here?” is a legitimate question. As is “You actually know more about the position I’m arguing for than I do. What should I read before making my response?”. Remember: You are not your characters. The goal is not to win. The goal is to produce an interesting and informative fictional dialogue.

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