It’s 2019, people. Let’s do this. And by do this I of course mean learn to actually debate things in a way that might wind up changing people’s minds, or at the very least not look like a phenomenal nitwit! It’s just that chanting all of that at once isn’t a very motivational thing to go for.
Being on the old side of millennial means that I’ve seen a whole lot of different… let’s say stages of the internet. And there is some old and deep wisdom to be found in the earlier stages, in the days before likes and social media, when the only sign that you had “won” a debate wasn’t the counter of how many people clicked a heart icon but the sign that people talked to you and solicited your opinion. Since most online communities in those days consisted of five people, it was a little more open to granularity, but the point here is that you can still internalize this wisdom.
So let’s talk about that today. Let’s examine how you can, in fact, make your points and exit gracefully when debating things online. Specifically MMOs, since that’s what we cover here.
Focus on points and substance, not volume
When you were five years old, you probably had one argument technique, and that was screaming. You would do your level best to be as loud as possible, and your parents or guardians would either do something close to what you wanted in order to shut you up, or they would do something else to shut you up. The common technique is to put you in time out or your room forever (or for 10 minutes, one or the other), until you run out of the energy to keep screaming at top volume.
Now, go ahead and ask your parents how often your screeching changed their minds about something. I’m going to bet it’s around never. At best you convinced them that buying you a $5 toy was less annoying than listening to you scream.
You are presumably no longer five years old. So why would you still try to win arguments like a five-year-old?
When debating with people, you should thus be focusing on the points you have to make first and foremost. Brevity and directness matters far more than length. A wall of text isn’t convincing; it’s just dense. Never make a point in four paragraphs when you can make it in one, and never make a point in one paragraph when you can make it in one sentence.
“But all of that is about quality of writing!” Yes, and online that’s what people have to judge you on when it comes to a comment or a forum post or whatever. The more you present yourself as making a reasonable point, the more people are going to focus on what that point actually is instead of the way you present it.
So, on that note…
Don’t make it about yourself
MMOs are havens for the seniority argument. “I’ve been playing this game since the first expansion!” “Well, I’ve been playing since launch!” “Well, I’ve been playing World of Warcraft since beta!” It’s an argument that doesn’t have a lot of traction anywhere else.
I mean, can you imagine where else it would come up? “Your honor, my client has been not going to jail for the past two decades, clearly he’s an expert at not going to jail. Thus, he’s innocent.”
Aside from the fundamental silliness of that, it also presumes that anyone cares or that it’s germane to the argument at hand. It is entirely possible that you are a loving and attentive father who works a high-powered job at 50 hours a week and still finds the time to be part of a progression raiding group in order to actually see any of a game’s real content. But that fact doesn’t mean that making progression raiding the only way to see that content is a good thing; it just means you’ve found a schedule to perform that task.
Being right is one of those things that’s comfortably separate from your identity. Two plus two is four regardless of any aspect of your personality. Making it about yourself is basically just a reverse ad hominem attack and exactly as convincing.
And if it needs to be said, making it about the other person is just as bad. There are lots of people I don’t like for various reason, but that doesn’t mean they’re automatically wrong. If someone’s wrong, you can point out why they’re wrong without resorting to name-calling. See the previous note about not being five any longer.
Of course, part of making a convincing argument is…
Be willing to have your mind changed
This one sounds kind of counter-intuitive until you think about it. At first glance, it feels like if you might be wrong, you shouldn’t even be arguing something in the first place. You know that the Eternal Empire storyline in Star Wars: The Old Republic is bad; why would someone convince you otherwise? You just need to convince people who like it that it’s bad!
You know, the people who are convinced that it’s good and just need to convince you that it’s good.
If you don’t think your mind can be changed and you can be proven wrong about things, it’s kind of arrogant to think you can change the minds of other people. For that matter, it means that you’re not really examining points and analyzing them; you’re just refuting them. If someone tells you, for example, that ship combat in Star Trek Online is counter-intuitive, it’s not a refutation to just say “no it isn’t.” You have to understand what the speaker finds counter-intuitive and what they think it should play like.
This doesn’t mean your mind will be changed (it’s quite possible that the problem in the above example is the speaker, not the combat). Nor does it mean that your opinions will do a complete flip (you might acquiesce that the Eternal Empire had some interesting ideas, even if it still feels like too much of a departure for you to like it). But you need to start by approaching this viewpoint, acknowledging that maybe your mind will be changed by good arguments. How else can you expect the same from anyone else?
And last but not least…
Shut the heck up
No, seriously. This is the greatest rhetorical tool in existence. The best way to make your point is to follow up by closing your mouth. Not responding to people arguing with you, not getting into long and divergent replies, saying (either outright or in your mind) that you’re done making your point and then actually going quiet.
Why? Because no one changes their mind due to arguments.
People change their minds during debates. You say that PlanetSide 2 is inherently unbalanced, and someone else comes in to say that you have a point about some of the weapons, but the overall factional split is useful and gives identity. You can go into more detail, and both of you can refine, amend, and improve your viewpoints. But arguments? Arguments are just someone coming in to answer your statement about the game being unbalanced to tell you that you’re dumb and balance is fine.
You aren’t going to convince that person of anything. So don’t try. Don’t start slinging mud. Don’t start arguing. You made your point, there’s nothing to respond to, move on.
Yes, that means evaluating whether or not things are worth responses on a case-by-case basis, but it’s always best to err on the side of not responding unless there’s something interesting you want to respond to. Because the people who can’t actually refute your points will usually come around to try to drag you into arguing, saying that you just can’t handle your ideas being put under scrutiny.
The reality is that this is the equivalent of the aforementioned five-year-old daring you to fight them and declaring you’re a chicken if you don’t. Do you care if a five-year-old thinks you’re a chicken? Of course not. They’re not worth engaging.
Learn to walk away and stop talking instead of getting drawn into arguments that won’t go anywhere. Sometimes, silence says more than a 500-word reply.