Using Debate to Teach Video Game Controversies and More

David Seelow, PhD©

          This election year brings to the forefront the importance of formal debates to the political process. In the Democratic nomination process the many debates have helped candidates articulate their beliefs and policies while also differentiating themselves from each other. Debates are an excellent format for allowing students to put forth a well-reasoned argument based upon research that they must then defend against rigorous questioning. Debates elicit key competencies such as researching, arguing, critical thinking and public speaking, i.e. communication, in addition to teamwork, which a classroom environment demands. The early debates in a crowded field showed how ineffective individual debating can be with too many debaters present at the same time.

          An ideal way to use a debate format would be in exploring controversial issues. These issues range across disciplines. For example, climate change, nuclear policies, refugee crises, and health care policy are excellent debate topics depending upon the faculty’s field of expertise.  In my class in Games and Modern Culture at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York I have a unit called “Controversial Games/Games and Controversy”. Some games, like Grand Theft Auto (1997-2013) are controversial in themselves, but controversy extends well beyond individual games or texts. What matters is that students can investigate hot topics that public schools and sometimes colleges and universities sometimes shy away from. This allows a teacher to give serious attention to issues that matter to students. In high school, administrators or parents might easily object to Grand Theft Auto in the classroom just as they might object to certain “R” rated films or controversial novels (even a classic like Huckleberry Finn presents problems for some public schools because of the novel’s depiction of race), but, in the case of video games, given students are playing the game outside class, responsive educators should make use of the controversial text to provide students an intelligent framework for the thinking about game, or film or novel, as the case may be, in a serious fashion.1

          A college classroom rarely presents problems around classroom material; nonetheless, certain topics are a challenge to shy: date rape, race relations, discrimination (historical and everyday), immigration and so on. Years ago the renowned literary scholar Gerald Graff (1993) made teaching controversy central to his argument for education reform in America. A classroom debate, whether in the final two years of high school or undergraduate school, makes teaching controversy a great way to engage critical inquiry and argumentation at its deepest level. After all controversial topics often spark the most emotional and least rational responses among adults as well as youth, so a formal debate helps dampen the affective biases and privilege the cognitive reasoning skills.

          There are many different ways to structure a debate so I am only outlining what has worked for me. Regardless of the format you choose a few items are essential to a successful debate. Preparation Time. Students need time to research their issue. This research helps them in note taking skills and source evaluation. During the debate, students must speak one at a time without interruption (something politicians struggle with). Adhering to this rule improves student listening skills and fosters more thoughtful exchanges. Students must also stick to the stated time limits, which forces them to be concise and present core ideas do not engage in tangential rambling. It goes without saying, students must argue evidence refraining from personal attacks and inflammatory language. The closing statement, like in a Moot Court (a professional school form of debate), can serve as the spot for appeals to pathos after concrete evidence has been presented in support of an argument. Finally, the instructor or possibly a student, must be a strong moderator and enforce the rules, i.e. hold in check shouting matches and the chaos that ensues from unenforced rules (imagine a football game where no penalties were called)!

As mentioned above, team debates will be the most fertile. I allow students to choose the issue they want to debate, but never the side they want to argue. A debate’s strength can reside in forcing students to argue for a position they strongly disagree with. That’s a challenge that will benefit any students thinking as well has help overcome bias. Imagine arguing the Japanese video game Dead or Alive Xtreme 3-(Team Ninja, 2016) a wildly exploitative volleyball game focused on scantily glad women’s bodies is a positive game experience for women! A female student had just that challenge.

Before starting with the student debates, I like to discuss a famous debate that models the form for students. For me, the Abraham Lincoln-Senator Stephen Douglass debates during the 1858 Illinois Senate race are exemplary. 2

Introducing the Controversy

          My course has debates over three game related controversies: 1) The representation of women in video games, 2) Does Grand Theft Auto V contribute to violent behavior among adolescent males, and 3) Are popular video games addictive and harmful to youth? Each question serves as an essential question to debate. For each of the three debates I have a lesson introducing the controversy and providing some background that helps frame the controversy. As an example, for the debate on the representation of women, I will talk about Anita Sarkeesian’s  Feminist Frequency “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” blog and show some pre-selected clips.

The Directions

The debate’s topic statement and schedule are outlined below. You should make sure each team member participates; however, given the possibility of absences, everyone should be capable of responding to each part of the debate. You will notice that the team articulating their position will be able to prepare statements while the opposing team must respond spontaneously to those positions or think on their feet. In order to do well on this mission, you will need to research different aspects of the controversy and prepare specific examples to support your argument. Only one person can make the opening and closing statements. The opening statements can include visual aids and short clips of game play if you want to make use of such examples. Once the exchange begins, after the initial person speaks to a specific point, e.g. argument # 1 on the pro and con side, other team members can contribute if they adhere to the time limits and respect the moderator’s decisions.

The Debate Structure

Controversy I Sexism and Misogyny in the Game Industry

*Official Position Statement

The video game industry continues to promote a culture of sexism and misogyny through the design and publication of games that exploit women.

I Pro Team

1. Opening Statement by the pro team. (8 minutes maximum)

2. Response by the con team. (8 minutes maximum)

3. Argument number 1 with evidence in favor of the pro position. (3 Minutes)

4. Refutation of argument # 1. (3 Minutes)

5. Argument # 2 in favor of the statement. (3 minutes)

6. Refutation of argument # 2. (3 minutes)

II The Con Team

1. Opening statement against the official position. The con side’s main position. (8 minutes maximum)

2. The pro side’s response to the opening statement of the con side. (8 Minutes maximum)

3. Argument # 1 with evidence against the official position. (3 minutes)

4. Refutation of argument # 1. (3 minutes)

5. Argument # 2 with evidence against the pro side. (3 minutes)

6. Refutation of argument # 2. (3 minutes)

III Summations

1. Closing statement of the affirmative side. (3 minutes)

2. Closing statement of the negative side. (3 minutes)

          Given the iron glad partialism of our current Congress, who have shut down genuine debate in favor of preconceived ideas and biases, debate has a pressing importance for education. Our culture’s public discourse has fallen from the point-counterpoint popularized by William F. Buckley on Firing Line to shouting matches and the pervasive misinformation spread by much social media.3 Yes, you knew from the outset Mr. Buckley would argue the conservative perspective, but he made erudite, reasoned arguments which are so far removed from the propaganda of current Talk Radio commentators like Sean Hannity. Resurrecting formal debate in the classroom will help reclaim public knowledge from the whirlwind of misinformation today’s students face. At the same time, a new look at Gerald Graff’s work on teaching controversy as a centerpiece of the curriculum would also go far toward revitalizing classroom discussion. A return to some of Graff’s thinking also brings the Humanities once more to its rightful place as the cornerstone of a Liberal Arts education dedicated to graduating well rounded, well informed citizens.


1. Grand Theft Auto 5 generated over $80 million within 24 hours of its release. From educators to ignore these enormously popular video game is both a missed opportunity and a disservice to students. See, Jade King, “GTA 5 is now the most popular entertainment product ever.” Trusted Reviews. Nov. 3, 2018, retrieved from, March 5, 2020. Web.

2. “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858,” National Parks Service,, web. This website gives the entire text of all seven debates.

3. William F. Buckley hosted Firing Line from 1966-1999, primarily on the Public Broadcasting System (beginning 1971). Thought not always a debate format, Buckley prized debate and many of the shows did display debates between conversation and liberal thinkers with Buckley moderating and often actively participating in the debate. For the most part, the shows were polite and the level of discourse many levels higher than what we see on talk radio or its cable television spin offs. Transcripts of Firing Line can be found at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution’s Library and Archives,

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald. Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education. W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.

Grand Theft Auto V, Leslie Benzies and Imran Sarwar designers, Rockstar Games, 2013. Video Game.

Sarkeesian, Anita. “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” Video blog, Feminist Frequency, 2013-2017, website,

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *