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Flavor and Usefulness
[01/12/2005] [Michael]

Recently I have been thinking hard about the place of the Arts and Sciences in Amtgard. For many years the arts and sciences were little more than a method of qualifying for crown to me and while I was tried to make nice stuff to use, I only cared about getting threes in competition. About seven years ago, I got sucked into judging Amtgard A&S several times in a row and I began to seriously consider this important element of the game. Recent thought and discussion with many Amtgarders has led me to conclude that Amtgard A&S tournaments are too stylized and put more emphasis on art for art’s sake than on Amtgard. I am in favor of art for art’s sake, but just as Amtgard fighting, leadership and service are directed to Amtgard, so should Amtgard art be.

Amtgard arts and sciences serve multiple functions in our club and any analysis of them needs to take this into account. I believe there are four main functions of the Arts and Sciences in Amtgard. First, they help us build the things we need to play Amtgard and to look good doing so. They create real and useful items that add to the ambiance and as well as making us safer and more effective on the field. Second, they widen participation in our hobby. Third, they give Amtgarders a vessel with which to express their creativity. Finally, and least importantly to me, they give us a way for our crown candidates to demonstrate their seriousness. Of these four items, the first two are the most important. With these purposes in mind I want to consider flavor and usefulness.

When I refer to Amtgard flavor, I mean the analogue of periodness in a more rigid setting (like SCA). The term period has strong negative connotations to many Amtgarders since we like to think we take ourselves less seriously and thereby have more fun than SCAers do. Amtgard flavor has nothing to do with historical realities but is instead a combination of medieval/fantasy and Amtgard tradition. I believe that the vast majority of us like Amtgard flavor and think it should be promoted. Without this flavor, our game could go on, but I wouldn't be Michael. I would be Will. I wouldn't wear a symbol on my garb; I would wear a number on my uniform. We wouldn't have an emperor; we would have a club president. Since most of us enjoy and support this otherworldly flavor, it is worth considering how we promote it. In battle games, we promote it with the 'peasant rule' (a rule which is strengthened under 7.0). I think it is equally important to promote it in the Arts and Sciences.

When evaluating whether promoting Amtgard flavor in A&S makes sense, I look at the basic purposes of A&S in our game. The first purpose of A&S is to make items that are useable in our game and add to the ambiance or enhance our effectiveness and safety. Amtgard flavor is an absolutely essential part of this by its very definition. Items with no Amtgard flavor cannot be used in our game, even to beautify it. As for the second purpose of opening our game to wider participation, Amtgard flavor is again an important part of this. If the non-fighting Amtgarders who like A&S are making items and creating art which is not related to our game, they may soon lose interest in Amtgard and go find a creative outlet that better caters to what they make and do. The reason to do Amtgard A&S instead of dance classes at the local community college is the medieval/fantasy themes. The third purpose of giving Amtgarders a vehicle for creativity is the only one that is seriously hampered by an emphasis on Amtgard flavor. Even this is only hampered in as much as any requirements stifle individual creative ideas. However, in a nearly equal number of cases, the requirements will lead to greater creativity by sparking more detailed thought. Finally, the fourth purpose is somewhat at odds with an emphasis on flavor since candidates would be somewhat discouraged from entering something that they made for a purpose completely outside of Amtgard (like a school project) just to make weight for qualifications. This may be for the better, though.

The second factor that I have come to think of as important in Amtgard A&S is the factor of usefulness. Items that are designed for use in Amtgard improve our game in important ways and might therefore have more value than items that have Amtgard flavor but serve no real purpose in the game. This point was brought up to me recently and I have been mulling it in my mind for a while. Most of the categories in an Amtgard A&S competition by their nature have Amtgard usefulness, but some like 2-d art and 3-d art do not necessarily have any. Should a song that could actually be sung at an Amtgard bardic or a piece of garb that will actually see use on the field be rewarded more than a sculpture that that will go home after the competition and never gain see the light of day? This idea is much more controversial than the idea of flavor but it is an interesting issue to consider.

Like with flavor, I want to consider the idea of promoting Amtgard usefulness in the light of the four purposes of Amtgard A&S. Just like for Amtgard flavor, the first purpose is inherent. Amtgard usefulness is an essential part of making items to be used in Amtgard. The second purpose is to open the club to wider participation. This purpose is not better supported by an item like a belt-pouch that will be used than by a painting of a dragon that will not. An emphasis on Amtgard usefulness is even more of a restriction on creativity than one on flavor. In fact, by largely cutting out whole categories of items, creativity is greatly stifled and there is little compensating gain in increased creativity in how to use a skill. Finally, the fourth purpose of A&S is affected by an emphasis on Amtgard usefulness in the same way that it is by an emphasis on flavor. Thus, I believe that usefulness is less significant than flavor.

If Amtgard flavor is important and Amtgard usefulness is less so, the question is how do we promote them. I am not to suggest that things lacking Amtgard flavor or usefulness should be disallowed in A&S competitions. I don’t even believe such items should be punished score wise, per se. I do, however, think we should reward Amtgard flavor and Amtgard usefulness in A&S entries. This is not the same as punishing the reverse, although an argument can be made than any reward is equivalent to a relative punishment of the opposite. The question is could an item without either Amtgard Ffavor or Amtgard usefulness receive a top score? I think it could and I have given scores that way in the past. In Stormkeep, I once judged a factual writing entry about epilepsy. It did not have Amtgard flavor but it was exquisitely written. The author allowed me to glimpse for a moment what epilepsy was like and to empathize with that. It took me beyond my experience and helped me touch the impossible. This to me is great writing. I gave it the highest score I gave out that day even though it lacked flavor. Thus, for me, flavor is a positive for items that have it but it does not necessarily harm the score of things that lack it.

I want to illustrate my point of view with some examples from actual A&S tourneys I have entered or judged. Cynchwyrm and Rift have both entered model castles in the 3-D art category in the last couple of years. Cynchwyrm made his out of Legos and it was large and reasonably complex. Rift’s was made of hand shaped clay blocks but was small and simple compared to Cynch’s. To me, both castles have some Amtgard flavor since the theme is medieval. They are both pure art and therefore lack Amtgard usefulness. Both items received good scores and I certainly agree with that. Rift’s castle did get a slightly better score but whether that was based on perceived difficulty or better Amtgard flavor is hard to say. I can say that Rift’s castle appears to have more flavor. It was made out of materials that are not blatantly modern and it was colored much more realistically. A more telling comparison would be to a Lego spaceship or even a hand built spaceship. The creative energy that Rift and Cynchwyrm put in could have been used to make a nifty spaceship as easily as a castle. Of course, a spaceship would completely lack Amtgard flavor, and as such should not score as well for the same quality in either medium.

Photography is usually a category all its own. The point of photography, according to one professional I know, is to best encapsulate the reality of life in a small frame. The effectiveness with which this is done is always going to be the prime determiner of score. Obviously, the category is a non-period medium but flavor still should affect score. To compare apples to apples, a picture of the local basketball team playing that showed the passion of sport would likely score lower than a picture of a ditch-battle that showed the passion of sport equally well. As to the question of Amtgard usefulness, photography does serve a purpose of memory and communication. Widely disseminated photos are significantly more useful. Websites and other modern technology help with this. As a non-period (flavored) medium, there is a possibility of under valuing too, though. To discuss a specific entry, I had a friend who entered a black and white photo of vines growing up a wall in the sunlight. The play of shadows gave the picture a real feeling of texture and outside Amtgard it received a minor amateur photography award. When this photo was entered into an Amtgard competition, it received a minimum score from two of the judges because they did not see any Amtgard relevance. To me, this is taking the idea of Amtgard flavor too far.

Finally, I want to look at an example from bardic singing. Athena has a lovely voice and sings many songs. One she is very good at is ‘The River’ by Garth Brooks. This song is not blatantly modern but is does lack Amtgard flavor to some extent. Since she does that song in bardics to entertain Amtgarders, the song does have Amtgard usefulness. Athena’s skill in singing earns her high scores whenever she sings, but it is true that I have scored ‘The River’ lower than an equally good song with a strong Amtgard theme. Also on the topic of bardics, Scarheart and Pebyr, both well known Amtgard bards have songs in their repertoire that are actually about Amtgard. I would reward these songs over an equally good rendition of ‘The River’.

In conclusion, I think that Amtgard flavor is an important part of A&S entries and should be promoted by better scores in cultural competitions. It is reasonable to look for it since it is essential to the main purpose of Amtgard A&S and is not strongly counter to any of the purposes. Amtgard usefulness is also important and should get some consideration, but since the great majority of A&S entries have reasonable Amtgard usefulness, I am not willing to penalize those categories where it is hard to achieve usefulness unduly. On the other hand, I do favor rewarding items with a high Amtgard usefulness or those that fill a real gap in the game.

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