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Of Rats and Sinking Ships
[04/03/2006] [Randall]

The forums sure seem to be happening lately, don’t they? There’s a whole slew of new regulars, and Lukor, Viktor and D’Okynn have done more for our user count than any recruitment drive we’ve ever done. The regular guys are happy to be flaming each other, the regular girls are happy that folks notice that they’re girls, and the guys are happy to have some girls in the forums. All in all, it’s a pretty good time to be an e-Samurai. As for me, I’m happy to see e-Samurai still working after all these years. With how long it’s been in the game, it ought to be qualified for knighthood by now. It’s been five years, and I think the old ronin finally got twenty-one pointless posts in a row. Hell, I think it might’ve had twenty-one pointless threads in a row.

But it wasn’t so long ago that things were pretty bleak here. The Electric Samurai works kind of like an Amtgard park does. If a lot of people are online, then a lot more people show up. But when people start to dribble away, other folks start to leave as well. Every chapter in Amtgard seems to have a group of people who, all acting as individuals, choose to show up if there are people at the park and stay home if there aren’t. This means you frequently have a barony of people playing World of Warcraft because they’re sure nobody went to Amtgard that day. Very few of these folks realize the irony of declaring that they would’ve gone out if more people would have shown up. Of course, every group has casual Amtgarders. I’m less interested in thinking about these folks than I am in pondering what remains when the casual people leave and a group starts to shrink. What is left is instructive as to what has been lost.

Once the fair-weather players have gone, a group generally has one of two types of people remaining – they’re left with the jerks, or they’re left with the core.

The first kind of rump group is familiar to almost everyone. We’ve all heard stories of parks that suck so much that all the cool people quit and only the worst players – the ones who drove everyone away – stay. This creates a perpetual problem where nobody is willing to go back because the player who made them quit is still there. And the player who made them quit has nothing else going for them, so they go out to Amtgard and continue to foul things up. Eventually, all you have is the jerk and a few buddies begging the kingdom proper for titles and knighthoods. You can easily identify this kind of group in a few ways. The most common is to look for stagnation and corruption. A lack of new players combined with theft on the part of the people in charge is a dead give-away. Another is whether the group is named Shadowvale or not.

The second group is more redeemable – it’s what you have left when the jerks leave. The core members of a group are typically dedicated instead of stubborn and hard-working instead of lazy. To them, ethics and fairness are words that would not offend people at a meeting of the Circle of Knights. Newbies are something to be celebrated, not beaten into submission. Attendance in Amtgard being cyclical in nature, this type of group is hopefully at least as common as the first. I haven’t seen this kind of thing often, but I’d bet dollars to golf shafts that a group with a lot of newbies enjoying themselves fits the bill.

Got newbies? Probably good, no matter what the park size may be. Newbies keep quitting? Probably stagnant, no matter how many regulars show up.

The model we’re looking at here is the old saying about rats leaving the sinking ship. An Amtgard park is like a leaky boat and the officers in charge are the folks with the buckets. Good leaders spend all their time bailing water out of the ship while the crew (that’s the populace) sings songs and gets drunk up on deck. With a good leader, you sometimes don’t notice that anything is wrong with the boat. But with a bad leader. . . irresponsible officers go up and join the crew, lazy officers do nothing or jump overboard, and corrupt officers deny that there’s a problem while stealing from the bucket fund. But leak it does, like every chapter in the game, and without constant tending it will start to sink. It’s woman and children first as the casual Amtgarders depart. And then you look around and start wondering why you’re bailing water when it’d be so much easier to just let the damn thing sink and go home. Well, there are reasons.

There’s the kid with nothing to do on his weekends who’d be out vandalizing street signs without Amtgard.

There’s the newbie learning talents he never knew he had, and never would have in the real world where there’s no need to sew, or duel, or sing.

There’s the girl who learns how to stick up for herself and really lay down some law with foam.

There’s the song about knights we never would have heard, sung around campfires we never would have lit.

There’s the triumph of victory in winning your first tournament.

There’s finding a place where being normal makes a person different, and being different makes a person normal.

There’s that time you got drunk in the woods and your friends had to carry you back to camp.

There’s fighting side by side with people who are cashiers, or computer techies, or housewives in the real world but become something more in our kingdoms of the mind.

There are the boys and girls who spend every day of every week getting more and more excited about Saturday.

There’s the old friend you finally get to see wearing a white belt.

Sometimes, the ship is sinking and sometimes it’s sailing fast, but someone always has to bail out the water. People will come and people will go. It can sometimes get lonely below deck, but there are too many good things relying on the hands that hold the bucket for good people to abandon ship. When people leave the game, take a long hard look at what you’re losing and what’s left behind. If the rats are leaving the sinking ship, be grateful that the rats are gone and not spreading their disease anymore. But as long as the rats stay, the crew will need someone to look out for them . . . because that kid who loves Amtgard could easily turn into someone who vandalizes cabins with ketchup instead of street signs with spray paint, or steals money from a kingdom instead of spare change from Taco Bell. All it takes is for him to be abandoned to the rats.

Or he could learn to stick up for those weaker than himself, make the game better every day he’s there, and help make a dream so real and so good that the children of Amtgard never grow up and never grow old. Still got a hold of that bucket? Good. Something precious is counting on you.

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