|The Good Old Days
I started playing Amtgard in 1989. I was 15. There were three kingdoms (though maybe 2 - I never can remember when IM started). Colorado was the Great Beyond and I don't think anyone really considered just how big the game would become. I started in the Burning Lands, birthplace of Amtgard. And I started with the people who started the game. Many of them were just starting the slow decline to burnout at the time, but for the first year or so at least, it was "the good ol' days". Aramithris and Tawnee were definitely heads of opposite factions, but he would still come over to her house after the park to hang out and play games. We all went out to get bad Mexican food after a day at the park. Everyone got together for birthdays or holidays. Everyone showed up for special events, demos and such. LaGrue came out once or twice and everyone pointed him out in hushed whispers. I partied one weekend with the "bad influences" that were the Saracens, Corsairs, Sable Pride and various others, and the next with the "leaders" that were Lions and (eventually) Claw Legion. When I went off to college, every time I came home Caliope would throw a party at her house. To be fair, Caliope and Trinity threw parties all the time and would take nearly any excuse to do it again. Some of the people I knew then are probably dead now, or in jail. Some of the others are leaders in their community, respected professionals, raising families. My closest friends ranged from my age, to old enough to be my parents. No one really cared about complex things like socio-economic background, education or age. We all showed up on Saturday morning and played our little game, and we all hung out together. It didn't matter if you liked the other people, or if you'd say boo to them on the street. We all had our little geeky thing, and that bonded us together.
Things change, as they tend to do. I left town eventually. Amtgard grew. But some things stayed the same. I could go to an event - any event, in any kingdom - and I could walk from campfire to campfire and find friends. There wasn't a group where a drunk teenage girl might be unsafe. There wasn't a group where you couldn't leave your cloak by accident and not have it returned (or at least waiting for you) the next morning. There was no where that "you shouldn't go". We were older, the game was bigger, but we all still had this bond of our inner geekiness. I think we all knew this was an escape from the "real world" and took some effort to protect that. My favorite part of events was starting at one end of the event at sunset and wandering to the other end and back until I fell asleep sometime near dawn. Yes, we usually got drunk. Yes, we may have engaged in other less-than-well-thought-out things, too. But that wasn't really the reason I looked forward to event weekends. That wasn't the reason we were willing to pile 5 people in a tiny hatchback and drive 10 hours to an event. That wasn't the reason my friends and I spent our senior year in high school counting the weekends since and till events. For us, it was about being somewhere where we were accepted regardless of anything else. Teenage years are rough and I can't express nearly enough just how amazing it was to have a safe place to be a total loser among other total losers ... and somehow for that to make me cool.
However, NeverNeverLand doesn't really exist. I don't know what exactly caused things to change. Amtgard got bigger (much MUCH bigger), it started attracting a different kind of people, and the internet became easily accessible. Suddenly, the group wasn't so much a bunch of closet geeks - it included people in it just for the sport. Suddenly, there were events every weekend (somewhere), and if you couldn't make it to an event, all you had to do was log on to the internet to get your fix. Suddenly, it was impossible to know everyone in the game. Suddenly, people were known by their reputations, and by rumors, more than by their actual presence. This kind of distance made it harder to care about anyone and easier to feel like you knew someone without actually knowing them. But even then, the local parks were much the same. Even if two factions were in opposition in the game, they still went out for bad Mexican (or Chinese or random buffet) after the park. They still cheered when someone got knighted. They still all showed up for crown quals to see who would win the tournament. There was still a community.
Now? Not so much. What few old-timers are still around are jaded and bitter. There are no good-natured rivalries. Amtgard has become like the real world. You stick with those who are like you, and you hate those who are not like you. Your "enemies" are to be destroyed by any means - whether that includes beating them down on the field and refusing to acknowledge them hitting you, or spreading nasty rumors and half-truths, or cheating in tournaments. The game is so big now and so impersonal, that there is little loyalty to other "Amtgarders". Yes, we all play this geeky little game - but there's so many of us that we don't feel any kind of bond to the other geeks.
Yes, I say us. I may not have actively played for almost three years, but I will always identify myself as an "Amtgarder". Many of my friends are still in the game, I still go a few events, and the internet does have some advantages. I even had a squire knighted just a few months ago. This game taught me a lot about being a grown up, about playing nice with others, about acknowledging that we are all part of one community, even if we don't like or agree with each other. I think maybe that was my downfall. The Amtgard I knew rewarded hard work, regardless of who did it. It respected its leaders, even if it was sometimes very grudgingly. It recognized talent, even if you didn't like the artist. Today's Amtgard doesn't seem to do that. I am glad I got to learn the lessons I did, but I'm sad that all the young people joining today are joining something no more closely tied than a baseball league. I think they're missing a lot in the social interactions. Just like the real world, there are campsites you can't go into without fearing for your personal safety. Just like the real world, you'd better not alter your reality (with alcohol or otherwise) unless you're around people you trust. Just like the real world, your stuff isn't safe anywhere except locked up tight. Just like the real world, you have to be careful of your every word because someone's always listening. Amtgard, for me, was a place where I could mess up, be stupid, in general be a teenager, and it was ok.
I've met a few people who are still part of a community. Generally, they play in small parks with limited access to the rest of Amtgard, through events or the internet. Generally, they are either young teenagers or older parents. Rarely are they "elite" fighters. Rarely do they have any titles or awards. They may or may not have much in common with the other people in their park. But they have that sense of community I find missing elsewhere. We're always talking about where Amtgard has come from and where it's going and how to solve our problems. Perhaps going back to why we started will save Amtgard from where it seems to be going. No one understands Amtgard like Amtgarders and that bonds us together in our geekiness. There are new people and new ideas joining this game all the time. But at the most basic level, we still get together once a week to dress up in funny clothes and beat on our friends with pillows.
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