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Last Century Amtgard
[03/15/2010] [Randall]

We are all, contrary to popular belief, human. Human memory loves to categorize our experiences in groups and chunks, and, at twenty-seven years old, Amtgard has seen plenty such chunks come and go. We can look back on the 1980s as a chunk of time during which Amtgard was innocent and young – an age of couch-foam swords and the first shaped blades, when everybody knew everybody and the game was living during the moments of its founding. The 1990s could be a decade of expansion and growth, when the population of the game exploded and the Internet started letting groups from across the country interact with one another. And the 2000s might be seen as the Fun-noodle decade – and the decade when Amtgard shouldered the responsibility of governing itself . . .the time when we finally grew up.

Not only is all that true, but it is different kinds of true for different people in different kingdoms. A person in Florida will have a different set of memories and a different perspective and perception than someone in California, and both will be different from someone in Texas. Our perception shapes our reality, and that perception varies wildly the game over. This is why the things we have in common are so important, because they are what bind us together. Some of the things we have in common are good – the ditch, our events, our forums. But there are other things Amtgarders have in common that are a little less good.

Amtgard is all grown up, but our rough upbringing as an organization means there’s been some unfortunate baggage accumulated along the way. In our nostalgia for the old days, we remember the good and forget the bad, even if the bad is still hanging around in our collective subconscious. The past ten years represented a great age of growing up, of taking the good of the 90s and casting aside the bad, but the process was incomplete. In many parks, the detritus of the last century remains.

The way I hear this often described is “90s Amtgard.” When referred to derogatively, the idea of “90s Amtgard” thus represents not the good that was born from Amtgard’s period of growth, nor the great figures of that era who continue to serve, but rather the ills of the game that persisted after the 90s were long gone: the mistreatment of our newbies, the pollution of our knighthood, the arrogance of the core, the poisoning of our politics, the irresponsibility of our elites, and creation and alienation of our second class members. I do not think these patterns emerged by coincidence, but rather that the gestalt of Amtgard in the 90s – growth, revolution, and prosperity – lifted up other patterns of behavior that may have had a place in a different context, or that we only now know are negative and damaging, but had not connected enough dots to figure out why.

It is now 2010. If these behaviors are still with us, it must be said that they belong to the 2000s as well. If the 2010s are to be different, it is up to us. So what does it mean, this term of derision?

Let’s start with that most fundamental aspect of Amtgard – the ditch. We all know how this works. It’s part of our common heritage. As a result, every Amtgarder is familiar with lining up, calling lay on, and sending over the first dead. We know how combat works and which shot counts where. And when someone doesn’t take our shots, we know how to deal with that too, because that’s also part of our common heritage. As every Amtgarder knows, when the other guy doesn’t take your shots, you do the grown-up thing: if they are not your friend, or they are a small kid, hit them really, really hard.

And why not? That’s the way it’s always been done. Of course, this is a poor solution for many reasons. It bullies our kids, causes resentment, rejects safety, and makes people into worse fighters. This last-century solution to the problem of sluffing is more or less the worst possible solution short of engaging in an actual fist-fight. Naturally, there’s a better way. In casting aside this mentality, we can replace it with something more productive: swing better, not harder, so the shot is cleaner and unsluffable; take kids aside and explain shot-taking to them, and regulate via regulations and not force if they still don’t get it. The first way makes you that guy who terrorizes kids by head-shotting them over and over until they leave the tournament and maybe even quit Amtgard. The second way makes you into something better: a mentor.

We also get the notion of yanking contracts from the 90s. This should be familiar to all of us, but I am not talking about the Burning Lands here. I’m talking about any kingdom with a core and a periphery. One lesson taught to but not learned by many kingdom cores in the 1990s and 2000s is that there is nothing you can do to force someone to play Amtgard differently. The result ended up being kingdom cores treating their peripheral chapters with something like disdain. This does not work. Amtgard is a volunteer organization, and groups who can’t change the way things are conducted by voting (or who have no realistic chance of their votes making a difference) have basically two choices: get along, or go away. Kingdoms that disdain, misunderstand, misinterpret, condescend to, and present ultimatums to their peripheries remove the first option. Is it any wonder so many groups contemplate the second? The truth is that there is only one way for a core to interact with a periphery, and that is with respect, courtesy, understanding, and a healthy benefit of the doubt. For a real-world understanding of this, think of it as winning hearts and minds. Indeed, this is true of any relationship in which one side has all the “power” and the other side has none. If you look closely, it’s a variation on the way we should treat newbies – variations on the theme of applied 21st-century Amtgard thought.

Almost every park in Amtgard finds itself divided between the “cool kids” and the “scrubs”, something that’s been discussed by previous e-Samurai articles. This division – sometimes called “stick jocks” versus “flurbs”, “us” versus “them”, or “pretty people” versus everybody else – is unhealthy because it drives parks apart and drives attendance down. It hinders recruitment, alienates excited kids, and makes everybody who isn’t “us” feel unwelcome. There are two factors at work here. The first is the desire to be one of those cool kids. It drives a person regarded as “them” to do all the things the cool kids do – make fancy garb, learn to fight, and do everything in their power to reject and alienate the nerd herd to which they no longer belong. The other factor is the cycle of revolution in which each generation that takes power from the one before it forgets how it was treated by that generation. Instead of learning the lessons as what not to do, these new leaders learn them as frameworks with which to govern their parks. From the bullies in charge today, they learn how to bully the newbies of tomorrow. To break from this last-century methodology, we have to treat our newbies better. We have to raise a generation that feels included and welcome, and that learns the way to make other people feel the same.

This means being good role models, which takes me to a tangental but critical point: if your chapter is condoning drug or alcohol use at your park, it’s not simply a choice of people cutting lose or having fun. Your chapter is broken. This isn’t even 90s Amtgard – this is the worst of 80s Amtgard, and it’s archaic, irresponsible, and criminal. Such behavior has no place in the mindset of modern Amtgard, and parks and kingdoms that tolerate it deserve to be flushed down the sewer of history.

Abandoning archaic thinking gives our next generations something to strive for – aspirations that are held up as crystal clear examples of nobility. This is impossible in kingdoms where the granting of masterhood ensures that a knighting ceremony will shortly follow. Part of this is politics and hideous horse-trading, part of this is a failure of leadership, and part of this is an unwillingness to deny people what they believe is their due. Whatever the reason, it’s all bad, and if you think your next generation does not pick up on it and grow cynical at the “standards” your knights display, think again. Offer people mediocrity as a goal and they will achieve it. And when it comes time for them to hold up the bar for others to seize, they will hold it up only as high as the standards you taught them. In word and deed, we have it within ourselves to set an example that others don’t see as too lofty to achieve, but instead see as so lofty that they have to achieve it. This cannot be done with lectures alone, or from sitting in judgment on laurels obtained when one’s own mediocrity was rewarded. It can only be achieved by example. Some knights and kingdoms get this. Some do not. We each have the power to change that, and to raise the next generation accordingly. We cannot say for sure what the standards of the last century were – the game was younger and there were fewer of us, and correspondingly fewer knights even as a percentage of the population, and knighthood was still being figured out. What we can do is pass judgment on our own generation, and to teach with our noble examples the generation still to come. And when they look into the future, we can choose whether they see further for having stood on our shoulders by determining now how high we stand.

These are things all parks go through eventually, and so "90s Amtgard" happens over and over again at different times and in different places. The difference is that it is now the 21st century. With an eye to the past and a gaze that can look across the entire country, we can contextualize and interpret the problems inherent in such behaviors long before they afflict our own parks. That gives us something powerful - a chance to do it right the first time. . . a chance to not need a second chance.

20th-century Amtgard gave us much that is worthy and good, and much that continues to be worthy and good. It also left behind some unfortunate legacies that persisted long after what should have been their expiration dates. We should embrace the good and learn from the bad. By studying the ills that survived into the past decade, we can kill them off before they have a chance to live through the next one. 21st-century Amtgard can be better. It must be better. The person who can make it better is you. With every step, you’re showing the next generation – the kids you don’t even realize are watching you right now - the way.

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