This is the fourth salvo in Michael Rutherford’s regular column, Fire for Effect. Take it away Mike…
I’m trying to narrow my focus today. I offer a very narrow thesis and I will endeavor to get straight to it. But still… go get a beer… or two. Oh, and before we start, I am curious: How many of you read this blog in the can? A co-worker (and AFOL) told me that he habitually waits until he is in the can before he reads this blog. Like he might have time when he isn’t in the can… but he waits until he is (is in the can)… and then he reads it. I was sort of taken aback… but then I thought about it (yeah… I know. Of all the things to think about, right?). Is it a strange thing that only he does? Or is it actually a new norm that I’m just not clutched into? So, ummm… are “WE” in the can right now? You, constant reader… and I? Together, in the can? For the record, I don’t read, or write for that matter… in the can. Ever. Just so you we’re clear.
Well, I guess that pretty much shot the notion of getting right to the point. How about catching up by jumping straight to my point!
Thesis: Awards at Lego fests are good for the state of the hobby.
Competition. It is a culturally universal concept which, when controlled, can motivate innovation, improvement and excellence.
Limited competition focuses this potential but requires rules. Rules equate to cooperation. Obscure rules undermine cooperation.
Transparency prevents obscurity.
Transparency is lacking in Lego conventions.
Let’s get all Aristotelian!
- Competition fosters improvement.
- Awards are competitive.
- Awards foster improvement.
Competition. An environment and an event wherein participants try to get or win something that someone else is also trying to win: to try to be better or more successful than someone or something else (Merriam Webster). Competition is broader. It exists in a natural state. Trash the normal rhetoric about gazelles competing with cheetahs on the savanna. They don’t compete… they mutually support one another by perusing separate but interrelated agendas. Remember that it is not the cheetah with whom the gazelle competes, but rather the other gazelles. The cheetah is relevant to the gazelle… but the cheetah wants neither the limited supply of grass, nor to mate with the limited supply of hot gazelles. Yes, cheetahs and gazelles run together, at the same place and at the same time…but they are running for DIFFERENT REASONS… running DIFFERENT RACES… often right after dinner for the gazelle, and right before dinner for the cheetah. But the gazelles all know their race is not against the cheetah. It is against the next slowest gazelle (the one who the cheetah is going to actually catch). For the gazelle, it’s all about the grass and the mating (So what you’re saying is… Keith is a Gazelle?). Getting what the other gazelles want. That is the competition. Be a better gazelle, get more grass and more ass. Competition incentivizes gazelle to be BETTER gazelles. This is what I mean when I say: Competition fosters improvement. Take a look at gazelles. Most of them are pretty good at gazelling. The not so good gazelles? They are harder to spot… Usually busy feeding the cheetahs.
So its clear then. AFOLs should run across the savanna until we catch one another, and then kill and eat one another (frequently wedging our dead AFOL victim up in a tree to protect the body from other conniving AFOL rivals). NO! Don’t be silly! Most of us would stroke out from the shock to our cardiovascular systems! Duh!
Here I say only that competition is part of natural life (and yes, I have a bias towards artificial systems that “borrow” from natural systems because nature pretty consistently kicks ass!) and that it fosters improvement.
But there is more to the VALUE of COMPETITION. It is CULTURALLY UNIVERSAL. War is competition. Religion is competition (lots of overlap with war). Commerce is competition (again, with the overlap). Exploration, science, agriculture… almost every field of human culture (non-natural) has a competitive aspect. Yea rowntRee… Art as well. Further, all these fields overlap and interconnect. It’s quite a weave actually. All humans from all cultures do this stuff. You might even say it’s universal. Makes for some tough problems. COMPETITION CAN ALL BE HIGHLY DESTRUCTIVE! I mean… I started the list with WAR for god’s sake! Let’s review the concept of LIMITS… Yea?
Limited competition is all the competition that happens within agreed upon parameters. Sometimes vague, as with underlying cultural assumptions, and sometimes specific, as with… wait for it… rules. If ANY participant in a limited completion abandons these parameters, these rules… then the competition becomes unlimited again.
In fact, when a party abandons the rules in a limited competition, the entire competition becomes meaningless. Ponder the delightfully absurd narrative in the above clip. Once the gun is out… the game is in fact over. The exercise in moving the ball down the field is mechanical. A meaningless act. A pantomime of football which will not result in victory. There is no scoring. No win. I don’t just mean morally… or ethically… I mean legally, scientifically or any other way! Any actions taken on the field after the gun is out are not part of an ongoing game. So transitioning between limited and unlimited competition during the event equates to an unlimited competition. Competition without limits. That’s precision daylight bombing, that’s WMD, that’s ethnic cleansing, that’s salting the earth, yadda yadda yadda… all stuff on our big list of things we should try to avoid.
Ok, so limits prevent chaos… but why competition at all? Why compete? Even within limits… why create a zero sum game when we could work together instead? Why not cooperate?
This question is illusionary. It’s an artificial dichotomy.
FALLACY: COMPETITION PRECLUDES COOPERATION.
FACT: LIMITED COMPETITION IS COOPERATION.
Remember, to reject competition is to reject a powerful motive for improvement. Competition occurs in nature for a reason: because it works! Also, remember, in nature at least, that competition is a sustainable behavior in a self-adjusting system. (Bias alert: I like systems that are sustainable and self-adjusting… call it a character flaw).
When we add limits (rules), we make room for other important things, like human dignity, fairness, the consistency that lends itself to our logic and our method. Let’s not forget that cooperation also means we can plan ahead, and put stuff on a calendar… and that is a big deal for most of us!
So, we have the power to improve that resides in competition, and the power to mitigate destruction that resides in limits. Is that all it takes? Rules and limits? That doesn’t sound so hard does it?
Examples of the model at work. The NFL, AFL, NASCAR, Nobel Peace Prize, the Olympics, Wimbledon. All examples of highly organized competitions that have resulted in incremental improvement, sustained over time, in various activities.
Look at the Olympics. Would there be athletic competition without it? Of course. Would it be as intense? Nope. Not at the local, state, or national level. Not the intensity, not the attention, not the support, and in the end… not the defining metric of the entire effort: commitment to attaining individual excellence. Would world records exists? Yes, but not with the clarity we have today. Different agencies would employ different methods (and apply different rules). The world record in any given sport would be listed in several different places, and would be attributed to several different athletes. The Olympic system (flaws and all) is a unifying effort which provides one clear and unambiguous standard. Comply, compete, conquer, and take home the hardware. No excuses, no do-overs, no safe zone. Just the achievement and recognition of excellence. Clarity.
And are the limits enforced in perfect, consistent, objectivity? Nope. And are the precious rules often violated? Yep. But the CONCEPT is embraced by the participants, and to the greatest extent possible… protected (enforced). We have referees and over watch committees because cheating is a given, not because they dress so sharp!
I don’t even like to watch the Olympics personally. But I do think the endeavor is an excellent example of how limited competition fosters improvement, and it would not be possible without cooperation of the highest order.
Great, Jesse Owens shames the master race… by following the rules…Could we please connect this to awards at Lego conventions?
Yes. Yes we can. That is an excellent question, and I’m glad you asked. Lets look at awards.
Awards are object, tokens that symbolize a formal recognition of excellence. They are presented by the agency that hosts any given activity. For the purpose of this discussion, let us limit our definition of awards to those tokens given out ONLY TO THE BEST performing participants of any given competition. Participation awards are not relevant to my thesis. They exists… but they do not foster improvement. The Olympic gold baby! They are common in many competitive arenas we have looked at already. Athletic events, state fairs, pet shows, debate tournaments, car races (no… NASCAR is not an athletic event… just stop)… just about any competitive endeavor eventually results in EVALUATION and STRATIFICATION. A gold, a silver, and a bronze (Hey! Who’s booing the bronze? You better shut it! The only thing you ever brought back from the Olympics was a program!). Lots of Lego fests (but not all) also present awards. Remember, the award (in this model) is not the motivation to excel. It is only an object that symbolizes, that fixes in time and place, a public recognition of that excellence. It is the recognition of excellence (What? Like credit?) That is the real juice here.
OK… so what? We should compete, follow the rules when we do it, and the winner should get an engrave brick… you are really using a lot of words to explain these basic concepts! Wouldn’t emoticons be quicker?
No. Shut up.
Here is why MOST Lego fests fail to capitalize on the motivational aspect awards. The RULES for the distribution of the awards are OBSCURE. First, let me own something. Most of the time, I don’t think the rules are obscure. Most of the time, there are no actual rules! But… in the name of saving face, let’s just go with the notion that they do exists… and that they are just unclear, unpublished, or… that most participants don’t know where to find them. Same thing man.
In the Olympics, all of the rules are PUBLISHED. All people involved: Athletes, coaches, commercial sponsors, trainers, Mas, Pas, pets, and neighbors… ALL know (or can research in detail) the rules. It’s important. It prevents “accidental cheating” and wasted effort, and it facilitates strategy, planning, and deliberate preparation (all that classical tricky thinky stuff). And… when the award is presented… everybody who shared the honor of striving to achieve it, can look upon the winner and say: “Way to go man…” Equality before the law. Level playing field. No home team advantage. Ringing any bells?
There is a fancy word for this crazy notion of everybody knowing the rules (you will recall that along with sentences and paragraphs I do love words…). Transparency. Business Dictionary. Com defines transparency thusly:
- A situation characterized by a lack of hidden agendas and conditions, accompanied by the availability of full information required for collaboration, cooperation, and collective decision-making.
TRANSLATION: Awards are not reserved for members of the local lug, or guaranteed in advance to “celebrity registrants”.
- The minimum degree of disclosure to which agreements, dealings, practices, and transactions are open to all for verification.
TRANSLATION: Each award category is defined in advance. All criteria for selecting the winner of any given award is published in advance, and easy to find. Publishing this information on a link from the fest home page for example.
- The essential condition for a free and open exchange whereby the rules and reasons behind regulatory measures are fair and clear to all participants.
TRANSLATION: Really? No, I’m not going to translate “fair and clear”. If you don’t get this concept by now, you probably just don’t care. That’s a thing by the way: Not caring.
This is the part of the article where I was going to insert a few narratives regarding questionable awards protocols at this con, that con, and the other fest… but fact is, that if you have been to more than two conventions… you have war stories of your own. So no collections of stories from band camp. But I will say, I have been robbed, and I have won when I had no business winning. Cronyism and back room politics have soiled the notion of awards, and robbed them of any merit in the eyes of many. When I argue in favor of awards, I argue for what they could be… not what they are.
On that note, who cares? What does any of this matter? We go to conventions to have fun, and to meet other AFOLs. Awards? Like, little MOCs… made out of Lego? That’s not why I go, so why should I care… and why should people who run fests care?
It’s a good question. I mean it’s valid. It’s not obvious, or intuitive. And basically… I am writing a long article telling OTHER PEOPLE how they should run their conventions? What gives me the right?
First… nothing really gives me the RIGHT. This is all just opinion, not fact. No laws are being broken. This is not about any scam, or trick, or rip-off. This article is not about righting any wrongs. This whole article is only about how to make something BETTER, and how to do it on the cheap (cause awards made of brick are simply not that expensive).
Second, you SHOULD CARE… because awards at fests CAN foster improvement on a level HIGHER THAN YOU OR ME. We often tend to evaluate a recommendation in terms of how it affects us personally. This is generally short-sighted. The hobby has not grown by virtue of your interest in Lego… or my interest… or even Keith and Simon’s interest… We are talking about things that motivate LOTS and LOTS of people. Maybe mostly younger people… maybe more than a few older (though they deny it!).
Awards, when part of a system that is TRANSPARENT and CONSISTENT can result in increased competition and IMPROVEMENT ACROSS POPULATIONS AND SUSTAINED OVER TIME. That means more and better builds. Period.
And the cost? Hmmm… I’m having a tough one here. We are already buying awards with our registration money. We are already giving them out at conventions. The artifacts are in motion. I guess the cost resides entirely in the realm of ego, habit, and responsibility. Maybe that coin is more precious than I imagine.
I do want to make it clear that this issue rests squarely on the shoulders of those who run conventions. If awards are given out in a foolish manner, and their potential is squandered in exchange for short-term ego boosts and local political gain, then yea… I presume to blame the hosts.
I guess there is no way I can leave this topic without once again stating in unambiguous terms that I for one, love awards. In the most pathetic way. When I take one, it’s because a competitor failed. When I lose one, it is because I’ve been bested. Two men enter… one man leaves! I saw this part of Chicken Little, and I wanted to stand up and yell “Oh hell yes!”