Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Medieval Combat and the Delight It Inspires: An Analysis and Conclusions

(If you haven't already, you should read the previous post. Otherwise, this one will only make 67.2% sense. Also, the previous one is much funnier and will put you in a better mood to tolerate the slightly boring nature of this one. However, if the previous post doesn't sufficiently immunize you against the tedium of the following analysis, and as you're reading you start to feel like a blood vessel in your brain is about to pop, skip to the Conclusion section. )


To start, some preliminary things can be said of medieval combat as encountered by Cockatoo last week in the park:

Most obviously,

1. It involved a great deal of human-on-human physical attacking. (Cockatoo hesitates to use the word "violence" since it usually implies malicious intent, which didn't seem to be present in any serious way.)
2. It was a game of some kind.
3. It was happening in real-time in an open, public space.

The fact that it looked like a lot of people attacking each other, something Cockatoo and probably most people normally see only in the media (TV, internet, cinema, theater), made her think of the fake violence one normally sees in the media.

The fact that it was a game - or rather a "sports game," since, according to the Belegarth Medieval Combat Society, it is a sport - involving people attacking each other, brought to mind a lot of contemporary sports games for Cockatoo: American football, Australian football, rugby, boxing, martial arts, wrestling, fencing, paintball, laser tag, etc.

The fact that it was people attacking each other in real time in an open, public space reminded Cockatoo of that time she saw her father chasing a tenant down the street with a machete (non-foam). In other words, it reminded Cockatoo of the fact that plenty of people are witness to real violence in everyday, real life.

Now, generally, sports games share certain characteristics:
* participants must follow strict rules or be disqualified
* the activity takes place under the supervision of some authority (referee)
* the game is exclusive, meaning spectators cannot freely join in the game
* the game is physically contained - as in physically isolated from spectators (usually by a fence, platform, or ring, or by specially designating the activity-space as off-limits to non-participants)
* participants have developed special skills in order to compete effectively in the game
* participants wear uniforms that diminish uniqueness of appearance (among participants)
* the goal of each participant is only to win, not to kill, either in pretense or reality
* pretense or fantasy are not officially recognized aspects of the game

Most scenes of violence depicted in the media (violence in movies and on TV, not on the news) also (generally) share certain characteristics:
* like sports games, they are also exclusive, since spectators cannot join in
* also like sports games, they are contained, or isolated in space (and usually time as well), from the spectator, since the scenes are "mediated" by the media
* the goal of the participants in the violence is to kill the other participants
* the violence does not look natural, like something one might encounter in everyday life, but like something extensively staged, choreographed, and rehearsed (okay, excepting Saving Private Ryan)
* the violence is known by the spectator to be all pretense

And scenes of real, everyday violence tend to have certain things in common, too:
* they are non-exclusive - you can join in if you want to, though Cockatoo recommends that you don't
* they are un-contained - you can move freely in and out of the space in which it is taking place
* the goal of the participants may or may not be to kill the other participant(s)
* the violence looks natural i.e. not highly skilled, staged, choreographed, or rehearsed
* the scenes are real, not pretend, but the reasons the participants have for engaging in the violence may be imaginary

Now, going back to thinking about medieval combat, we can look for what characteristics it shares with these different types of human-on-human attacking.

Like a typical sports-game,
* participants must follow strict rules or be disqualified
* the activity takes place under the supervision of some authority (referee)

Like violence in the media,
* the goal of the participants is to kill the other participants (though only in pretense)
* the violence does not look natural, like something one might encounter in everyday life (because people don't normally use foam weapons to attack each other in real life)
* the scenes are all pretense (in the sense that the participants don't really want to hurt each other)

And like real-life violence,
* the game is non-exclusive - you can join in if you want to
* it is un-contained - you can move freely in and out of the space in which it is taking place
* the violence does looks natural (in so far as no one seemed to be very skilled or practiced at what they were doing)
* the scenes are all real (in the sense that people really are wacking each other, not just pretending to)


Now Cockatoo sees what was so delightful about what was happening in the park that day: Medieval combat is a game full of contradictions. It's controlled, since there are rules and a referee, and at the same time, it's uncontrolled, since people can move in and out of the game and its space at will. Participants are supposed to pretend to kill each other, while in actuality being careful not to injure anyone. The attacks are fanciful - based on the use of obsolete, foam weapons and the traditions of a past era. But the perpetrators of these attacks are ordinary human beings, adults no less - who trip over themselves and widely miss their targets. And the whole thing is a fantasy, yet really happening right there in front of you, even beckoning you to join in.

Therein lies the delightful incongruity, Cockatoo thinks. Not in the individual contradictions, but just in the fact that it is full of contradictions ... and yet it is a game for adults, to be played in public (occasionally with foam rocks). That is not the typical nature of adult games.

Let's think of some games adults play: there's board games, sex games, sports-games, video games, drinking games, mind games, card games, gambling games, dominoes, other games based on peculiar 3D objects, word games, number games, etc. etc. etc.

These games are supposed to be fun, yes, but just as importantly, they're supposed to be controlled, predictable, and based in reality - and consistently so (see footnote). Mind games are the only exception; in Cockatoo's experience, mind games do not have to be based in reality, and in fact, are more fun when they're not. It may seem like sex games and gambling games should also be exceptions, since they involve a little more risk and fantasy. However, when you really think about it, the outcomes of these games are also pretty predictable - less money in your pocket, and fewer sexual fantasies to pass the time with. (Fantasies lose their allure once they're realized, sometimes while they're still in the process of being realized. Just a warning.) Moreover, when an adult game is fantasy-based like many sex games are (Cockatoo is assuming; she doesn't have much experience with the matter), the game takes place under even more strictly predictable and controlled conditions, one of the conditions usually being that it must be played far from the public eye.

So Medieval Combat isn't your typical adult game, and it's definitely not something Cockatoo expected to see a bunch of people engaging in while walking in the park that day. Not only does its essential inconsistency cause a sort of screeching-to-a-stop reaction when you see it (FUN!), the fact that it kind of resembles your everyday bar-room brawl creates that precarious excitement you feel when you're standing really close to someone who's in the process of getting their head bashed in. (SUPER-FUN!!!)

Cockatoo believes that as soon as people get over their dislike of wearing bad costumes in public and showing off their lack of eye-hand coordination, Medieval Combat will become the next big thing.

Cockatoo is presently polishing her foam shield. She will be ready.

Footnote: True, Cockatoo has not performed a detailed analysis of these different types of adult games, so she can't really prove that this what adult games are actually like. Such an analysis would require about 8 more tedious, list-filled posts. Not fun. And if her analysis only proved her to be wrong - an undeniable possibility - it would mean having to throw out her entire theory as to why medieval combat is so much fun to watch, as well as rewriting this entire blog post. Not to mention having to come up with a different theory (because this is a question that must, and will, be answered). And that would require a complete reorientation of her general world-view. Cockatoo isn't up for that today, so she's just going to assume that her claim about adult games, as well as her theory about the delightfulness of medieval combat, is true.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

On Smacking a Total Stranger With a Foam Sword

Cockatoo was walking through Balboa Park the other day - the green heart of downtown San Diego - enjoying the cool air, the warm sunlight, the carefree people, and all those other things Cockatoos enjoy during walks in the park, when off in the distance what did she see? A group of young adults, about 20 of them, holding odd-shaped swords and shields, pairing off, and attacking each other.

Cockatoo immediately started laughing, a sort of confused, nervous, super-excited, giddy laugh as she skipped her way a little closer to the action, totally delighted, though not quite sure why.

Was there something inherently funny and exciting about adult role playing games, which is what seemed to be going on? Not really. That sort of thing usually seemed either sleazy or boring. Was it the funny costumes? Eh, mostly the costumes just looked shoddy. Was it the clumsiness with which the clunky swords and shields (one guy even had a foam ax) were wielded? Not really. Cockatoo knows she couldn't do much better.

After a bit of introspection, Cockatoo began to think the nervous laughter arose because of the incongruousness and subtle precariousness of the situation (a precariousness that was illusory, she later learned). On a beautiful San Diego day, in the middle of a beautiful, peaceful park, while people in less peaceful parts of the world (Yemen, perhaps?) were actually dying - painful, bloody, needless deaths - here, in the meanwhile, were people pretending to kill each other. For the fun of it. With foam swords.

Not for the sport, the exercise, the challenge, the sense of getting in touch with a part of history. Sure, these might have been secondary reasons, but what was the primary reason? What would have been the first thing out of any of the participant's mouths if they'd been asked "Why are you doing this?" Answer: "Because it's fun!" And it really did look like a lot of fun. So much so that Cockatoo almost joined in after a friendly knight ran over, explained the game, and invited Cockatoo to play, but Cockatoo remembered the blog she had to write and, sadly, declined.

The game seemed perfectly natural, healthy even - a way for people to air those aggressive impulses we all occasionally get in a safe, harmless way. But still, it was pretty disturbing (admittedly, in a delicious, titillating way) given the role that violence plays in our world today. After all, we have protesters being beaten by riot cops, civilians being blown up by terrorists, "terrorists" being bombed by governments. Women and minorities and the poor being psychologically, socially, politically, and economically beaten by the racism, sexism, and ...

Ok, let's not start ranting, Cockatoo. You promised you wouldn't rant...

So, yes, that's what made the spectacle of medieval play-fighting a little disturbing. But what explains Cockatoo's delight, a delight she seemed to share with at least a few other people who also stood by and watched the game?

Cockatoo often experiences this sort of emotional difficulty - of having an emotional reaction for which she cannot provide an explanation. Cockatoo was not dropped on her head at birth, but she did fall down a long flight of stairs while sitting in a walker around age three. Strangely, the only injury she was left with was a black eye ... or so it seemed. Maybe she just suffered a bit of neglect during those important formative years, resulting in a kind of emotion-processing impairment. Very common, you know... Whatever the reason, when this sort of situation arises, Cockatoo likes to employ a little rational analysis to try to figure out what's going on inside her head.

Tune in next Wednesday for ...

Medieval Combat and the Delight It Inspires: An Analysis and Conclusions