Saturday, July 24, 2010

What War is Good For

If I'm not careful, I could use last week's post as the basis for an idea every week from now until the end of the Mayan calender. I'll allow myself one indulgence this week, and then move on.

The concept of a bracketed tournament is one of the all-time great gimmicks of the modern era. Though "tournaments" existed among knights during medieval times, my amateur research seems to reveal that this word meant something different back then, that though there was a competition, it wasn't the kind of "survivor advances to play another survivor" model that we think of when we hear the word "tournament." Even as late as 1890, the word meant something different than what it means today, or the organizers of a new event in Pasadena, California wouldn't have called their inaugural parade the "Tournament of Roses." I've read a fair amount of pre-20th Century literature, and though competition has always been one of the recreational mainstays of society, tournament competition doesn't seem to have been a methodology for crowning a champion. It seems that a "king of the hill" method was employed until relatively recently, the kind that is still employed in professional boxing. And it's worth noting that historically, organized sports leagues initially didn't have play-offs--this was a later invention (college football, of course, still follows the archaic format).

Now, of course, we are mad for play-offs and tournaments. Bracketology becomes a national pastime every March, but one doesn't need to be a sports fan to feel the pervasive influence of the tournament format (I would include the elimination formats of reality shows like Survivor or The Bachelor as fitting the definition, as well). Everyone grows up participating in sundry tournaments, and often we end up competing in them whether we want to or not (I think of events like a "marbles tournament" in my elementary school and a "foosball tournament" in my college dorm).

What does this mean? It means that conceptually, the idea of the tournament is still evolving. The natural next step is some kind of tournament that would encompass the entire population of a nation. Right now, most of our investment in tournaments is by proxy; we pick a person or team and follow them, or we predict how we think the tourney will progress. But how awesome would it be if we could all actually participate in one massive, all-encompassing tournament? Logistically, it would be difficult to do such a thing, but I argue that given our advances in technology and communication, I think it is finally possible. It wouldn't be easy to set up a bracket with over 300 million people, but someone somewhere could surely write the necessary algorithm.

The bigger, more practical obstacle is that it is hard to find the type of event that literally everyone can compete in. Most activities or games would tend to favor people of a particular demographic (usually a younger one). But I can think of one activity that would give no favor to any particular individual-- the card game "war". Other than the very infirm, infants, and the criminally insane, anyone can play "war."

Therefore, I propose a national "war" tournament, perhaps one every 10 years. Figuring the U.S. population at 300 million, the tournament could be contested in 28 rounds, meaning the entire event could take less time than an NBA season. I don't anticipate that people would have to travel all that far until the later rounds, but we could levy a one dollar tax on everyone to cover the travel expenses of those who go deep into the tourney. Once we do get down to the final 128 or 64, media attention would intensify, so perhaps there is a chance for corporate sponsorships. And think of the great narratives that could be told when a handful of people from among the population are essentially plucked at random and given the opportunity to achieve immortality. We would latch onto and rally around the individuals in the "War" tournament in a way that we never have before, not even for American Idol.

I haven't yet determined what would be a suitable prize for winning the tournament, but I'm thinking some combination of a suit of armor, the position of grand marshal of the Rose Parade, and control of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory would be the kind of stakes that would encourage complete participation of the entire populace. This just might be the kind of war that everyone can get behind.


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