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strange_doings ([personal profile] strange_doings) wrote2013-02-19 05:20 pm
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The Trouble with Competition

I still regularly visit cosplay.com in order to see what people are up to, offer advice on people's costumes, and get a read on the current trends. Having been a costumer for almost 14 years and a competitor for at least 12, with almost 20 awards under my belt - and planning to direct my first masquerade, at CostumeCon 34 in 2016 - I like to roll through the Masquerade sub-forum to help out people with genuine concerns and questions about their skill levels, complying with rules, etc. But it feels like lately I've been repeating myself a lot, the same questions keep coming up over and over. So, just in case, this post is about competitions: mainly, why we have so many problems trying to figure out The Rules. If anyone needs a permanent reference to check when they have a dilemma, here is my take on it.

Disclaimer: this blog post assumes the reader knows what a masquerade is already. If you've never been to a con before or attended the masquerade, consider doing so first and then try to figure out whether it's something you want to participate in someday.

This blog is not to discuss the merits of the ICG guidelines or any other system or rules, nor the pros and cons of attempting to get some kind of standard used more widely. This is only going to be about what is, not what I think should be. My opinions are only shared to the point of making suggestions for people who are adamantly concerned about a sense of fairness within the "system" that exists. It is probably clear that I do gravitate toward the ICG's style of judging, skills, and rules, but by no means am I married to them as the be-all, end-all of masquerade competition.

Now, the number one thing I have to tell people when they come asking about whether their idea is acceptable or whether the judges or director will like it or allow it is: ask the director, not me. I and all the other lovely people on forums are just people. We most likely have not been to the convention you're going to, or haven't entered the masquerade you're planning to enter, so we can't say for sure what the audience, judges, or staff at that con wants out of their masquerade. When in doubt, ask the director of your particular masquerade first before asking the internet.

Why? Well, there's a very simple reason. Every convention does things slightly differently. Every. Convention. There is no universal standard. Not even the ICG Guidelines for ensuring fair competition are used across the board at every convention. In fact, with all the new anime cons popping up like weeds across the country every year, things have gotten even more confusing, because many of these new cons do not take the easy road of copying well-done, functioning events at other cons, but rather tend to reinvent the wheel at their own convention with no outside input. Many tend to function as examples of "how not to run a convention" rather than finding some amazing new way to plan their event. It's a little perplexing, given that so many cons are run well and feature quality programming and events, why wouldn't you just copy what they do? But I digress. The upshot of it is, with no such thing as a universal standard for how to plan, organize, run, or judge a masquerade, and no requirements for conventions to even consider the ICG's fairness guidelines, every masquerade is a crapshoot. You don't know until you actually enter and experience the competition whether it's a well-run masquerade with fair judges and balanced expectations for costumes and entertainment.

Even the ICG's guidelines are hard to adopt universally in some regards. Their definition of the skill divisions is one thing nearly every director and competitor who likes the guidelines will point to, but a close look shows that they're written to focus on International-level competition (of which there are only three: CostumeCon, WorldCon, and Anime North) and their only note for regional or local cons is "it's up to the director." See? Even they say to ask the director!

So, if you're uncertain about which skill level to enter, your best bet is to make a guess based on a fair assessment of your own number of awards and skill level, and then when in doubt ask the director. Some only count international-level competition as anything worth sneezing at and pooh-pooh on your regional best in show. Some diligently count major awards (generally agreed-upon as Best in Class or Best in Show) at any convention regardless of size. Some have actual percentage-of-income restriction on what constitutes a "professional." Some don't. Some let you languish in Novice or Journeyman class a lot longer than you really ought to, while some boot you to the next highest skill level the instant you meet so much as one of the qualifications. Some have ridiculously complex category breakdowns and judge groups by the individual rather than as a group, others simply put the entire group at the level of the most-skilled person in the group. Some have directors who are willing to hear case-by-case instances for or against bumping people up or down a level, others have rigid rules-mongers who have set their system and will not deviate from it no matter what. This is why your only recourse is to Ask The Director, because they will tell you exactly what skill division they think you belong in based on how they run their masquerade.

The skill divisions, simply put, are there to protect newbies. It makes sure the person with their first-ever costume doesn't have to compete directly against a Master with professional credentials and 20 years of experience. It isn't meant to penalize non-Masters in any way, and it isn't supposed to be an anchor weighing anyone down from growing and excelling at the craft of costuming. Novices should feel safe and welcomed and fairly-judged whether they're new to costuming or new to competition. Journeymen should feel like they're being given a safe level at which to grow and hone their skill before they jump in with the masters, whether willingly or because they meet the criteria. And Masters should feel like they have a nice field of competition against which to test their mettle - for, after all, Master Class should be an open class, where anyone who wants to may enter.

What about fair judging? What about categories? What about performance length? Separate awards for craftsmanship and performance? Explicit sandbagging rules? All of that is at the director's discretion. So if you don't like the way a particular masquerade runs their ship, allow me to direct you to Rule Number Two: if you don't like it, don't patronize it. Vote with your feet. You can complain on the internet all you want, you can even attempt to complain to con staff, but the only way to affect real change in a masquerade is to rob them of competitors. They have to see what effect their rules (or lack thereof) have on their audience before it will sink in and they have evidence for change.

I'll let you in on a little secret: not everyone in geekdom likes cosplay. Not everyone who goes to conventions is interested in the costumes. And not everyone involved in the staff of a convention thinks cosplay and masquerades are neato and should be a part of their programming. I have been privy to the inner workings of multiple conventions and met actual staff members who either don't care about or actively hate cosplayers. Even when their own numbers prove that the masquerade has the most attendance of any event or programming at their entire convention, they will do anything in their power to take away the ability of the masquerade staff to provide a comfortable, fair, well-organized event for the people who want to enter. They don't understand the importance of tech rehearsals and orientation. They don't understand why the judges need a separate area, or why the competitors need a green room. So, when you have a terrible time at a masquerade and go to the con's forums afterward to complain, chances are as good as not that you're shouting into the void - you're complaining to a bunch of people who don't care. They won't fix the masquerade because they don't think it's broken because they don't understand how a good masquerade runs. It ain't on fairy dust and safety pins!

That said, it may not be the director's fault their masquerade sucks. But, it might! You could be faced with a director on a power trip who wants to make a place for their personal friends to rack up awards for nothing. You could be faced with a director who doesn't even cosplay or own a costume. There are many reasons a masquerade may not be enjoyable. If informing the con staff - the director and any cosplay staff they have - of your complaints gets you nowhere, you still have the option of not patronizing that masquerade, and telling all of your friends why so that they also stay away from it. A masquerade can't run without competitors, so if a masquerade is truly horrible, continuing to enter it won't improve it. Staying away from it is the only way to get the director or staff to see that improving the masquerade will improve their reputation and bring the butts into the seats once again.

Where does ethics play into all of this? A lot of people who are newer to the phenomenon may not realize the long history of masquerades. While the first WorldCon happened in 1939, masquerades didn't become a standard event until sometime in the 1950s. Through the late 60's and into the 1970's came the era where competitors began to insist that competitions be legitimately judged by costuming experts instead of made into a popularity contest run by drunk celebrity judges wanting to see boobs. So, by the time the ICG was started in 1983, there was already a strong community believing that costuming was worth celebrating, and if you were going to hand out awards for people's hard work on their costumes, you had better have some kind of standard. Twenty or thirty years have changed the structure, somewhat, but not the sense of fairness. People still don't like being shunned in a popularity contest. That's what we have Halloween contests at bars for! At a competition purporting to show the best of the best in costumes as brought by the entrants, what encourages people to actually do their best is to make sure they feel as though they are being fairly judged and evaluated. They want to be able to say, at the end of the day, that they did their best and whether or not they won an award, they were treated kindly, they were judged fairly, and they were made to feel like their costuming peers really appreciated what they brought.

At the risk of making this blog even longer (sorry!), I will note that this road runs both ways. It's partly the responsibility of the entrants to play by the rules, but it's also the responsibility of the director and judges to have fair rules and then stick to them. Judges, ideally, can set aside their biases and use mainly their knowledge of how costumes get put together to evaluate whether a person has properly met the challenge. Have they achieved their goal? Have they excelled at a technique or in the overall presentation of the costume? Have they learned something new in the process, and have they executed it properly? Judging costumes requires being able to look past the "oooh shiny" factor, and knowing a wide range of techniques and skills so that you don't look like a moron when you see your first pair of wings or set of vaccuformed armor. A fair judge will pay attention to you, not to the costume before you, or the similar costumes they saw at another con five years go, or that guy with the lights, and they will evaluate your costume on its own merits. If you ever feel like you're being unfairly judged - shunted aside for something shiny they saw earlier, or not given a full inspection because you're just some newb, or heaven forbid told how you failed to your face - let someone know. The director and staff, and if they don't listen, the internet. But, make sure you can back up your claim first, or else you may be branded as a case of sour grapes. Pursue your gripes through official channels first before crying on the internet!

Secondly, it's also up to the competitors to be honest. A lot of masquerade rules are up to the honor system, and it's up to people to not lie about how many awards they've won, whether they're a professional or take commissions, and whether they really ought to be in that division with that costume. It's hard, I know. Especially when every competition is different and every rules system is different, it's hard to know sometimes whether you should be counted as a Journeyman or bumped up to Master. It's hard to know at CostumeCon, sometimes, whether they're serious about allowing people who would normally be Journeymen or Masters at other smaller competitions actually compete in Novice class! As long as you're being honest, and asking the director when you're confused, you should be all right. The main things that people get touchy about involve lying: lying about whether you made you costume, lying about your skill division qualifications, or lying about whether you've won major awards with the costume you're re-competing. That said, as long as you have checked with the rules and the director and you're sure beyond any doubt that you're within your rights, then hold your head high and be proud of your integrity! If anyone complains after that, they should take it up with the director who made the rules, not the person diligently following the rules.

And since the rules change with every competition, it's also on you to do the research and make sure whether what flew at the last masquerade will fly at the next one, or whether you're going to have to change up what you do - or what you bring! - to fit the next set of rules.

If you start competing on a wider stage, traveling all over the country and internationally to go to cons and enter their masquerades, you're going to run into this confusion sooner or later. My best advice is to read the rules, ask the director, and then ask again. If it's still really confusing, there's nothing wrong with sitting it out and instead watching the masquerade to see how it looks from the other side. You may get a perspective that will inform you on whether you want to enter that masquerade next year. I wish I could make it easier with just a blog, but I've probably only made it more complicated. But it is complicated, and it's not going to get any easier anytime soon.

I encourage any costumer to give the masquerade a shot at least once, because you never know if you might get bitten by the competition bug and want to make it a part of your hobby. Even if you try it once and decide it's not for you, at least you know. And knowing is half the battle. ;)

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