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Friday, February 10, 2012


I'm going to begin here by directing my few readers to a better and more widely-read internet writer than myself. This particular writer happens to have the same parents I have.

My brother recently wrote a wonderful piece on The Inclusive about video games. Specifically, he aired his beef (shared by many of us who grew up on the NES, Sega Genesis, and SNES) with the kind of social games on Facebook and the iPhone that he calls "Villes" (think Farmville, Cityville, etc.). The purpose of these games, says my brother, is not be fun or interesting, but to hook players on a progression of increasingly difficult and expensive rewards. The goal in developing these games, he says, is to get a few gullible people so addicted that they're willing to pay real money for benefits that exist only in the imaginary world of the game.

My brother compares these games to B.F. Skinner's operant conditioning chambers:
This is why these games are free, brightly colored, and cute: if they get enough people in the box, some of people will keep hitting the button. If there are time delays constricting how often the button can be pushed, some people will pay for the privilege of hitting the button sooner. Although this sounds like a Dire Metaphor, it is almost literally accurate: pay fifteen in-game-currency units (sold at ten for a real-life dollar) to get the Pig Pen now, rather than waiting to accrue that many units over time.
My brother, mind you, has a much bigger and much more important point to make than his distaste for a particular kind of game; I encourage you to read the piece for yourself. But his grievance against the "Villes" got me thinking (as many things seem to these days) about the way we, as students, practice the martial arts.

I train because I like to. Sure, in the back of my mind, I'm on a years-long hunt for an elusive treasure known as the Black Belt, but that destination wouldn't be worth anything to me if I wasn't enjoying the journey. The martial arts fascinate me; when I'm working my way through a new technique, the next rank is the last thing on my mind.

But if you've ever been to an independent regional taekwondo or karate tournament, you've likely seen a very different attitude from mine about rank. You've seen cadres of "masters" who seem intensely proud of all the ranks and awards prominently displayed on their doboks and gis. You've seen children as young as nine who have already blazed through dozens of ranks to earn their black belts and are eagerly working on the next degree.

My mind is boggled by this kind of thing. In my own discipline of aikido, many instructors are middle-aged men who have yet to move beyond their first dan. Most organizations have only six ranks between zero and black belt, and usually most of those ranks do not have corresponding belt colors. Testing at my club is done only once a year. Rank, in my experience of aikido, is a personal milestone and a tool for designating instructors, nothing more. The art is its own reward--ars gratia artis.

Now, I'm not suggesting that anyone who's not doing rank the aikido way is doing it wrong. If I thought that, I never would have attempted my foray into taekwondo. What bothers me is a tendency I see among some martial arts schools to sell the next rank (for which there will of course be extra fees), rather than an experience, as their primary product, and worse, a tendency among students to buy it.

The last time I went to a taekwondo tournament, I watched black belts compete who could not punch straight or kick above their waists. I watched a red belt compete in a wheelchair--a man who cannot kick is nearing his black belt in an art that is roughly 75% kicking. These peoples' ranks are not indicators of skill; they are rewards for investments of time and money.

There are those who say that awarding ranks so freely makes a mockery of the martial arts. Personally, I couldn't care less about mockery. I put on long, white underwear and play with wooden swords with other grown men three times a week; the truth is already as funny as any mockery that might be made of it. What I do care about is the perception, fueled by people like the aforementioned tournament-goers, that the martial artist's purpose is to accumulate ranks rather than to practice an art.

A martial arts experience shaped by this perception stops being about learning and enjoyment and becomes Karateville, an endless cycle of chasing the next little reward. This is, of course, good news for people trying to cash in on testing fees. It's bad news, though, for all of us who just like the martial arts because they're interesting and fun: we don't want to confine our training to the handful of things on the next test, and we don't want to train with people more concerned about colored pieces of cloth than well-executed technique or a good workout.

Twice before (here and here) I have brought up Rob Redmond, writer of the excellent karate blog 24 Fighting Chickens. Redmond's take on rank is both cynical and iconoclastic. He goes so far in one piece as to suggest that the Karateville game is the only reason to have more than a few broad ranks:
There are not twenty discernible levels of skill in karate. I submit to you that there are probably only four or five. You are giving out ranks to reward attendance, memorization, and good conduct. You are encouraging the payment of fees for tests, belts, and for continuing lessons, but your ranks you give out do not have any real meaning. No one could look at your yellow belts and purple belts and see with their eyes which was the higher rank without you telling them first.
So what's a martial artist to do? Abandon rank altogether? I'm not going to advocate that here, though I do think the question of whether or not we really need rank in the martial arts is an interesting one. For now, I think we can ask some simpler questions of ourselves.

Is my pursuit of rank helping me focus on my training or distracting me from it? How different am I really from a student one rank higher or lower than me? How much recognition do I really need for learning this new technique or form? Is there an obvious purpose behind all the ranks at my school?

Socrates tells us that the unexamined life is not worth living. It naturally follows, I think, that the unexamined art is not worth practicing. If we only notice what we are awarded without ever asking questions about what we're really learning, we may be stumbling over the city limits into Karateville.

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