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Like many others, during the moral fog of the past four years, my husband and I sought distractions to preserve our sanity. Ironically, distractions often demonstrate remedies for the fog. One of our answers was the TV program BATTLEBOTS, in which warrior robots—often with humorous gimmicks—battle one another in a ring reminiscent of human cage fighting. I, who wouldn’t watch boxing with my dad back in the black-and-white TV age because I hated to see people hurt one another, didn’t expect to enjoy destructive robots. When my grandson urged us to give the program a chance, we were reluctant. Last night we watched with no one else present—not for the first time. Why?
First, the robots depend on ingenious engineering—often by students from places like MIT or garage tinkerers or sponsored computer teams. Ages range from precocious middle school kids to grandparents—mixed together if the bots qualify in lesser competitions. The robots require intelligent invention. There are no rules I’ve discerned except for weight limits, so the robots may take any shape the inventors imagine although most don’t mimic human forms. For example, there are bots inspired by snakes or alien spacecraft or witchcraft or the Matrix—with appropriate names. They attempt to stab or grab or flip or burn or crush opponent bots—or use any combination of attacks as their opponent attacks them. Spending four thousand dollars on a robot is considered to be a very small price. Most rely on sponsors. I applaud cleverness and originality wherever it may emerge.
The second aspect I enjoy is the teamwork. Very few solo engineers qualify to have their robots enter “the box.” Once in combat, the robots depend on more than technological expertise. Usually constructed by teams over any period of time they choose to devote, no robot fares well that doesn’t have a talented driver. The driver stands with the team outside the arena, working hand controls that would’ve made early video game aficionados soft with envy. Some bots have small helper bots that confuse or assist the contest, directed by someone else from the team.
In spite of vigorous audience chants of “Fight! Fight! Fight!” before each three minute battle that seem to echo schoolyard fisticuffs, most teams walk away from the battle congratulating or consoling one another. They’ve spent months, sometimes years, laboring over their masterpieces and they respect each other’s work. Opponents often become friends and may even trade teams. In fact, the socially distanced audience is comprised of members of waiting teams—American and international—that enthusiastically appreciate the achievements they see in the ring. Backstage a huge communal workspace waits where everyone still in competition struggles furiously to adapt their entry to the next opponent’s weapons—often helping the teams they defeated to repair their damaged bots. Some teams are made up of friends or family members, others of college students from a particular school or class, others from robotics professions.
As anyone who watches professional sports knows, competition can be brutal—inspiring combatants to secretly injure one another, cheat, or carry grudges away from the match. BATTLEBOTS is a competition for fun. There are no prizes beyond a giant nut bestowed on the final winner of the tournament. People simply work very hard to create the best robot, claim the renown, and have a good time. No people are injured. Three judges determine the winner of each match according to a list of criteria. It’s all over-the-top silly and serious and clever and stupid. It brings families and friends together to compete over and over, year after year with new or improved inventions. Viewers watching from home can see that young people, old people, different genders, different intellectual abilities, contrasting races, cultures, educational levels, etc., work best when they work together, motivated by an urge to achieve. Fierce competitions don’t have to be morally destructive. The tone is a choice.