This weekend past was World Cup VII, and I’m glad to say that McGill Quidditch did us proud. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go myself this year. I’m still nursing a hand injury from the 2013 Canada Cup, so I had to settle for following the games on Twitter.
Of course, quidditch just wouldn’t be quidditch if there weren’t some ongoing controversy about the rules of the sport itself. The sport is only a few years old, after all, and part of the fun is playing a game that hasn’t fully “settled” yet. This time, the debate centres on the issue of whether off-field snitching / seeking should exist.
I have included a tl;dr at the end of this post. Scroll down if you don’t want to read most of this.
The off-field snitch catch
The way that snitching / seeking is currently set up, it is possible (although not very likely if you have a good snitch) for the game to end with an off-field snitch catch. This is an anticlimax, and no one likes it when it does happen, but it’s part of the game, or at least it has always been part of the game so far.
The reason that quidditch exists in the first place
Before we get too far into debating the merits and demerits of the existence of off-field snitching / seeking, I think it’s worth establishing why it is that quidditch exists qua quidditch.
The whole reason for quidditch to exist is because some of us want to play a game that is similar enough to the fantasy sport from Harry Potter that it can be given the same name.
Whenever there is a proposed change to the rules of quidditch, one of the things you have to ask yourself is whether or not the game would even still be quidditch if the change took place. For example, there are, and always have been, certain players of quidditch who have argued that the more fanciful elements of the sport should be eliminated, to make for gameplay that is more like other sports. It’s not unheard-of for some to call for the brooms to be eliminated, for example. The answer to those people is that if they want a game where they throw a ball through a hoop without being on a broom, they should play basketball. Or if they want to play a full-contact sport moving a ball from one side of the field to the other without a broom, they should play rugby.
They argue that good players are leaving quidditch to play other sports because the whimsical elements of the sport are turning them off. It is not a bad thing that those players are leaving. To be blunt, if you don’t want to play quidditch—with some of the quirky and absurd elements inherited from its Harry Potter origins—go play something else. There are lots of options.
(If you disagree with me about this part, please don’t get stuck here. This is not the main part of my argument. I have included it only to try to put the evolution of the sport in perspective a bit. I am NOT making a “we must stay true to the books”-style argument here.)
Snitching is one of the things that makes quidditch unique
Throwing balls into hoops, or scoring a goal in a similar manner can be found in all kinds of different sports. Throwing a ball at other players is not unique to quidditch either.
You know what is unique about quidditch? The combination of these two games, done on brooms, along with the seeker / snitch game (which is unique in itself, and iconic of the sport as a whole).
I defy you to name me another sport that has a component that could be described as “long-distance hide-and-go-seek wrestling.”
The combination of these elements makes the sport interesting to watch, but it’s the whimsical roll-of-the-dice that is the seeker / snitch game that sets it apart. The game is not supposed to be taken entirely seriously. The game is not supposed to be a method for sorting teams into order of ability with perfect reliability. The game is supposed to be competitive, but also ridiculous and fun.
I feel like the people who are calling for the elimination of off-pitch seeking have seriously lost sight of that, and risk destroying the sport’s entire raison d’être.
The vicious snitch cycle
I have attached an image to this post, which I called “The vicious snitch cycle.” Start at the bottom-right, and it goes around in a more-or-less clockwise manner. In this diagram, I describe what I see as the main problems facing snitching. The problem is multi-faceted and cyclical, but it comes down to two main things, which snitching needs for it to “work” within quidditch:
- Quidditch needs good snitches who can get back to the field and get caught in entertaining and non-controversial catches most of the time (without compromising their own or others’ safety)
- Quidditch needs the good humour and sportsmanship of the other players
The vicious snitch cycle as I have described it has been cycling ever since I started playing quidditch. I first noticed it happening with a bunch of unfortunate off-pitch catches at World Cup IV.
Up until that point, when off-pitch catches happened, the reaction of players was largely, “Yeah it sucks, but that’s how the game goes sometimes!” There was, for the most part, a feeling that snitching was a difficult task to take on, and just because of the nature of the game, the outcome was a bit of a roll of the dice, and that’s exactly what we wanted from snitching—a little bit of the whimsy and magic that we are playing quidditch for in the first place.
After World Cup IV, the sport took a vicious turn toward the de-valuing of snitching: Rather than trusting snitches to up their game, or admitting that the problem was more about the venue for World Cup IV than the snitches, they imposed the seeker floor—a rule that says that seekers must wait a certain number of minutes before even starting to look for the snitch.
Complaining about snitches was thus legitimised by the actions of the IQA. If a game didn’t go the way you liked, you could complain that the snitch was bad. It was a great way to save face, and I admit with shame that I’ve made such complaints myself. This happened in the background of an ongoing upward trend in the competitiveness of quidditch (not a bad thing), as well as a corresponding decline in the sportsmanship, perspective and good humour that was characteristic of the game up until that point (definitely a bad thing).
Unfortunately, sometimes snitches are actually legitimately bad. This might be the case partly because of the under-valuation of the snitch / seeker game. By World Cup V, I can tell you from personal experience that every tournament I went to was short-staffed as far as snitches go. This led to non-snitches being asked to snitch at the last minute, and snitches running out of steam partway through the day because they are pushed too far.
And you can guess what happens when people constantly de-value what snitches do, given that snitching is very difficult (to do properly)—they stop doing it, or they stop doing it well, or they just stop caring. And then, snitching gets worse, players complain, and the cycle starts all over again.
The temptation is to make snitching easier, but unless snitching is difficult, and unless it’s valued by the quidditch community for what it is, it’s just going to get worse. Making the job easier by eliminating off-field snitching will only drive away the snitches who are there because they want a challenge—i.e. the good ones. Not only that, but the diversity of styles of snitching will be adversely affected.
I have assembled a few suggestions on how to make snitching better.
How NOT to fix snitching in quidditch
- Reduce the scope and difficulty of snitching to the point where it’s fool-proof. The more you do this, the less people will train for it, and the worse snitching will become. You think it’s bad now? Wait until there are no dedicated snitches, and a snitch catch is worth only 10 points. The lower the stakes, the less anyone will care.
- Think of bad snitching as something that is primarily an injustice to you as a player, rather than something that you are contributing to through complaining and inaction. Complaining about bad snitches is the first step toward having even worse snitches. It doesn’t solve anything. If you have some constructive criticism, go talk to the snitch herself. If you think you can do it better, put some yellows on and prove it. But have the maturity and the perspective to see that sometimes games won’t end the way you want them to.
How to improve snitching in quidditch
- Individual teams must train snitches along with every other position. They must train athletes who are dedicated snitches only—not “half-snitch, half-chaser,” just “snitch.” I’m not saying there’s no place for hybrid player-snitches, but these should be the exception, not the rule. No matter how you slice it, if you have an athlete training for snitching 100% compared to that same athlete training for snitching 50% of the time, he’ll probably be a better snitch if he’s working toward it 100% of the time, and we should be supporting and encouraging that.
- Don’t badmouth a snitch, and especially don’t do it behind a snitch’s back. If you want to discuss a snitch’s performance, do it with the snitch, and make the criticism constructive only. This goes double for snitches themselves, and if you catch another player badmouthing a snitch, you give them an earful about how snitches work their butts off, and that it’s a volunteer position. Maybe we could have a player code of conduct or something and this could be in it?
- Do not ever blame the snitch if you lose a game. Even if the snitch wasn’t 100% on her game at the time she was caught, you should have the maturity to accept that the snitching / seeking aspect of quidditch is in some ways more like a roll of the dice than a foot-race. There’s a stochasticity to it, and that’s a good thing. Within limits, we like the fact that the length of the game is randomised a little bit this way. It’s exciting that a first-time seeker might just get lucky and do something that even an experienced snitch doesn’t anticipate. That’s part of what makes quidditch quidditch.
- Make the recruitment of snitches to tournaments a high priority. This may mean that tournaments might be cancelled where insufficient snitches are available. We have to be okay with that in the same way that getting a minimum number of refs is essential for a tournament—you can’t have awesome snitches if you treat them as a low priority. It doesn’t work that way. If teams are required to bring a certain number of snitches, there could also be a minimum number of required snitches per team who are snitches only (i.e. not also on an official roster).
- Choose tournament venues with snitching in mind. Not every field is a good place for quidditch. If there are limited hiding spots, it’s going to be bad news for snitching. You should be able to think of 2-3 good hiding spots per game that you plan to host. There should be a minimum of 2 ways for a snitch to return to the pitch. You should be prepared to admit that your school just might not have the right kind of physical location necessary to host a tournament.
- Raise the bar on snitching. I know for myself personally, I started snitching partly because I wanted the challenge of something difficult. Make it a challenge. Keep the off-pitch seeking. Only use the seeker floor if the snitch is inexperienced or in the case of a very unfavourable locale.
In the end, we have two choices. We can either trust the quidditch community to step up its game and have the maturity and good humour to have fun, not just in spite of the stochasticity of the snitch game but because of it, or we can pander to the poor sports who will surely cry “it’s not fair” no matter how fool-proof and uninteresting snitching will become under more restrictive rules.
There will always be poor sports who will cry “it wasn’t fair” when they lose, and it’s convenient for them to blame the snitch. The temptation is to make snitching “fool-proof” by decreasing its scope and difficulty. The better way to deal with this problem is to address poor sportsmanship head-on and make snitching a higher priority within the quidditch community (specific suggestions outlined above), because: 1) it’s awesome; 2) it’s unique; 3) it’s an iconic part of the game; 4) the poor sports will complain about snitches no matter how fool-proof and uninteresting snitching becomes.
[Edit 2014-04-09: Added parenthetic paragraph to end of the section entitled, “The reason that quidditch exists in the first place” for clarity, and added tl;dr at the end.]