I think contest organizations and the ARRL understand one aspect of fostering activity in the hobby. The logbook awards, contests, and sprints have their roots in achievement, competition, and accomplishment. Stanford gaming theorist Jane McGonigal recently spoke at a Security Conference I attended where she remarked on the incredible amount of time poured into online gaming. More than the combined manpower of the largest companies in the world, games contribute literal trillions of man-hours (billions a week) to seemingly “useless obstacles”. Why? Because games bring out a full-brain engagement like few other daily activities.
The same concepts are readily (albeit unintentionally) applied to ham radio. Even contests that aren’t scheduled, like SOTA, POTA, VUCC, Worked All States (WAS) have their value in ham radio. What they do is hook us in a way that stimulates the creative and driven parts of us, even if the result is just a simple list of non-personal contacts at the end of the day.
I’ve heard hams say “I only ragchew”, or “I don’t contest” or “Contests are stupid and they cheapen the spirit of ham radio.”
I just nod and smile and think: Whatever, elitist. You’re too cool for us.
I’ve seen the same elitism when I was heavy into photography. Gearmongers who just wanted to be better than everyone else with their gear and knowledge without actually ever contributing anything of value to the endeavor. If your wallet or your Google/academic knowledge is your boasting point, that’s not much of a foundation to stand on, is it?
I remember when I first started out in EMCOMM-based HF ham radio; I thought that contests were a waste of time. (Honestly, because I didn’t know how to be good at contests, nor did I have the capability to join, so basically sour grapes.) But I’ve come to see their value. How else will I continue to daily try and learn at ham radio? Through tedious and rote drills? Through repacking my communications go-bag for the 50th time? Through surfing the internet for my wish list and straining the finances?
Some people find a great deal of satisfaction in individual experimentation, learning, preparation. That is admirable, inspirational even. Individual exploration is a very important aspect of ham radio. But that is not a license to poo-poo on others’ pursuit of collective fun through play.
I have to credit CW Academy for essentially forcing me to get into its contests as part of the classes. By understanding the workings of contest exchanges, it made it that much more feasible to participate, and therefore understand the true fun that can be had in trying them out. Then there’s the side benefit of actually practicing various modes and sharpening radio operation skills. As my CWA advisor said, “Even if you’re not interested in contesting, do it and you’ll definitely get better at ragchewing.”
Ham radio can only be engaging, inclusive, and practiced. Without these traits, it’s not much more than a gear fetish on its way to the trash heap. An amateur radio operator needs to be on the air. Ham radio is in the doing, not in the being or having. The keyword is: Operator. In the end, we want many people to become engaged in ham radio because it means we get to talk to more people!
So whether it’s slowly and consistently adding those contacts to the logbook in pursuit of an award, or if it’s jumping into the fray with the big stations to hopefully eke out a few points in a contest amidst thousands of watts of competition, I say: Do it. It will awaken parts of your brain like little else does.
Or, you can sit in an armchair and judge everyone.
Either way, the hobby grows with contests. Not just because of contests, but who doesn’t want a good game while doing what is fun?