Robot Wars and Women in STEM – Can the show achieve its goals?

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Season 10 of Robot Wars will be on our screens in the next few months. As a long-term fan, I’m happy that the most memorable show of my childhood is doing well. However, I’m uncertain about whether Season 10 will be able to outgrow the problems Seasons 8 and 9 highlighted.

Interviews with cast members such as Angela Scanlon hinted at the social goals invested under the layers of fun and spectacle. Rebooted Robot Wars aimed to encourage women into engineering, push robots away from being “boy’s toys”, and to interest children and young people in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) topics. But Seasons 8 and 9 revealed dramatic advances in robot technology- advances which have made Robot Wars far less accessible and amateur-friendly. To me, the rebooted show is less interesting or entertaining than the original show as a result. Also, the way both seasons have portrayed robot teams arguably locks out women and people unattached to STEM.

As a result, I believe that rebooted Robot Wars is currently failing at the social goals it set out to achieve. In its current format, it’s instead opposing the causes it wishes to champion. Something needs to change, and I hope that whatever is planned for Season 10 can bring the show closer towards its aims.

So, what are the problems with rebooted Robot Wars? For me, the issues cover five points- two related to the robots, two related to the roboteers, and one related to differences in the show itself.

The Robots

Weapons

In the first few seasons of the original show, weapons were next to useless- pushing opposing robots into a wall was enough to ensure victory. Hypno-Disc’s arrival in Season 3, followed by powerful flipper robots such as Firestorm and Chaos 2, brought in a middle era which balanced destruction and defence. However, during the 12-year hiatus, weapon technology far outpaced armour development. Many fights in Season 8 and 9 ended in one hit as the attacking robot had either immobilised the other or damaged itself through the force of its attack.

The weapons used in Season 9 were also powerful enough to damage the arena multiple times, resulting in many stopped or dramatically shortened fights. Episode 6 demonstrated how dangerously powerful robot weaponry had become, and how this sheer power had started to prevent meaningful fighting. Most fights in this episode were stopped and restarted due to arena damage, while “old-style” fights- where the roboteers had to rely on driving skill and tactical thinking – didn’t happen often. I can only think of a few exceptions, the best being Aftershock vs Ironside 3 : Aftershock went into the battle held together with sticky-back plastic, and quickly lost their weapon, but still put up a formidable and entertaing performance through driving skill and awareness. (Visible at 11:49 in the video below).

Robots were also often unbalanced in favour of their weapons, as teams sacrificed reliability to ensure their weapon functioned or sent so much power to their weapons that other components burned out repeatedly. Fights often ended due to consistent invisible drive, motor, and burnout issues. This made individual robots less consistent and controlled than in previous seasons, and prevented robots from reaching their full potential or maintaining strong form for longer than one match at a time. Comparing previous notable robots like Firestorm and Pussycat (famous for never suffering an internal breakdown) to the new crop of strong attackers like PP3D and Apollo, it’s easy to see how the push for ever-stronger weapons has affected every other aspect of fighting.

Testing

The best fights came from teams with a long-term presence on the live circuit, such as Team Shock and Team Eruption, or veteran robots such as Behemoth and Dantomkia. This makes sense, as they will have had more practice than newer teams. However, new teams faced a problem that veteran teams often did not have to deal with – many new robots were so powerful that they could not be tested anywhere else before arriving at the Robot Wars studio. For example, Team Nightshade was using their first fight to test whether their robot’s weapon system could even function, rather than as a combat experience. Unfortunately, it couldn’t- Nightshade, like many other robots, was unable to carry out a fight.

This fed into the reliability issues seen throughout the two rebooted seasons. Because newer roboteers had no safe way to discover their robot’s weaknesses and limits, or what the combat environment was like, they could only find out by being in the arena. This resulted in many dead-on-arrival robots, as well as robots which burnt themselves out after a brief time.

To me, this made Season 9 feel more like a training exercise rather than a real season. It also reduced the credibility of the new show slightly. A new viewer watching Season 9 may believe that robot combat is a troubled or juvenile sport because so many episodes were filled with unreliable, prototypical, untested robots. That isn’t true, but compared to the live circuit and shows like BattleBots and original Robot Wars (once they’d picked up steam after Season 1), new Robot Wars arguably created a worse impression of the sport.

Roboteers

Professionalization

The new seasons have portrayed robot building as a more professional activity, which is most evident in team compositions. Almost every member of the non-veteran teams was a professional engineer, an engineering student, or an employee at a robotics parts company or similar.

These connections have allowed roboteers to build using specialist materials and to access technologies at a cutting-edge rate unthinkable in the previous era. Team PP3D prototyped their robot with pieces made in the owners’ 3D-printing company, while the peak of precision engineering was Rapid, created by the CEO and two employees of manufacturing company RPD International. At £25,000, Rapid was the most expensive robot ever seen in Robot Wars, mostly due to RPD International’s proprietary computer-guided machining techniques. Rapid was described as “hopelessly over-engineered”, a trait which became its downfall. When Rapid took damage in its second fight, the team were unable to carry out any repairs or even successfully diagnose the problem. Ultimately, their over-engineering impeded their ability to create a repairable or reliable competitor.

The dominance of professional engineers also seems to counter the show’s intention to interest more people in robotics. Amateur-built robots didn’t stand much of a chance against professional teams- to me, this wouldn’t make people interested in taking up the sport. It would instead convey that only professional lifelong engineers could build robots, that costly specialist parts are essential, and anyone else wouldn’t have a chance. It implied that professional engineers were “robot people”, while hobbyists couldn’t hope to compete without their level of connections and access.

Female roboteers

Episode 5 of Season 9 showed female technical input thanks to Rachel from Team Coyote, who led their programming, welding, and electronics. However, many teams with female members had those members portrayed as second-class citizens, given team roles including “moral support”, “helper”, “looking after the robot” and “making the tea”.

The only all-female teams, Team Nightshade and Team Dutch Robot Girls, didn’t survive long enough to receive an introductory video- as a result, the show didn’t even mention their names. (Both teams are listed on the fan-made Robot Wars Wikia, while Team Nightshade also featured in their university newspaper.

To me, the team portrayals currently shown probably don’t encourage women who are interested in robotics, especially adult women. They instead send a message that robotics still leaves little room for women except as moral or organisational support to the men.

However, this story may be different for the younger competitors; so far, the greatest degree of female input has come from first-time entrants, rather than established teams. Expulsion, built by sixth-form college students, was captained and driven by 17-year-old Georgina. Team Cherub was run by 12-year-old twins, captain Sarah and weapon operator Rosie, after the defeat of previous family robot Gabriel. However, the female representation crown went to Glitterbomb, designed and researched by 9-year-old April, then built by her engineer father.

So Robot Wars looks like it is successfully interesting a younger generation, and may be doing so more equally. However, it already did so previously, as some of the late-teenage and early-twenties roboteers said they’d developed their interest in engineering or specifically robotics from the original show. 18-year-old Michael from Eruption watched the original show as a four-year-old, while 20-year-old Ellis from Pulsar taught himself engineering as a result of his interest.  Also, the live events have a predominately family audience.  This suggests the social goals set out in the rebooted show haven’t had much influence- they haven’t surpassed the original show which didn’t have any such goals.

The Narrative

Compared to the older series I remember best – the Third, Fourth and Fifth Wars- the new seasons seem to rely more strongly on constructed drama and a “reality tv” structure, as well as more recaps of what happened 10 minutes ago. While the older series did face accusations of constructed results or decisions, such as the Razer vs Tornado final, the new series sometimes seems to forcibly insert drama and doubt about the robots and teams wherever possible.

This is obvious in Episode 5 of Season 9, which seemed constructed to ensure that the reigning 1st and 2nd place would face untested or experimental robots and so be guaranteed to go through. Either Apollo or Carbide would reach the Grand Final due to this approach, which also strongly implied that the other would take second place and be nominated as the Wildcard.

Narrative flaws are most visible in Episode 6, as actual fighting took up so little of the runtime that narration and recap clips filled most of the episode. These placed each robot in a clearly defined role:

  • Carbide, the undefeated warrior who needed dethroning. (Carbide won every battle it entered in Season 9)
  • Eruption, the tactical, cunning outsider. (Michael Oates aimed to win through driving skill with the minimum damage necessary, in the vein of Season 2’s Cassius)
  • Aftershock, the persistent, lovable underdog.
  • … and Ironside 3, the afterthought.

Team Ironside was barely discussed and given little characterisation, despite being powerful enough to defeat Pulsar in one fight. They were also one of the few teams with named women, and I really hope those two facts were not connected.

Solutions

Season 10

As Season 10 has already been filmed, I assume it will function very similarly to Seasons 8 and 9. However, Season 10 is at least changing slightly: the “Inside The Bot” podcast outlined rule changes for Season 10, which are intended to counteract the current dominance of spinner weapons. These include:

  • Weight limit increases for Shufflebots and Walkerbots, to encourage their use and give them more offensive options.
  • Legalising “entanglement devices”- weapons specifically designed to impede spinners.
  • Encouraging applications from teams building diverse robots which use a wider range of weapons, including unconventional weapons.

But will that be enough to fix the issues seen in Season 9, especially in terms of reliability and untested robots? What could future seasons of Robot Wars do to change up the show and bring in more roboteers?

The Future

For me, the ideal solution seems to be slowing down on the focus on cutting-edge technology and prototypical robots, and returning to a middle ground approach closer to the show’s best seasons. Also, the show may be better off separating the amateur and professional sides of robotics: one option here could be creating two distinct aspects of Robot Wars, one focused on professional robot-building engineers and one on schools and hobbyists. This could involve focusing on different environments, such as Universities, schools or hackerspaces. Yet another angle could be training non-STEM individuals to make and fight robots, along similar lines as the 2016 celebrity show.

However, I do understand that both ideas are practically difficult to enforce. Setting any boundary between amateurs and professionals will open up gaps where competitors could be on both sides simultaneously or robots could be in an ambiguous state. Also, any attempt to limit technological development to a certain point creates the risk of people exploiting loopholes or trying to create unfair advantages.

Given these risks, I’m not sure what the best effective approach would be. I just hope that Season 10 can shake up the robot combat landscape enough to bring in some new ideas and new ways to understand and overcome these issues.

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