Since the publication of my romantic comedy Shot Through the Heart I've received several e-mails asking about Senior Assassin, the water gun tournament played by the high school seniors in the story. The questions focus on whether I made up the game, if I planned to post the rules, and whether a high school could really have a tournament like this, especially given the attention to school violence post-Columbine and other school shootings.
As to the idea for the tournament itself, I can't claim credit. Variations on Senior Assassin have been around for quite awhile, often under names such as Gotcha, Water Gun Tag, Elimination, Paranoia, Killer, or simply Assassin. I first heard of sororities, fraternities, and student church groups hosting these tournaments (or variations on them) when I was in college. There's even a Wikipedia entry on the topic.
I decided to include a Senior Assassin tournament in Shot Through the Heart after realizing it would work well in my story as a means of amping up both the internal and external conflict between the characters and after hearing about a similar tournament at a high school not too far from my home in Boston. (Check out this newspaper article about the tournament written by a member of that high school's 2011 senior class.) And face it: How hilarious is it to see a high school student climbing a tree at six a.m. while holding a water gun?
The idea behind these tournaments is one of school spirit or team spirit, which is why they're often held by an organized group. Participants take great pride in following the rules to the letter, as cheating is frowned upon by the organization/class/team as a whole and honesty about being eliminated (or "tagged") is valued. In the case of high schools and colleges, games that get out of hand can result in the group being subject to disciplinary action, which is another reason participants are careful to follow the rules.
In the wake of Columbine and other episodes of school violence, some organizations have opted to suspend these games. Others consider it all the more reason to have them, as a means of building stronger community spirit within a group.
As a one-time Littleton, Colorado, resident (I attended Columbine Elementary) I'm certainly aware of the debate regarding the wisdom of these tournaments. For that reason, as with the high school near Boston, I kept the tournament in my book strictly an unofficial class activity that took place outside of school hours and off school property, and made it clear that the participants took the rules seriously, with infractions resulting in ejection from the tournament.
Regarding the rules of Senior Assassin: Depending on the organization, the rules and "weapons" used in these tournaments vary. Sometimes participants are eliminated by tagging each other with sticky notes or clothespins; in Shot Through the Heart, the weapon was water (water guns, a hose, water balloons, etc.) I also included safe zones (no shooting participants in their own homes, when they're in a vehicle, on school grounds, or when they're at work) in order to make the tournament community-friendly. Other rules included a prohibition on shooting non-participants and a requirement that entrants report all "hits" immediately. In the story, as in many real-life tournaments, two non-participants handled the organizational tasks.
If you've ever participated in one of these tournaments, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Was the experience positive or negative? How was it organized? What rules did you follow? Is it something you'd recommend? Chime in!