What is metgaming? Meta is the greek word for 'after' or 'beyond' - much like the latin 'post' (as in post-mortem or post-modern) which is interesting, because it's not how we usually use the term meta. Usually, we mean to refer to a the sub-category of an activity which is about its own category - metadata are data about about or own data, metaconginition is awareness of our own consciousness and generally it's so meta to be self aware and self-referential. This more common meaning is probably the result of a hilarious misunderstanding regarding Aristotle's metaphysics, a text that investigates what it means for things to exist or 'being insofar as it is being'. Sounds pretty meta, doesn't it? But Aristotle didn't call that metaphysics - long after he died, an editor of his works called this text 'metaphysics' because it came, simply, after the text called 'physics'. But people have taken metaphysics to be the field of study that goes 'beyond' physics - and the meaning we all know today was born, the meta which is either about itself or applies to itself.
Interestingly, metagaming is not gaming about games, or even crowdsourcing funds for a game. Instead, metagaming is playing the game beyond the game which I will call the supragame. It is treating the game at the table as the subgame of a bigger game, and it means that we make move in the current game that are aimed at advancing strategies of the supragame. Which is why it is deplored by many gamers - it means that the game we are playing right now is being secondary to something else that we bring from outside the game. As a gamer, when I'm playing a game, I want it to be all that I'm doing - that's why I pay the entry fee to the magic circle, so I'll be able to be immersed. If you pursue your petty personal vendettas on my table, you are breaking the circle; you are ruining, the game.
But there is some sense in which every game we play is already a subgame. Playing a game is a collaborative activity1 that involves an 'implicit contract between the players' that can vary slightly between groups but usually involves three understandings:
- We are playing by these set of rules (which is why cheating is not only a violation of the game but also of the supragame - of the implicit agreement that we are going to play a game by these rules)
- Each player is playing the game to win, or whatever it is that is the goal of this game (hence the common dislike of kingmaking)
- The purpose of playing the game is to have fun (after all, as many people say, 'it's just a game').
I call a contract that is comprised a mixture of these three principles (play by the rules, play to win and play to have fun) the 'standard' contract. Though these elements are pretty common, the balancing between them can vary greatly between groups, and it's often very important to find a group of people who are like-minded in their ideas regarding the balance between the concern that people have fun and the understanding that we are playing to win. In some groups, as when the Green Bay Packers are playing Setllers of Catan, the norm is that "I don't care if you're my mom or my dad I'm going to come after you, I'm going to do whatever it takes to win, no one is my friend in this game" while in others players would sacrifice their chance to win to avoid creating a grudge or to make sure everybody is having fun. as Jonathan from the Snakescast notes, before you play a game it's awfully important to make sure that you're on the same page with others in the group.
This idea of a contract is important (though some think it's pretentious) because much of what is so commonly lamented about metagaming is a mismatch of people's expectations regarding the goal of gaming or the implicit social contract. When Mark Zielinski criticizes 'bad metagaming' he is thinking about cases where your personal relationship with other players affects the way you play: you pick on the person you hate or go easy on your partner/best friend/person you secretly have a crash on. Of course, Zielnski is right that this kind of metagming undermines the 'we are playing to win' part of the contract, but it might be necessary to keep everybody having fun. If you are the kind of person whose spouse truly takes it personally when you steal from them in a game I will not blame you for prioritize your marriage over our game. I mean, after all, for me it's really important that everybody has fun, and if you get divorced over a game of Libertalia you played in my living room, I don't think you'll be coming very often. That being said, maybe you shouldn't play with Mark Zielinski. That's the point that Jonathan from the Snakescast makes regarding metagaming - that it's ok if people accept it as part of their contract. A better way to put it, I think, is that it's important to adjust our expectations about the importance of different parts of the contract. If we can all have fun when all players are focused solely on trying to win, that's great. But very often there are situations where this kind of environment would not be fun for some people, and we have to make a decision what's more important, our winning or their enjoyment. The kind and lovable (Dice Tower Showdown host) Bill Corey provides another good example: when experienced players are joined with new players, Bill (bless his heart) thinks that you should take it easy on the newbie. David Bakhtiari from the Packers doesn't take it easy on newbies, he barely even teaches them all the rules of the game; and his friends seem to enjoy it nonetheless as they keep coming back for more. In contrast, Corey is concerned (and rightly so) that new players might not enjoy their time so much if they are being mercilessly crashed repeatedly on their very first game night. Though these attitudes seem very different, they are different mixtures of the same contract elements.
In these examples there is a disagreement, or a gap in expectations, regarding the balance of components in the standard contract. But gaming is a social activity that can play a variety of different roles in the social fabric of people's world. I have have played Settlers of Catan where the sole purpose of the game was, with full knowledge of all but one player (though I suspect she wasn't completely oblivious), to provide a favorable environment for someone to make a move on someone they have had a crash on for a long time. We were all wingmen and women that night, and it was quite an awesome experience. Beyond the standard contract, the keeping of which is a supragame, there is the supragame of life: of relationship, friendships, hatreds, rivalries and whatnot. It's true that bringing those stuff in may ruin the game, in some sense, but it's often much worse to let a game ruin your life ('m looking at you, Diplomacy). But more generally, we as gamers often like to play a game for the sake of the game but people play games for all sorts of reasons. Chess is, for many people, a battle of wits that people use to measure their intelligence and prove themselves smarter than others. Poker is played to pin one's cunning and cool against one's friends; and basketball is often an opportunity to unload tension and aggression in a (hopefully) non-violent way. The guys and gals from Blue Peg Pink Peg obviously enjoy gaming is an integral part of their relationships - and that seems to enhance both their gaming experience as well as their marriage. If we can air some tension between rival companies/departments with a softball match, why not on the Kemet table? If we break the ice and get to know each other better with Two Truths and a Lie, why not with Sheriff of Nottingham? If we can build friendship with a colleague over squash, why not over Summoner Wars? Monopoly has succeeded for years in part because it has been an open field on which family dynamics play out and are resolved (or exacerbated). I suspect that even gamers, who say that they play for the sake of playing, are just as often driven by the meta-game of proving themselves superior decision-makers. It is most evident when they gamers keep track of winners and losers in their game group. Who cares? The answer is, they do, obviously.
And then there is what Zielinski calls 'good metagaming'. He is thinking about games where the supragame is part of the game: when customizing your deck is part of the game, and there is just as much fun and strategy in figuring out what you bring to the game as much as what you do with it. Magic: The Gathering, Android Netrunner and X-Wing are all examples of games with well-established metas (as are many video games, like Starcraft 2). As competitive games where much of the skill involved is in the building of one's deck/army, it's really important to be versed in the common strategies and groupthink of your local area or the competition in which you are playing. Metagaming in this sense is just involving oneself in the ongoing scene of the game outside this specific game and attempting to advance one's chances of winning with the use of that knowledge. If you know that blue counter decks are big in this cycle of MtG, you better build your deck to prepare for them.
But even this kind of metagame is not always 'good' or at least is something players may disagree on. Take Dice Masters for example. Since the game is fairly new, it doesn't yet have a well-established meta, though it certainly has the potential to develop it. With such a weak meta, it really isn't interesting to play against someone who builds his team around the three cards that appear in almost all top 8 teams of the recent US national instead of trying to build a team of cards they think would be fun or interesting. Another example is the recent digital implementation of the fabulous little bluffing game Coup (which I play on iOS but you can probably play it on other platforms). The digital version is well done in a variety of ways (though I think the game loses most of its appeal when it is not played in person) but to monetize the game, they gave you an option to purchase a 'spies' expansion that gives you information about other players' past plays. Such data creates a metagame that, in my opinion, really ruins the game: from a game about sussing out when your friends are lying it becomes a game where the people who bought the expansion can play to the probability of your bluffing given your past play. This is a formidable metagame that requires quite a bit of skill but just isn't a fun game. There are other such competitive games where there is a solid and well-established metagame that requires a tremendous amount of skill but at also requires detailed knowledge of a gigantic pool of cards or the stats of various combo effects (as when you memorize the probability of every game state in poker or an entire chess playbook). That kind of meta is really awesome for those who make that specific game into a lifestyle, but I personally find it tedious and exhausting game, and I generally prefer to play these games without the metagame. Of course that usually means that I would lose to anybody who knows anything about the meta, but I'm usually fine with losing.
Lastly, there is another kind of metgaming that I think is worthwhileb to mention: the metagaming that naturally arises around a group of friends that play many different games with each other. This is not about our personal relationships in general or our knowledge of each other's past play of this specific game but rather this is about the dynamics that develop among a group of competitive players that play many games with each other and can't help but develop a history that carries from game to game. The danger, of course, is to have grudges from one game carry into another game. Strictly speaking, that sounds like the 'bad' metagaming - and it's especially bad if you're doing it because you're just angry. But if you suspect I'm lying to you only because I lied to you every single time we played A Game of Thrones before, I really can't blame you. Many gamers who pretty much hate metgaming of the 'bad' kind nonetheless really enjoy this kind of metagaming in their group. Tom Vasel explicitly endorses it. I think this is quite fun part of having a regular gaming group (or a gaming partner) - you learn each other's tricks and strategies, attempting to work around them. But it's a very fine line and this also an issue over which people may disagree. For example, Tom Vasel thinks that it's legitimate to carry grudges from game to game in order to substantiate a threat (or, in pretentious talk, make it credible). So he may tell you, 'if you attack me here I will haunt you to the end of days'. If the game ends before he can get you, he'll go after you the next game. In my book, that would not be acceptable. While I agree that you may metagame to make your threats viable, I believe that these have to be within the same game. This is the basis for what I see as legitimate (and often inevitable) kingmaking: if you stole my chance to win the Iron Throne, you can very well expect that I'll prefer the Greyjoys over you in the last round of bidding, even if that would make them win. I may even sacrifice my own interests (assuming I don't really have much chance of winning) to make sure you don't win, and that would (hopefully) make you think twice before you stab me in a future game. But I will not carry this grudge to the next game we play, no matter what you do. I have more to say about this but this is getting quite long so I think I'll revisit kingmaking in some future episode.
So is metagaming a good thing or a bad thing? It depends, but not on what you may think it does. I tried to give some examples of 'good' metagaming that is bad and 'bad' metagaming that is pretty awesome. But the more important part is trying to figure out what exactly is the supragame that we are playing when we muddy the water of the game on the table. Is it even a game we want to be playing? Is it one we were trying to get away from when we decided to play a board game? Or perhaps it's a game that's much more important than the one in the box, and though we may get carried away in the heat of the moment - we shouldn't forget it.
1. That's true about competitive as well as cooperative games, as Linda Hughes says: "a great deal of cooperation is required to sustain a competitive exchange" (quoted in Stewart Woods' Eurogames, p. 177).