Metagaming and the Metagame Pt 1

As I write this I am sitting on a plane after spending the week with 90 grade 6 students exploring our nation's capital and learning about Australian democracy. We stayed at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) where our national sporting teams go to train for big events. We got to eat and spend time with the Australian men's national volley ball team, the Volleyroos, and our national women's football team, The Matilda's. I was especially excited to be sharing time with the Matilda's as I love football and our women are some of the best in the world. As part of our stay we did a tour around the grounds of the AIS and got to see the training facilities, rec rooms, and gyms that our athletes use. It was a wonderful experience and I was thoroughly impressed with the technology that goes into shaping Olympic athletes. I was most interested when we were looking through the gyms and our tour guide, one of the under 20 Australian Rugby players, shared the training regime and the practices that happen there. He pointed to special boards around the gym that held names and records. These boards are for equipment that people use to compete against each other for fun.

Australian Institute of SportThe Aussie Institute of Sport in all her glory.

Instead of just doing the recommended exercises, athletes challenge each other to go further and do more by playing games during training. I was impressed by one record for the leg press in which the highest ranked athlete managed to press 3 reps of over 650 kilograms. While I found this an impressive feat, it was not the amazing record that caught my attention. Here were athletes active in the upper echelons of competitive sports. Yet while engaged in high level training programs designed to push them to their limits, these were trying to best each other in frivolous activity and needless competition that required more work and even greater effort than they were already providing. And it was considered fun. It occurred to me that these athletes were metagaming.

Metagaming is a term that gets used differently depending on the context in which you use it. In games like Magic the Gathering, Pokemon, Yugioh, and other CCG's the term tends to refer to the styles of decks and cards in popular play. It is closely related to tournament play and getting ready for competitions. This is a strictly restrictive way of using the term. Coincidently it was the designer of Magic the Gathering, Richard Garfield, who provided the best definition of the term as, The game outside of the game. This means that anything not connected with playing the game itself is the metagame. For CCG players this is more than just the popular card choices or deck constructions, but includes the actual tournament, forum articles about the game, merchandise surrounding the game, any discussion or post-game interviews that occur. It can also involve tactics and strategies that people employ, knowledge about other players, and mid game trash talk and discussion. Yet for most of us who just play games Garfield's definition is equally relevant.

Magic the GatheringMagic the Gathering, you’ve probably heard of it… right?

For board games it is the post-game chat we have about how the players faired, what we were trying to do, or whether we enjoyed ourselves or not. It is the comments about what you should have done or what your opponent did well. Game reviews and Board Game Geek forums, reading the rules, and even reading this article is metagaming. In this way metagaming becomes a necessary part of the community for learning and developing proficiency in games. War gamers play and engage in the metagame to refine their skills and deepen their understanding of strategy and tactics. Such round table conversations also prolong the value of the game. Stories shared about gaming experiences both sustain our engagement and enjoyment of having played while building anticipation within ourselves and others. Games exist and survive on the basis of these conversations. But metagaming is as much talking about games as it is about providing useful information in game.

Some games such as werewolf use the metagame as a core component for gameplay. The aim of Werewolf is to eliminate the opposition by either devouring them as a werewolf or voting to lynch people as a villager. This in game mechanic relies heavily on the metagame. This appears to be true most often during the early stages when there is little information revealed about the group and rounds of voting can be based on the most obscure information. I played in a group that employed the rule to kill any new member of the game. I moved from being moderator to player and they killed me first turn in adherence to this law. The problem is that it is likely this rule still causes more damage than not as statistically the new player has a higher probability of being a villager.

Werewolf Daybreak social deductionWerewolf social deduction… metagame?

This was of little concern to the group who had devised this plan almost as a way to see if people had a resilient enough sense of humour to play with them. In a way the group was saying that how people played the game was more important than the game itself. As the game progressed however more awareness of group dynamics emerged and soon people were convicted on their tells; or past experience. Cassy looks away when she lies, lynch her. Sam always gets a werewolf card, lynch him. Don is talking more than usual, lynch him. This game thrives on people considering data and information that fall outside of the usual confines of the game. It could be said that the real game in Werewolf is played around the game. The decisions made often have to do with personal interaction rather than any of the rules or game mechanics.

Metagaming is necessary and vital part of gaming and one that sustains the industry as well as helping us to become better players. Next time I want to share some games I love that use or rely on the metagame.