What is Metagaming?

You’ll often hear this word used, but whenever you ask someone to explain it to you, they’ll use a different definition each time. Normally, it will be spoken of as a bad thing. Something that results from bad game design or cheating players. What makes this particularly confusing, is whenever the same thing results in a more enjoyable game for all, people will defend it as “not metagaming”. With this mentality, what is and isn’t metagaming all comes down to personal taste.

However, the way I use the word, metagaming doesn’t need to be bad. Understanding examples of when it’s good will help you understand what it is overall.

Origin

In Greek, beginning a word with “meta” is similar to beginning a word with “post” in English. Meta means “after”, “beyond” or “outside”. In English, “meta” slowly evolved into “outside its self” or “about its self”. So data about data is metadata. Programming a program to program is “metaprogramming”. Any form of media is considered “meta” if the topic is the form of media used. That is, a book about book making, a journalistic article about journalism, a painted picture of someone painting or a documentary about how documentaries are made.

The term “metagame analysis” later appeared in game theory. This was the idea of looking at a real world scenario, describing it as if it were a game between multiple players, then predicting what would happen if all players made the best possible moves.

In Board and Card Games

Metagaming is playing the game outside the game.

In a game about earning and breaking trust, someone who has been untrustworthy in past games will more likely be untrustworthy in this game.

In a game about helping and hindering others, if you know you will lose you can help the person in second place win. By doing this, that player will owe you a favour in future games.

In a heavy European style game, you may notice a move that seems weak in all situations, but seems slightly less weak in this situation. Knowing that such games are heavily tested, you’d know that any move that is weak in all situations will always be deleted by the designer. You could then infer that any move that’s always weak except now, must be very very powerful now. This is metagaming as you are using your knowledge of deliberately balanced game design to win, rather than figuring out what the best move would be if the game were poorly designed.

In Role Playing Games

The concept of Role Playing Games is that each person is determining the actions of a character in a story based on the circumstances they face.

Excessive discussion about dice probability is metagaming as the orc barbarian is unlikely to bring out a calculator and calculate the greatest damage per move assuming each foe can only take 10 points of damage before dying.

Knowing that an object frequently described must be vital to progressing the story is another example. If the game master says “You see two paintings, one is smaller than the other,” you can safely guess that the large painting is unimportant and useless, but the small painting either depicts a vital clue or is hiding a hidden compartment. If the big painting was more important, then the description would be “one is larger than the other”.

Using out of game knowledge. You may know things about dragons based on things you’ve read about them before the game began. Acting on such information is metagaming.

You may know what the other players are up to, even if your character cannot see or hear their character. This is another example.

Always trusting that things will work out well in the end. If a poorly dressed and bad smelling man approached you with a map, promising you riches beyond your wildest dreams if you can defeat the monsters in the cave at the end of it, you’d probably call the police. If this happens in a game, you think “I know he’ll probably betray me in the end, but I can use the equipment in the place he’s told me about to defeat him in battle when he does.” In a role playing game, the only behaviour likely to get you killed, is wondering off and looking at things the Game Master hasn’t written anything about. If he has written about it, it’s probably safe.

In Collectable Games

The metagame of a collectable game is in building your deck/army/character based on what you know is popular. For example, collecting water Pokemon if you think everyone likes fire Pokemon.

It’s Not Always Bad

The design of any game is to be enjoyable. If the metagame is enjoyable also, that is an added bonus. If the metagame is tedious, flawed or sucks the life out of the game in anyway, you must redesign your game accordingly. The metagame doesn’t necessarily need to be removed, it just needs to be fun.

What Do You Think?

Do people even read my blog? Should I keep writing or give up now?

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