I’ve been thinking a lot of late about metagaming. Some recent discussions around Empire have set me wondering about it, and I thought I’d share some of those musings.
First off I should explain what I mean by metagaming. Wikipedia has a pretty good definition, offering:
Metagaming is any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game.
It then goes on to say:
In simple terms, it is the use of out-of-game information or resources to affect one’s in-game decisions.
So, anything that is sourced OOC and then used IC is defined as metagaming. I’d say that a degree of metagaming is unavoidable: in any game with groups, OOC conversation is going to stray towards IC knowledge, even if it’s simply to agree consensual realities. Out of character friendships are always likely to pre-dispose characters towards having an opinion on one another. I’d argue that neither of these things are damaging to the game as a whole. Interaction between characters is the lifeblood of any game, and having safe jumping off points for inter-character relationships are a good thing. Opinions may not always be positive, and even where they are it’s entirely sensible that characters have not lived their lives in isolation. The negative side to this, is the accusation that derives, of exclusive cliques (which I have tangentially written about before).
The main issue with metagaming appears to lie where it intersects with player vs player politic. Let me digress a little.
It seems to me that UK LRP is rooted in a competitive spirit. Whilst there is a cooperative element to it, the majority of players seem to have an ingrained desire to win. Where a more constructive attitude might be to enjoy the drama created by the struggle, often we seem to be most focussed on the outcome – even to the point of denying ourselves game. Someone whose name I can’t remember (sorry Mr Orc player) told me an anecdote about a one vs one combat he witnessed at a European LRP. Two players faced off against one another, one fighting in a heroic, dramatic style and one in tippy-tappy yet effective style. The tippy-tappy player won, but all of the acclaim and celebrations went to the heroic player despite his loss. In the UK I suspect that this would have been different. But before you all jump on me, I do see it changing. More people are playing for the sake of the game than for victory, but we still prize effectiveness over style. Whether the competitive spirit is rooted in the student roots of the hobby, or is a symptom of a wider societal attitude, I don’t know (and this may be the subject of an expanded thought-splat blog post later). All I know is that we tend to play to win here in the UK.
In the context of aiming for victory, metagaming starts to represent a potential problem – especially in a political environment. Whilst you can’t metagame to win a fight (unless you count developing hard skills to improve your fighting – and I’d say that probably qualifies), in a political or economic arena it can be incredibly powerful.
You there, at the back, with your basket full of cakes/bar full of beer/basket of trinkets. The ones that you are selling for two rings/a copper/forty galactic credits a slice/pint/piece. You’re metagaming. You are using your baking ability or your financial status to gain an in game advantage. Is it wrong? Well the cake economy is demonstrably bad for a sensible IC economic system, food and drink (even luxury food and drink) should be below the abstraction layer in terms of cost. A slice of cake is not on the same scale of cost as a sword (let alone a magic sword) unless your game has an egg shortage. But it does add something to the game, if done well. So is it entirely bad? Probably not, but it is a form of metagaming.
When you look at political advantage the situation gets even greyer. There are a lot of words written about how political organisations attempt to meld public perception into an easily repeated narrative. ‘Labour will do a deal with the SNP that will be bad for England’ was a major narrative promoted by the UK Conservative party at this years general election. A narrative that was successfully transformed into a perceived reality, such that it did not matter where the truth of the matter actually was because it was a widely held belief amongst the electorate.
In LRP it’s possible to do the same thing. If I write an article IC for an IC publication in which I claim that Derek is an incompetent coward and unfit to be a general – and then get enough people to repeat this – eventually the wider perception is that Derek is an incompetent coward. This is not metagaming, as it’s all entirely IC and Derek has the opportunity to take IC steps to address this. I’m not gaining any advantage from OOC.
If, however, I write an OOC blog in which I describe Derek being an incompetent coward, then the waters are a lot muddier. Certainly I’ll be putting forward only a personal opinion, which most people should recognise as such. But sling enough mud and some will stick. If I describe the merits of Claire at the same time, and describe how brave she was and what a marvellous leader she was, then some of that will stick as well. When faced with an IC choice between Derek and Claire for the position of general, some may remember that Derek is a coward and his competitor is not. This is clearly an advantage for Claire, garnered from my OOC actions.
Effect is directly proportional to both preconceptions and to the authority of the source. If most already think that Derek is a coward then my attempts to smear him will be all the more influential (good old confirmation bias). If the smears come from the leader of a nation or another general, then they’ll carry even more weight. If the blog is reposted or linked to by the game organiser then, no matter what their intent, the words therein will carry more weight.
This metagaming extends to your hots/nots. When you reference IC events you spread those events, described through the prism of your experience, and help define a collective reality about what happened. Luckily, the authority is relatively weak in your individual posts, as most will recognise them as personal opinion. But if enough of you got together and decided to define reality in your favour, you could do so.
One of the best groups I have ever had the pleasure to play with/against used to assert that ‘the game never stops’. They were right. We all metagame to some extent or another. I’d like to think that most of us recognise this, and accept it from others as much as we expect others to accept it from us. We have a responsibility to the game, and to our friends that play, to not take it too far and to try and keep the play on the field. As with so much in this glorious, silly hobby of ours, it comes back to not breaking Rule 7: