Metagaming and Metagames

In my last post I very briefly mentioned the idea of "Metagame". It's an interesting concept, to be sure, and one that many of you have probably heard. But what exactly is a metagame? What does meta-game even mean? Well, I hope to shed some light on that in today's post.

"Meta" is a Greek root meaning "beyond". I can probably devote an entire post to the strange, evolving history of the word "meta" and what it means today, but I'll just stick with "beyond" for now. Meta-game, then, yields "beyond game". A metagame is a game played during or within a game that lives outsides (or beyond) the rules and environment of the game. And when we talk about "metagaming" we're talking about playing some game outside the bounds of it's rulesets.

Let's take, for example, one of the very first (at least to me) historical usage of the term. The time: the mid nighties; the game: Magic: The Gathering. For a very, very brief explanation of MTG, just know that it's a trading card game where players collect cards and build decks with them. Each card can do different things and there are literally thousands of them. Well, in MTG there are and always have been dominant strategies and popular deck types. These are the decks that dominate tournaments, and every year MTG has a different set of power decks that many people use because of their strength.

Magic is a game of rules where players play cards in turn until the winner defeats his or her opponent. Metagaming in Magic would be knowing full well what decks and cards are in popular use and devising strategies and decks for the very purpose of countering and defending against the common decks types. By doing so, one is playing the game of Magic without playing the game of Magic. The player is playing a game outside of the rules of Magic: The Gathering that still involves the playing of Magic: The Gathering. That's metagaming.

And while other players are watching game tape, he’s watching game tape of those other players watching game tape.
— ESPN Baseball Promo 2013

So, why is metagaming and meta-games and important concept? Well, the term has popped up a lot over the years in regards to playing games with knowledge of current dominant strategies. Knowing what an opponent's likely to do before even playing a game them has commonly been cited as metagaming, which of course it is. But that is not all metagaming is. A metagame is any game that is played outside of the bounds of established rules.

Take the example I used in a previous post. Making under-the-table deals in Monopoly for leniency is another example. Anything that isn't part of the rules or environment of the game but affects the outcome of the game can be classified as metagaming. Similarly, analyzing the level designer's intention to find the solution to a puzzle or the fastest route would also qualify, as the player is using their knowledge of game development, design, history, and more to solve problems inside the game without using the rules or knowledge from inside the game.

So why is meta-gaming an important concept to consider? Well, as the line between games and reality blurs, games become a meta-game upon themselves. League of Legends is not a game but a lifestyle for many people, and metagaming is part of the game. Discussing popular strategies, reading up on successful players and the champions they use, finding and exploring new tactics within the community: all done outside of game of League of Legends. The developers consider this in designing updates the game now. It's part of the experience playing League of Legends. Future game developers must account for this bizarre but familiar concept.