Videogames and the Practice of Play

[A] game without a metagame is like an idealized object in physics. It may be a useful construct but it doesn’t really exist.

—Richard Garfield, “Metagames”

Humans make their own [metagames], but they do not know they make them.

—Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?

Let’s play a game. It’s a simple game. Maybe even the simplest game. And although we could play it in any number of ways, let’s play on paper. In this context, our paper-and-pencil game consists of only a small square. Here: □. This tiny gameboard doubles as a scoreboard with two possible states: on and off, black and white, one and zero. It’s not the most engaging equipment for playing a game, but neither are the digital mechanisms driving all videogames. Despite the fact that the physical attributes of digital media are never quite digital and the possibilities for play are practically infinite,[1] the desire for a definitive outcome, score, or measurement will structure the play on this page.[2] Beyond their voluntary rules and volunteering players, digital games require an observable or evident difference—a discrete state or abstract quantity with which we play. Whether the observer is human or nonhuman, whether the evidence occurs within the equipment or the field, a line in the sand must be drawn and judged by someone or something. The game must have a state and all such games are digital games. In the case of our small square, pencil marks paper and perception is left up to the player. There is only one rule: in order to win, just fill it in. Don’t worry, we’ll wait. . . . If you didn’t grab a pencil or pen or marker or crayon, you probably still have a white square worth zero points. Game over. Please try again. However, if you actually filled in the square, you just won the game with a high score of one point. Congratulations! But the game is still over. Try again?

This time, let’s make a metagame. Instead of simply playing again, let’s make a game out of a game. We’ll use the same voluntary conditions and physical equipment as last time and we’ll rely on the same belief in a digital difference between on and off, black and white, one and zero (at least for now). Here—have another small square: □. It looks like the last game, but it is not the same. We now have a history with these mechanics—a metagame based on mimesis, materiality, memory, and even a simple form of markets already at work on this page. Before you fill in the second square, let’s agree to expand this metagame by adding an extra condition, just between us. To turn this deterministic task into a two-player game, we’ve hidden a third square somewhere in the pages of this book. Even though the mechanics are technically the same—to fill or not to fill—let’s adjust the rules depending on the combined states of both the second and third squares. Now we have two bits, with a total of four possible outcomes that change the game. If both squares end up black, we both lose. If both squares are left white, we tie (and you can try a second round). Finally, our Prisoner’s Dilemma[3] comes into play when the squares are not equivalent. If you find a black square while leafing through the remainder of this volume but neglected to fill your square here, we win and you lose. Another game over. But if you fill in your square now and find an empty white square later, you win the paper game! We’ve already made our move. Your turn.

Attitude, affinity, experience, achievement, status, community, competition, strategy, spectatorship, statistics, history, economy, politics: the metagame ruptures the logic of the game, escaping the formal autonomy of both ideal rules and utopian play via those practical and material factors not immediately enclosed within the game as we know it. Take our second paper-and-pencil game, for example. Beyond the mechanics for playing and scoring, questions emerge. Are we the kind of authors who would hide a black square somewhere in the pages of our book? Are you the kind of player to get a pen and mark your presence on paper? Metagaming is an attempt to ask these questions in the form of a true game design philosophy—a critical practice in which playing, making, and thinking about videogames occur within the same act.[4] Part media theory, part media history, and part media art, Metagaming explores videogames by practically and critically engaging the conditions of twenty-first-century play. From the embodied forms of vision required to navigate anamorphic indie games and the textual play of both blind and blindfolded players to the seriality of home console hacks and the financialization of international e-sports, each chapter of this book not only documents the histories and theorizes the practices of play but is also accompanied by original software available in the online version of Metagaming at Exhibited at the end of each chapter, these playable postscripts are an attempt to further demonstrate and reinforce the game design philosophy already at work in the pages of this book. They are examples of practice-based research and our personal invitation to begin playing as a way to make metagames.

After all, metagames are not just games about games. They are not simply the games we play in, on, around, and through games or before, during, and after games. From the most complex house rules, arcade cultures, competitive tournaments, and virtual economies to the simple decision to press start, pass the controller, use a player’s guide, or even purchase a game in the first place, for all intents and purposes metagames are the only kind of games that we play. And even though metagames have always existed alongside games, the concept has taken on renewed importance and political urgency in a media landscape in which videogames not only colonize and enclose the very concept of games, play, and leisure but ideologically conflate the creativity, criticality, and craft of play with the act of consumption. When did the term game become synonymous with hardware warranties, packaged products, intellectual property, copyrighted code, end user licenses, and digital rights management? When did rules become conflated with the physical, mechanical, electrical, and computational operations of technical media? When did player become a code word for customer? When did we stop making metagames?

Since the commercial release of the first home consoles in the 1970s, videogames have been complicit in the transformation of play into a privatized form of consumption. In Games of Empire, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter (2009, xv) identify videogames as “a paradigmatic media of Empire—[of] planetary, militarized hypercapitalism” and, as such, a crucial site of resistance (emphasis original). Over the last ten years, scholars like Alexander Galloway, McKenzie Wark, and Mary Flanagan (along with Dyer-Witheford, de Peuter, and countless others) have argued for the radical potential of videogames as a medium for creative practice, philosophical experimentation, cultural critique, and political action. From Galloway’s (2006, 109) “countergaming”[5] to Wark’s (2007, 022) “gamer theorist”[6] and from Flanagan’s (2009, 6) “critical play”[7] to Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter’s (2009, 187) “games of multitude,”[8] each of these thinkers argue for a distinction between videogames as a platform for critical making and videogames as mere commodity. Yet a striking and shared feature of these theories is that each relegates the radical potential of games to a speculative horizon rather than a historical practice. Where are the gamer theorists making countergames? When will we critically play games of multitude? Rather than look toward some future (whether near, distant, or imagined), we think the answer is already in, on, around, through, before, during, and after videogames. The answer is the metagame.

Rather than collecting the artifacts and chronicling the history of videogames as if they were stable, static, separate objects, Metagaming attempts to uncover alternate histories of play defined not by code, commerce, and computation but by the diverse practices and material discontinuities that emerge between the human experience of playing videogames and their nonhuman operations. Metagames transform videogames from a mass medium and cultural commodity into instruments, equipment, tools, and toys for playing, competing, spectating, cheating, trading, making, breaking and ultimately intervening in the sensory and political economies of those technologies responsible for the privatization of play. And although the term metagame has been used within many wargaming, roleplaying, and collectible card gaming communities for decades, since the turn of the millennium it has become a popularly used and particularly useful label for a diverse form of play, a game design paradigm, and a way of life occurring not only around videogames but around all forms of digital technology.

In an era of social media, cloud computing, algorithmic trading, networked surveillance, and drone warfare, the events determining the experience of quotidian life are increasingly automated and operate at speeds and scales beyond the domain of human phenomenology. Considering the microtemporal operations of ubiquitous media technologies that “we have no direct experience of, no direct mode of access to, and no potential awareness of,” in Feed-Forward: On the Future of 21st Century Media Mark Hansen (2015, 8, 27) proposes that “the central challenges posed to us by this new reality [are the questions] concerning what becomes of consciousness: How can consciousness continue to matter in a world where increasingly events no longer need it to occur, and indeed, where they occur long before they manifest as contents of consciousness?” Recalling Marshall McLuhan’s (1962, 265) observation that “sense ratios change when any one sense or bodily or mental function is externalized in technological form,” in the twenty-first century, the central characteristic and defining problem of media is the grammatization, externalization, and quantification of thought. Whereas multiple neuroscientific studies have noted the enlarged hippocampi of London taxi drivers after a lifetime of learning to navigate the city’s streets (what cabbies refer to, fittingly, as “The Knowledge”), the neuronal geography of Uber drivers is tuned to an entirely different network: Google Maps scrolling across iPhone screens (Maguire et al., 2000).[9]

In What Should We Do with Our Brain?, a pithy and polemical essay on the relationship between neuroscience, phenomenology, and neoliberal capitalism, Catherine Malabou (2008, 12) asks a single, urgent question: “What should we do so that consciousness of the brain does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism?” Echoing Marx’s declaration that “humans make their own history, but they do not know that they make it,” Malabou’s (2008, 1) answer is that we must become aware that “humans make their own brain, but they do not know that they make it” (emphasis added). In other words, we must become aware of the brain’s plasticity.[10] Malabou (2008, 5) deploys the term plasticity not only to refer the brain’s capacity to be both “‘formable,’ and formative at the same time” but to emphasize that “the brain is a work that we cannot know.” Because the nervous system (not to mention the entire bodily organism and its many extensions) is constitutive of human experience, we can only speculate on the experience and history of the brain itself. In 2017, seven billion absolutely unique and unimaginably complex moving sculptures reflect both the microhistory of neuronal processes and the macrohistory of ideology in the twenty-first century. We make our own brains, but we do not know it.

Following Derrida’s reading of Hegel, Malabou’s concept of plasticity could go by another name: play.[11] After all, humans also make their own games, but they do not know it. Even during the most banal encounter with videogames we constantly and unconsciously make metagames, but the logic of the marketplace obfuscates this form of critical practice. And just as Google invites employees to play on their campus, Pixar encourages workers to customize their cubicles with childhood toys, and Valve advertises a “flat” hierarchy where all desks are on wheels, the rhetoric of play and games has been harnessed to gamify intellectual, informatic, and affective labor both within corporate workplaces and within the homes of players across the globe. This corporate appropriation has also occurred around plasticity. Consider for example the ways in which the concept of plasticity has been co-opted within contemporary cognitive capitalism to naturalize models of economic precarity in the form of flexible, contingent labor. Noting this tendency, Malabou (2008, 46) writes, “if I insist on how close certain managerial discourses are to neuroscientific discourses, this is because it seems to me that the phenomenon called ‘brain plasticity’ is in reality more often described in terms of an economy of flexibility.”

Flexibility, Malabou (2008, 12) declares, “is the ideological avatar of plasticity.” Everywhere the brain is in chains and plasticity opens a path to freedom. At the same time, plasticity—like play—is always at risk of being employed as the “biological justification of a type of economic, political, and social organization in which all that matters is the result of action” (Malabou 2008, 31). Plasticity’s radical potential, destructive capability and material history are obfuscated by the ideology of flexibility, a corporate buzzword deployed in an effort to leverage biological rationales in order to valorize the managerial techniques and labor practices of the information economy.[12] If flexibility is the “ideological avatar of plasticity,” then videogames are the ideological avatar of play (Malabou 2008, 12). Metagaming attempts to become aware of this ideological avatar, to become conscious of the fact that play can never be reduced to product. We make our own metagames, but we do not know we make them . . . yet.

What’s in a Game?

As with the small squares that started this book, every game must have a metagame and every metagame must have a game (although the two are not equal and are never so easily distinguished). One of the most substantive definitions of games comes from Bernard Suits, a utopian philosopher whose work has experienced a revival after his death in 2007. Written in the style of a Platonic dialogue, Suits’ book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (1978) transforms one of Aesop’s most beloved fables into a philosophical treatise on the differences between work and play. In his utopian rereading of “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” Suits turns the original fable on its head, inverting the moral order of leisure and labor by celebrating the Grasshopper’s death after a summer of gaming instead of lauding the ant’s preparation for the cold. “The point of the parable should not be the ant’s triumph,” Suits (2005, 27) writes, “but the Grasshopper’s tragedy. For one cannot help reflecting that if there were no winters to guard against, then the Grasshopper would not get his comeuppance nor the ant his shabby victory.” By imagining the possibility of a world without winters, a world in which “the life of the Grasshopper would be vindicated and that of the ant absurd,” Suits introduces his theory of games.

Suits (2005, 54–55) defines playing a game as the “attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules, where the rules [lusory means] prohibit use of more efficient in favor of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude].” In short, “playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (Suits 2004, 55). At first glance this definition appears deceptively simple. Play is freely chosen and games consist of optional constraints. But, by defining games solely as useless challenges adopted by a disinterested player, Suits sets sail for a “magic circle”[13] called Utopia. Invested in an ideal, idle, idyllic play set apart from necessity, the Grasshopper’s games do not perform a function, turn a profit, or satisfy a need. Any extrinsic motivation diminishes the autonomy of both game and play. For Suits (2005, 28) there is no middle ground: “either I die or I cease to be the Grasshopper.” Set apart, in a world without winters, the Grasshopper’s games become transcendental objects no longer constrained by time and space.

Despite Suits’ dream of infinite summers, no such gameplay exists. Has there ever been a game that is absolutely unnecessary, immaterial, and ahistorical? Have there ever existed players able to resist involuntary action like the process of metabolism or the forces of gravity? Suits’ rubric constitutes the utopian horizon of game and play, not their phenomenal, material, historical, economic, or political practices. The health benefits of recreational play, the technical particularities of graphics processors, the shared strategies of two opponents, or the monetization of broadcasted sports are just a few examples of the logistical and pragmatic constraints which perforate the magic circle and conflate leisure and labor, play and practice, into a hybrid form which Suits (2004, 27) might dismiss as “asshopper[y] or grant[ism].” On the other hand, Suits’ (2004, 173) utopian philosophy allows any activity, like fixing the kitchen sink, to become a kind of game as long as the player is indifferent to the possible consequences or worldly exigencies involved with the task. The “magic” of Suits’ games is that they require players to become Utopians by playing as if it doesn’t matter.

In a world of asshoppers and grants where winter is a constant reality, the fantasy of summer—of games and play—serves as a ubiquitous, cultural logic that guides both the consumption and production of consumer electronics and digital entertainment like videogames. Whether or not Suits’ utopian vision can ever be realized, videogames operate as the ideological avatar of play: a widely held, naturalized system of beliefs that conflates the fantasy of escapism with the commodity form and encloses play within the magic circle of neoliberal capital. In the same way that the British land enclosure of the eighteenth century transformed public land into private property, so too has the videogame industry worked to privatize the culture of games and play. Games have been replaced by videogames and play has been replaced by fun. This reduction of play as pure possibility to a class of consumer goods occurs at the expense of the metagame. After all, not only is a game easier to package and sell if it can be neatly reduced to its physical equipment, but any play that occurs in, on, around, or through videogames instantly becomes advertising for a product. The greatest trick the videogame industry ever pulled was convincing the world that videogames were games in the first place.

Unlike traditional games in which voluntary rules are consciously chosen to further constrain or interpret the physical properties of dice and cards, balls and bats, or track and field, videogames conflate the rules of a game with the mechanics of the equipment.[14] Nowhere in the official rulebook of Major League Baseball, for example, are the laws of physics defined, while in videogames the explicit authoring of forces like mass, gravity, friction, and momentum replaces traditional rule sets. Despite their colloquial designation and sale as games, videogames do not have rules. Rules are voluntary constraints and social contracts. They are pacts between players not to peek or move outside invisible boundaries. Mechanics, on the other hand, are ontological operations. Players have no choice but to work within the limitations of these involuntary systems. Whereas rules can be broken at a moment’s notice, mechanics cannot be turned off. There is no cheating in Super Mario Bros.[15] Editing the code is like corking the bat—the deception occurs within the equipment and changes the game itself. Like the physicality of sports equipment, the mechanical, electrical, and computational processes of videogames always operate outside the conscious experience of the player. But unlike the physics of bats and balls, the myriad technical operations of videogames and their fetishization as commodities obfuscate the practice of play. Videogames blackbox not only nonhuman processes but also human activity—the ideological avatar of play masks the metagame. Rather than continue to conflate mechanics with rules and videogames with games, what if videogames were not considered games in the first place, but equipment for making metagames?

No matter how small, no matter how subtle, the metagame is never insignificant. Before a videogame can ever be played—before software can be considered a game in the first place—there must be a metagame. The metagame emerges as the material trace of the discontinuity between the phenomenal experience of play and the mechanics of digital games. From the position in front of the television, posture on the couch, and proprioception of the controller to the most elaborate player-created constraints, fan practices, and party games, metagames are the games created with videogames. From popular mods to ironic parodies and from fan fiction and forum discussion to the latest trends made famous by professional players, metagaming functions as a broad discourse, a way of playing, thinking, and making that transforms autonomous and abstract pieces of software into games and turns players into game designers. Metagames reveal the alternate histories of play that always exist outside the dates, dollars, and demographic data that so often define videogames in industry magazines and encyclopedia entries.

As the sun sinks below the horizon and frost begins to creep across the once-plentiful fields, Suits’ (2005, 29) Grasshopper has one, final revelation: that we “are Grasshoppers in disguise . . . that everyone alive is really a Grasshopper” and “that everyone alive is in fact engaged in playing elaborate games, while at the same time believing themselves to be going about their ordinary affairs. Carpenters believing themselves to be merely pursuing their trade are really playing a game, and similarly with politicians, philosophers, lovers, murderers, thieves, and saints. . . . but precisely at the point where each is persuaded [of this truth] . . . each ceases to exist.” Suits imagines a utopian apocalypse (in the etymological sense of apocalypse as a lifting of the veil) in which the “revelation” of a worker’s game-playing nature brings about the ontological annihilation of that very category. And although everyone alive may be engaged in playing elaborate games, these games remain hidden from view. We don’t simply play games, but constantly (and unconsciously) make metagames.

Making Metagames

The word metagame does not appear in any dictionary. Although the term is used to denote a wide variety of activities related to games—from a specific subset of mathematical and economic game theory to the metaleptic slippage between in-game and out-of-game knowledge in roleplaying games to the common strategies or passing fashions surrounding competitive card games—there is no unified definition of metagame. Whereas there have been numerous discussions surrounding the meaning of the word game, the etymology and meaning of metagame’s other constitutive element, meta, is not as heavily debated. Whether used to describe a story about stories, a film about films, a game about games, or any X about X, in English (and mainly in the United States), the adjective meta typically suggests “a consciously sophisticated, self-referential, and often self-parodying style, whereby something reflects or represents the very characteristics it alludes to or depicts” (Oxford English Dictionary 2014a). There has also been some slippage between this general meaning of meta and the more specific concept of recursion.[16] These adjectival uses of the term are derived from the more universal prefix meta-, which signifies an abstraction from, a second order beyond, or a higher level above the term or concept that it precedes (Oxford English Dictionary 2014b).[17] For example, when prepended to a field of study, meta- “denote[s] another [subject] which deals with ulterior issues in the same field, or which raises questions about the nature of the original discipline,” such as meta-economics, meta-philosophy, and even meta-lexicography (Oxford English Dictionary 2014b). Based on the ancient Greek preposition μετά, meaning “with,” “after,” “between,” or “beyond,” the prepositional origin of the prefix meta- continues to characterize its modern use even if μετa- was also combined with verbs in order to express “change (of place, order, condition, or nature)” (Oxford English Dictionary 2014b). Etymologically, the term metagame does not simply signify the general category of games that reference themselves or other games, but is also characterized by the deeply specific, relational quality of prepositions as parts of speech. In the same way a preposition situates the noun that it precedes, the meaning of metagame emerges within the context of specific practices and historical communities of a given game. Prepositions are to parts of speech as metagames are to games. A signifier for everything occurring before, after, between, and during games as well as everything located in, on, around, and beyond games, the metagame anchors the game in time and space.

Historically, one of the earliest concatenations of the terms meta and game occurred within the branch of mathematics known as game theory (as distinct from game studies). First formulated by John von Neumann in 1928 and then expanded with the help of Oskar Morgenstern in their 1944 book Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, game theory is “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent, rational decision-makers” (Myerson 1991, 1).[18] During the Cold War, von Neumann and Morgenstern’s quantitative “science of decision-making” influenced both American and Soviet policies including strategies of deterrence based on mutually assured destruction between two global superpowers. Demonstrated by the small, square metagame that opened this chapter, the canonical thought experiment that simultaneously popularized and challenged the underlying premises of game theory was the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” First named by Albert Tucker in 1950 as a way to thematize the ideas of RAND[19] researchers Melvin Dresher and Merrill Flood, in the Dilemma two prisoners are arrested for the same offense, held separately, and given a choice to betray one another with three outcomes:

  1. 1. if one confesses and the other does not, the former will be given a reward . . . and the latter will be fined . . .
  2. 2. if both confess, each will be fined . . . At the same time, each has good reason to believe that
  3. 3. if neither confesses, both will go clear. (Poundstone 1992, 118)

For game theorists, the Cold War represented a global Prisoner’s Dilemma with potentially apocalyptic consequences. Considering the disturbing fact that the “rational” decision (i.e., confessing) will result in mutually assured destruction, the only way to win this logical paradox is to not play.

Rather than infinite deferral or rational suicide, Nigel Howard’s (1971, 1, 2, 23) book Paradoxes of Rationality: Theory of Metagames and Political Behavior attempts to solve the Prisoner’s Dilemma based on a “nonquantitative” and “nonrational” approach to game theory he calls “the metagame” or “the game that would exist if one of the players chose his strategy after the others, in knowledge of their choices.”[20] This is the earliest substantive use of the term metagame. Whereas in the original Dilemma there are only two options—to confess (C) or not to confess (D)—according to Howard’s (1971, 11) metagame theory, Player 1 can also make additional, “extensive” choices based on Player 2’s possible actions. By projecting an opponent’s potential behavior, the simple decision to confess or not exponentially multiplies into four new “metachoices:” confess if they confess (C/C), don’t confess if they don’t confess (D/D), confess if they don’t confess (C/D), and don’t confess if they confess (D/C)—a game theory within a game theory. Considering the implications of this metagame from Player 2’s perspective, the projected possibilities exponentially branch again from a metagame with four choices to a meta-metagame with sixteen choices. This infinitely branching tree of possible choices “is the mathematical object studied by the theory of metagames” (Howard 1971, 55). When Player 1’s “metachoices” are cross-referenced with Player 2’s “meta-metachoices,” additional points of “metarational” “metaequilibrium” appear and offer alternative, favorable outcomes (i.e., not confessing)—a mathematical solution to the problem of mutually assured destruction based on mutually assured metagaming (see Figure I.1) (Howard 1971, 59).

Famous for declaring “if you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say, why not today,” John von Neumann’s (Blair 1957, 96) game theory mathematically reinforces his militant belief in deterrence (if not preemptive nuclear strike). The logical consequences of Howard’s metagame, on the other hand, leads to a different point of equilibrium: mutual disarmament. However much von Neumann’s game theory and Howard’s metagame analysis may seem far afield from game studies (and even further from game design),[21] the distinction between a game defined by an individualistic, selfish form of abstract rationality and a metagame that acknowledges the collective, historical conditions of decision making parallels the self-referential and prepositional metagame—the game to, from, during, and between the game—deployed by Richard Garfield when designing Magic: The Gathering (1993).

Figure I.1. Nigel Howard’s solution to the original Prisoner’s Dilemma (left) involves drafting a metagame (middle) and a second-order metagame (right) that reveals two new points of metaequilibrium (the shaded cells). According to Howard (1971, 59) “the symbol ‘W/X/Y/Z’ represents the policy ‘W against C/C, X against D/D, Y against C/D, Z against D/C.’”

Two decades after Nigel Howard’s analysis, and after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., Richard Garfield incorporated the term metagame into his design vocabulary not long after publishing Magic, the first collectable card game. In the Spring 1995 issue of The Duelist (1994–9), an official Wizards of the Coast magazine, Garfield offered a preliminary discussion of metagames in his column, “Lost in the Shuffle.” Although the stakes are far less consequential than nuclear apocalypse, Garfield’s (1995, 87) article begins with an anecdote about “backstabbing [his] allies in Diplomacy,” Allan B. Calhamer’s wargame from 1954 based entirely on the social dynamic of the players. After treating each game as an individual, autonomous conflict (and losing more and more), Garfield (1995, 87) realized that his relationship to other players, to the larger social structure in which games are embedded, and even to the physical or economic constraints of certain rules functioned “not as ends unto themselves but as parts of a larger game” or “metagame.” Following Howard, this is the second major theorization of the term metagame. Five years later, after presenting at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, Garfield published an even broader definition of the term. Whereas metagaming in roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons (1974) usually refers to the use of out-of-character knowledge in order to make in-character decisions, Garfield (2000b, 16) expanded the definition to encompass “how a game interfaces beyond itself.” In the same way Howard (1971, 59) applied the term metagame to describe a more pragmatic and contextual form of decision making or “policy,” Garfield (2000b, 16) argues “there is of course no game without a metagame . . . a game without a metagame is like an idealized object in physics. It may be a useful construct but it doesn’t really exist.”

Based on the metagame’s actual, rather than ideal, relation to games, Garfield (2000b, 17–18, 18, 20) divides the metagame into four prepositional categories: “what a player brings to the game” (e.g., equipment like Magic decks and tennis rackets but also personal abilities); “what a player takes away from a game” (e.g., prize pools, tournament rankings, social status); “what happens between games” (e.g., preparation, strategizing, storytelling); and “what happens during a game other than the game itself” (e.g., trash talking, time outs, and the environmental conditions of play). To, from, during, and between: hearkening back to the prepositional etymology of the term meta as well as Howard’s practical solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Garfield’s metagames describe players’ lived experiences and the historical contexts in which games are played. Whereas Garfield’s metagame has become synonymous with the strategies and changing trends within the cultures surrounding competitive games like Magic and videogames like StarCraft (1998) while also influencing game designers and scholars such as Katie Salen Tekinbaş and Eric Zimmerman,[22] there is an even more radical interpretation of the metagame.

In the original transcript of his GDC presentation, Garfield (2000b, 16) makes a small but significant departure from the published definition of the metagame as “how a game interfaces beyond itself.” While most of Garfield’s (2000a, 1) talk is similar to his later article published in Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the earlier transcript reveals a slightly different definition of the metagame: not “how a game interfaces outside of itself” but “how a game interfaces with life” (emphasis added). This small change reveals Garfield’s original commitment to the metagame as the only kind of game we play.[23] The metagame is not just how games interface with life: it is the environment within which games “live” in the first place. Like Mark Hansen’s (2006a, 297) definition of media as “an environment for life,” metagames are an environment for games.[24] Metagames are where and when games happen, not a magic circle within which unnecessary obstacles and voluntary pursuits play out, but a messy circle[25] that both constrains games and makes them possible in the first place. Inside this second circle, the ideological desire to distance leisure from labor, play from production, or games from life breaks down: it’s metagames all the way down.

The Practice of Play

Nowhere is the ideological conflict between play and production more evident than in the relationship between videogames and metagames.[26] Although metagames have always existed (albeit subtly)[27] alongside videogames, over the past decade and with the rise of social media and sharing services such as Steam (2003), YouTube (2005), and Twitch (2011) the term metagame has become more commonly used to describe the practices within, around, outside, and about videogames. For example, when Narcissa Wright plays The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2003), the addition of optional constraints, like a simple timer, radically changes the game. Speedruns, or “fast playthroughs of video games,” are metagames that encourage the discovery and manipulation of mechanical exploits not immediately evident to the player or accepted as legitimate forms of play (Speed Demos Archive 2014). As Wright remarks, when new techniques such as “dry storage got discovered [in The Wind Waker] . . . I was reinvigorated to stay on top of the current metagame” (Wright 2013). Speedrunning is not only a metagame contingent on the virtuosic performance of real-time play, but is also a collaborative form of play based on discovering exploits such as geometry clipping, cutscene skipping, sequence breaking, and memory manipulation—games within the game.

More closely aligned with the spirit of Garfield’s original definition, other players recover the histories of shifting strategies and tournament trends around competitive videogames as a playful and productive form of spectatorship—a game around the game. For example, Richard “KirbyKid” Terrell (2011) encodes VHS tapes to track the history of Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001) tournaments because “every game with a metagame worth understanding deserves a devoted video game historian,” whereas Daniel “Artosis” Stemkoski (2012) studies and commentates competitive StarCraft II (2010) tournaments in Korea because “the metagame is not the same everywhere. . . . Korea, China, NA [North America], and Europe . . . each have their own metagame.” Beyond pro gamers and their e-sports, even videogame audiences operate according to many observational metagames adopted from sports like rooting, gambling, and fantasy leagues based on the statistics produced during competitions. The metagame can even take the form of a game outside the game, as is the case when Alex “The Mittani” Gianturco (Goldman and Vogt 2014) expanded his EVE Online (2003) empire via cyberwarfare and offline espionage—what he identifies as a “metagame which doesn’t require booting the program up at all.”

Finally, in a blog post titled “Metagames: Games About Games,” Andy Baio (2011) observes that the term metagame can also refer to “playable games about videogames”—a definition that recalls the use of meta in other media genres like metafiction but departs from the way in which Garfield and much of the gaming community apply the term. Thus, when John Romero appropriates the graphics, level designs, and gameplay tropes from Namco’s Pac-Man (1980) in id Software’s Wolfenstein 3-D (1992) or when Jonathan Blow references the characters and texts from Nintendo’s Donkey Kong (1981) and Super Mario Bros. (1985) in his independently developed game Braid (2008), they are making games about games (see Figure I.2). From speedrunning The Legend of Zelda to the professionalization of competitive Super Smash Bros. or StarCraft to the elaborate espionage surrounding EVE Online to the hyper-referentiality of the indie game boom in the late 2000s exemplified by games like Braid, Super Meat Boy (2010), and Fez (2012), the metagame includes these player-produced games within, around, outside, and about videogames.

In their essay “Metagames, Paragames and Orthogames: A New Vocabulary,” Marcus Carter, Martin Gibbs, and Mitchell Harrop (2012, 11) argue that, for players, “there is a broad, conceptually muddled use of the term [metagame] that encompasses a wide variety of different play types and styles for which a single term is not useful.” Rather than attempting to redefine the word or privilege a narrower definition, the prepositional character of the term meta and Howard’s and Garfield’s definitions of metagame linguistically and conceptually perform its common use: to locate the specific cultural practices, material configurations, and historical transformations of twenty-first-century play. Beyond both its etymology and various definitions, metagames are not simply self-referential games about games or recursive games inside games. They are not just games we play before and after, to and from, or during and between other games. They are not just games in, on, around, above, between, beside, below, or through games. Instead, the metagame expands, as a truly broad label for the contextual, site-specific, and historical attributes of human (and nonhuman) play. What the metagame identifies is not the history of the game, but the history of play.

Figure I.2. John Romero references the early history of arcade games like Pac-Man (left) in Wolfenstein 3-D (right) not only for nostalgic effect, but to make a metagame about the conventions, culture, and connectedness of videogames.


Beyond this introduction, Metagaming begins with a survey of six metagames. Far from a complete account, the six short stories that make up chapter 1 explore the interleaved and expanded ecology of videogames within the increasingly diffuse circuits of twenty-first-century play. The chapter includes an analysis of normative indie games and feminist art games about 1980s videogames, the glitches and exploits that both speedrunners and fighting game competitors find within home console games, the cultures of spectatorship and shoutcasting that thrive around international e-sports, and the espionage and intrigue that occur when massively multiplayer online (MMO) communities begin to play without games. While subsequent chapters feature deeper explorations of specific metagaming practices and their relation to concepts of visuality, disability, seriality, and economy, chapter 1 offers an overview of how play functions as a critical practice and how players have transformed videogames into platforms for making metagames.

Following this survey of six metagames, chapter 2 examines the pursuit of graphic realism through the development of increasingly powerful and complex modeling, rendering, and animation technologies—one of the central rules of the standard metagame that the videogame industry continues to play. In the same way that the restrained naturalism of perspectival rendering in the Renaissance was followed by a more self-conscious and reflexive Mannerist period of visual art, this chapter explores how the nascent discourses of computer-generated imagery in videogaming leads to metagaming practices that experiment with alternative spatial and optical regimes indigenous to digital environments. Adopting the same metagaming strategy deployed in Braid, Super Meat Boy, and especially Fez, anamorphic games such as Valve’s Portal (2007), Sony’s Echochrome series (2008–10), Julian Oliver’s levelHead (2007), and Mark ten Bosch’s Miegakure (forthcoming) technically, aesthetically, and conceptually metagame computer graphics. They are games not only about games, but about aboutness itself: games that play with the aesthetic conventions of videogames as a visual medium and intervene in software genres that emerged as a consequence of specific graphic technologies. By extending gameplay into new spatial dimensions, these metagames question the very possibility of perspective and in doing so cast anamorphosis as the rule, not the exception, of the embodied experience of vision.

After this analysis of anamorphic vision, chapter 3 examines the practices of blind players and the concept of disability in videogames. From Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015), a graphic spectacle that begins with extensive cutscenes of a limping, hook-handed veteran, to the The Helen Keller Simulator (circa 2005), an unpopular Internet meme typically consisting of a black screen with no feedback, chapter 3 considers metagaming in the context of critical disability studies. On one extreme, the hospitalized hero in The Phantom Pain allegorizes the hypertrophy of the graphics industry—his single eye standing in for single-point perspective and his hook hand recalling the limited articulation of a game controller. On the other extreme, The Helen Keller Simulator represents the atrophy of experimental games without gameplay—a failed simulation that cannot articulate the phenomenal experience of deaf and blind persons, but ultimately serves as a commentary on the impoverished representational capacity of videogames as a medium—the withoutness of all games. In contrast to the cinematic spectacle in The Phantom Pain and the minimal mechanics in The Helen Keller Simulator, chapter 3 concludes with a discussion of alternative approaches to playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Around the same time speedrunners like Narcissa Wright first experimented with temporal constraints in Ocarina of Time, Jordan Verner and Drew Wissler began developing metagaming practices through which both blind and blindfolded players navigate videogame spaces and invent new games according to alternate sensory economies. Rather than attempt to represent disability or make games more accessible, these practices reveal that there are always more ways to play.

The recombinatory potential of play is further articulated by the title of chapter 4. “Hundred Thousand Billion Fingers” is a reference to Raymond Queneau’s iconic Hundred Thousand Billion Poems (1961), a sonnet generator capable of producing 1014 unique texts—a quantity that no one reader (or even a million readers) could parse in a lifetime. In the same way that Hundred Thousand Billion Poems gestures toward the impossibility of accessing the totality of its many reading paths, videogames like Super Mario Bros. limit the player to one isolated, incomplete perspective among an enormous (but finite) set of possible playthroughs emerging from those repetitive, procedural, and discrete elements that drive computational media. Following Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of seriality framed against twenty-first-century theories of network culture by Steven Shaviro and Sherry Turkle, this chapter examines metagaming practices that reveal the serial logics always operating within videogames (a withinness that is never fully accessible to human forms of play). From remakes of ROM hacks to speedruns of sequencers, this survey of player-created modifications of Super Mario Bros. traces alternative histories of play that escape the seriality of the software itself and reveal the contours of otherwise invisible processes. In the same way that Project M (2011) modifies Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008) according to a community metagame and Dustin Browder’s game design philosophy responds to the way Korean pros play StarCraft, serial games like agwawaf and Jay Pavlina’s mashups or Andi McClure and Robin Baumgarten’s montages turn gaming into a form of media production that captures the material traces of play. Whether reading Queneau’s book or playing games, the technical constraints of the poem or program reduce play to a range of repetitions. Rather than subjecting the player to the mechanisms of control as defined by the rules of the game (and the Nintendo Corporation), the techniques documented in this chapter metagame their own serial constructs to model the movements of a hundred thousand billion fingers.

The enumeration of a million Marios might be better represented in statistics. Beginning with the history of statistical play—from the wargames of eighteenth-century Germany to the fantasy themes of Warhammer (1983–) and the real-time strategy (RTS) action of Warcraft (1994–)—chapter 5 investigates the metagaming practices emerging around Dota 2 (2013), a player-made mod of Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft III (2002) that has evolved into an international e-sport with the help of Valve’s digital distribution services, social networks, and virtual economies. Like wargaming, Warhammer, Warcraft, and even StarCraft and EVE Online, the mechanics governing Dota 2 explore the informatic play of probability. It is no wonder then that the management strategies of Gabe Newell, the co-founder and managing director of Valve, are contingent on the proletarianization of the player. Since the late 1990s, Valve’s moneygames have harnessed vectors of information to derive value not from gameplay as such, but from the metagames that operate outside and around computer screens. From simply purchasing and playing videogames to modding, selling, spectating, trading, and predicting future markets, for the past decade metagaming has become synonymous, in these cases, with an untapped ocean of informatic and affective labor around videogames—an aroundness that we call the undercurrency. As play accretes within this digital undertow, different forms of metagaming are made exchangeable and flattened into one monolithic unit of measure that Valve calls “productivity.” Chapter 5 explores the undercurrency through an in-depth analysis one of the most famous plays in the history of Dota 2, a sea change in which the statistical play of two tide hunters transformed the metagame.

If anamorphic games about games, nonvisual games without games, serial games within games, and economic games around games are sometimes considered cheating or trifling because they play well beyond the standard ways we engage videogames, the metagamers discussed in chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5 are nevertheless granted some leniency within online and offline discussions. Yet some metagamers that stray further from the standard are not shown the same courtesy. Johan Huizinga’s (1949, 11) term for the seditious player, or the one who profanes the magic circle and “shatters the play-world” of the game, is the “spoilsport.” Chapter 6 argues that feminist critics of the games industry unwittingly find themselves playing the part of not only what Sara Ahmed (2010) calls the “feminist killjoy” but, more accurately, that of the feminist spoilsport. And although Eric Zimmerman (2012) has argued that the naive belief in the magic circle is one of the most pervasive strawmen in game studies (going so far as to suggest that the myth of the magic circle has been replaced by the myth of a “magic circle jerk”), the strident and ongoing vilification of feminist work on videogames indicate that even if the magic circle does not exist, the desire for an ahistorical, escapist gamespace continues to govern the standard metagame and the ideological avatar of play. If the metagame is an environment for life, then it can also be a way to make life hell. So how do you break the metagame? How do you end the aboutness, withoutness, withinness, and aroundness that makes metagaming possible in the first place?

In Metagaming, stretched skulls, blind spots, billions of fingers, and turning tides are each followed by a postscript. In the tradition of Katie Salen Tekinbaş and Eric Zimmerman’s Rules of Play (2003), N. Katherine Hayles’ Electronic Literature (2008), or Steve Swink’s Game Feel (2009), each chapter of Metagaming not only ends with a call to critical practice—to make metagames—but demonstrates the practice of play through the production of original software designed explicitly alongside this book. Like Ian Bogost’s (2013, 92) concept of “carpentry” or “the practice of constructing artifacts as a philosophical practice,” each unit of Metagaming results from the entanglement of philosophical concepts, the craft of game design, and the cultures of play that surround videogames—a game design philosophy. Metagaming begins with the assumption that making criticism does not stand far from critical making, and that the arguments and concepts developed throughout each chapter are a form of play and a form of game design in and of themselves.

To this end chapter 1 includes Triforce, a retro-remake of The Legend of Zelda that visualizes the topologies of Hyrule in three dimensions. Chapter 2 concludes with Memento Mortem Mortis, an impossible puzzle game in which recursively nested skulls from Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) are stretched using a graphics technique called texture mapping. Chapter 3 is accompanied by It is Pitch Black, a text-based action-adventure game in which a non-visual 3D space is illuminated only by the quickly scrolling thoughts of two women—Patricia Wilcox, a caver married to Will Crowther before he made Colossal Cave Adventure (1975–76), and Karen Green, a character from Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves (2000). Chapter 4’s 99 Exercises in Play is inspired by Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de style (1947) and the constrained writing of the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or “Oulipo.” The game uses World 1–1 from the original Super Mario Bros. as a constraint for producing ninety-nine different metagames. Chapter 5 features Tide Hunter, a data visualization designed to repurpose the statistical output collected with the help of Bruno “Statsman” Carlucci’s replay parser during The Turn of the Tide, a seventeen-second upset regarded as one of the most important plays in the history of Dota 2. Each original metagame can found in the online version of the book and downloaded directly at Alongside these five metagames, the first and last chapters of the book conclude with a small paper game—our attempt to implicate Metagaming itself within a larger metagame. Following the small metagame played at the beginning of this chapter, our first paper game ends right here: ■.

Did you win?

Copyright 2017 by Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux

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