Metagaming is a broad term usually used to define 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.
In simple terms, using out-of-game information, or resources, to affect one's in-game decisions.
The term metagame arose in mathematics as a descriptor for set interaction that governs subset interaction in certain cases. The term passed to military use and then to politics to describe actions or events that may have been originally thought of as outside the bounds of the situation in question, but that in fact play an important role in its outcome. For example, a specific military operation could be thought of as a game, with the political ramifications of that operation on the war in general as the metagame. Similarly, a specific political situation such as the passage of a law might be thought of as a game, with the metagame being the larger picture into which that law fits.
In this second example, a "game" might consist of the debate over passage of a law that does not have majority support. In the context of the game, the group supporting the law is going to lose. However, they may gain political capital simply from supporting the effort and forcing other individuals to oppose it, thus winning in the metagame of overall political conflict. Within the game context, it is unclear why effort would be expended on a losing struggle, but within the metagame context, the return on that effort becomes clear.
The term is also used to refer to a game with moves that consist of creating or modifying the rules of another game, the target or subject game, to maximize the utility of the resulting rule set. Thus, we could play a metagame of optimizing the rules of "chess-like" games to maximize the satisfaction of play, and perhaps arrive at the rules of standard chess as an optimum. This is related to mechanism design theory in which the metagame would be to create or make changes in the management rules or policy of an organization to maximize its effectiveness or profitability. Constitutional design can be seen as a metagame of assembling the provisions of a written constitution to optimize a balance of values such as justice, liberty, and security, with the constitution being the rules of the game of government that would result.
Examples of metagaming
- There is a special set of moves in chess which allows a player to win in four moves. Competitor A has been watching Competitor B play chess, and the past five games in a row Competitor B has attempted to use this four-move win. When Competitor A sits down to play against Competitor B, Competitor A will be metagaming if he/she plays in a way that will easily thwart the four-move checkmate before Competitor B makes it obvious that this is what he/she is doing. A more complex version of this was used by Derren Brown in episode 4 of "Trick of the Mind", where he simultaneously 'beat' a selection of grand masters by acting as a proxy, playing them against each other.
- In role-playing games, a player is metagaming when they use knowledge that is not available to their character in order to change the way they play their character (usually to give them an advantage within the game), such as knowledge of the mathematical nature of character statistics, or the statistics of a creature that the player is familiar with but the character has never encountered. In general, it refers to any gaps between player knowledge and character knowledge which the player acts upon.
- Computer game development projects, in which the game company seeking to develop new and better games will set his developers to propose and test alternative designs and rules among themselves, until they arrive at a new design that they can expect will be popular. This development process is itself a kind of metagame.
Within actual entertainment games, the term metagame is used to describe either a game system layered over the game system, to increase enjoyable complexity, or a game system by which game rules are created, such as Nomic. Nomic is a sophisticated and simple example of a metagame popular as a pastime among philosophers and mathematicians, but has also spread widely among other people as a recreative pastime option. Some card games and board games allow pre-stated and set rule changes depending on extraneous events, such as distinct states of weather or commercials on the television.
Adaptation to a specific gaming environment
Another game-related use of Metagaming refers to operating on knowledge of the way a game is played within a particular geographic region or tournament circuit. This local or circuit-specific context is often referred to as the metagame. A player who is aware of the metagame for their particular gaming environment may make play choices that are optimized against the play styles of the majority of players they are likely to face in that specific competitive arena. This usage is common in games that have large, organized play systems or tournament circuits and which feature customized decks of cards, sets of miniatures or other playing pieces for each player. The premier example of this kind of environment is the tournament scene for the card game Magic: The Gathering.
A recent slang definition of Metagaming, popular among computer and video game fans, is any tactic in a computer or video game that uses one or more features of that game that lie outside the intended gameplay use, or exploit errors in programming structures. For example, a player who took advantage of a bug in the game to gain some advantage would be metagaming. An example would be deliberately getting one's character killed in order to return to the last saved game.
Metagaming can also refer to realism in presentation. This can range from making actions take as long as they would in real life, such as a 10 hour military battle or a 24 hour car race, to making the gamer experience the game to how it is in real life and to add a bit of reality, so to speak.
In role-playing games, metagaming is a term often used to describe players' use of assumed characteristics of the game. In particular, metagaming often refers to having a character act on knowledge that only the player has access to (such as tricking a medusa to stare at a mirror when the character has never even heard of medusas and should not be aware of their petrifying stare). For instance, a player might adjust his character's actions if the player has some foreknowledge of the long-term intentions of the gamemaster, or, more commonly, the GM's tendency to have (or not to have) mercy on players whose characters do things that would cause them to fail at their objectives.