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Introduction. Metagaming: Videogames and the Practice of Play

Introduction. Metagaming: Videogames and the Practice of Play

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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

fi ll 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

fi ll or not to fi ll—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 fi nd 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 http://manifold.umn.edu/metagaming. 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


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 DyerWitheford 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 defi ning 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 infi nite 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

fi xing 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 soft ware

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 soft ware 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 defi nition 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 fi lm about fi lms, 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, selfreferential, 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 prefi x 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 prefi x 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 RAND19 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. if one confesses and the other does not, the former will be given a

reward . . . and the latter will be fi ned . . .

2. if both confess, each will be fined . . . At the same time, each has good

reason to believe that

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




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 Th is 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).

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