Meta-Play: Going Beyond the Game

Originally a research paper for a ‘History of Interactive Media’ class at Fitchburg State University, edited to add related hyperlinks and images.


From “The Elder Strolls, Part 1” on PC Gamer

I. Introduction & Definition

It’s morning, and I’ve just arrived in Skyrim. I wear no armor, just simple clothing and footwraps. I carry no two-handed broadsword, just a small iron dagger. No fearsome warpaint adorns my face and no jagged scars tell stories of hard-fought battles won. I have no priceless treasures or magical artifacts, just a handful of gold coins and a single piece of fruit.
I won’t be looting ghoul-infested crypts or rampaging through bandit-occupied forts, I won’t be helping citizens with their various problems and quests, and I certainly won’t be awakening any dragons. My name is Nordrick. I’m not a hero, I’m an NPC, and I’m here not to play Skyrim, but to live in it.

So begins “The Elder Strolls, Part 1” by Christopher Livingston, a ten-part series from PC Gamer about playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) with a completely custom rule-set devised to emulate a Non-Player Character, or NPC. These rules include eating and sleeping in-game regularly, “making a living” using the in-game economy that does not involve typical quests or “adventuring”, and a refusal to use the game’s fast-travel system and instead walk everywhere in the 14.8 square-mile world.

Livingston has not modified the game’s code in any way, nor is there a mode built into the game to facilitate this kind of play; he has created his own rules from scratch utilizing his knowledge of the game and what he wants as a player to experience.

With the increasing visual and systemic fidelity of video games and other interactive media, this phenomenon of user-created rule-sets has proliferated, though it is not new. It does not, however, have a term to describe it. I wish to put forward a formal term and definition for this kind of play, differentiate it from almost similar terms, then examine recorded examples of it and analyze its meaning to players and video games as a culture and medium.

Meta-Play is the phenomenon of when players create and enforce their own extra, external rules and rule-sets onto an existing game so as to fundamentally change how and why they play.

The term is constructed from meta-, a Greek prefix meaning “after”, “along with”, or “beyond”, attached to play, which is the most commonly used verb to describe the action of engaging with interactive media, while also colloquially denoting a “fun” or pleasurable experience.

I use the word “extra” with its specific definition of describing something as “beyond or more than what is usual, expected, or necessary; additional”. Furthermore I use the word “external” to describe the relationship the player’s created rules have to the original work — they are not part of the game in any technological sense nor were they intended by the work’s authors, therefore they are external to it.

II. Differentiation

The term Meta-Play, though as a concept rather obvious in its existence, is new, but there are terms and ideas that are similar to it that I wish to differentiate from.

Most similar in construction is the term “metagaming”, which is also a neologism and a colloquial term rather than an academic one (as are almost all the terms I will be writing about), referring to the “use of out-of-game information or resources to affect one’s in-game decisions.” Metagaming is referred to most often in either in regards to strategy within games or while role-playing, inside a digital game or no. Particularly with pencil-and-paper role-playing games (PnP RPGs), metagaming becomes an issue, for example, when a player does or says something that is not in tune with the character they are supposed to be role-playing as, such as referring to another player by their real name or trying to commit an action that their character cannot possibly know is available to them (and indeed usually is not), but that they as a player assume is legitimate. (The web-series LARPs by Geek and Sundry, about live-action role-playing, makes fun of this often.)

Elsewhere metagaming is mentioned when discussing using actual military tactics in militaristic games such as ARMA 2 and 3, or the Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon series. Metagaming is about tactics and the possession of information within the game itself while referring to things outside it, and is frequently a verb with the connotation of systems mastery through unorthodox (and to some, unseemly) ways.

(Also, the card game Metagame, by the Local 12 including Eric Zimmerman, author of Rules of Play, is a party game entirely predicated upon outside knowledge of popular culture referenced by the cards in the deck. One plays Metagame exclusively by metagaming.)

Secondly there is the matter of mods, or modifications to games, and how they relate to Meta-Play. Ultimately a mod is, in part, re-defining the text that is a game, and therefore making what was meta-text into part of the text. Because of this, mods are not Meta-Play. Mods may, however, facilitate Meta-Play, such in the case of mods that allow extensive character customization, different combat rule-sets, or visual additions. The modifications are used to Meta-Play, but they are not the source of the Meta-Play itself.

Conversely the idea of “House Rules” is most certainly a kind of Meta-Play, though one that gets tricky because ultimately house rules may become textual, permanent additions to a game, in which case they are no longer Meta-Play.

III. Examples of Meta-Play

Now that we know what Meta-Play is definitionally and what it is not, we can look at examples of it to understand it even better.

The quote I opened with, from “The Elder Strolls, Part 1”, is one of many examples of journalism or blog pieces writing from the perspective of the player as they Meta-Play. Ironically this means there is not much writing about Meta-Play as a concept, but nonetheless these examples can provide both entertainment and insight as to why this is such a common and powerful phenomenon.

In a long-read piece entitled “Why We Fight: Inside Shack Tactical, the Elite Military Simulation Group”, Polygon writer Charlie Hall embedded himself in Shack Tactical, an online gaming group that plays long, intensely realistic rounds of the military simulator game ARMA 3. With over 300 members, mostly comprised of actual military veterans, Shack Tactical, also known as ShackTac, use a mix of metagaming (using actual real-life military tactics) and Meta-Play to create the exact experience that the want:

The way ShackTac plays is different from the military. Those differences have a lot to do with the weapons they choose to fight with (usually Cold War era, analogue weapons), but also the missions they create and play (like traditional meeting engagements, but also highly thematic scenarios like hostage rescues that require acting skills). There are rules and hierarchies; all of the players in ShackTac have a rank — from pFNG (pre-Fucking New Guy) to NCO (Non Commissioned Officer). But unlike the military, ShackTac doesn’t have fixed units — players can fight alongside whoever they like from night to night. Certain roles, however, are off limits to all but senior members. Pilot slots are reserved for only the most skilled players in the group.

Another experience inside the ARMA games, Altis Life, extensively uses modifications and a specially-created player-run server to create a semi-functioning society replete with players acting as police officers, ambulance drivers that respond to distress calls, and of course, criminals. Police officers and ambulance drivers are “white-listed” career options that require out-of-game applications and approval by a server administrator to play, but criminal activity, or peaceful “civilian” activity is created only because there is an extra, external set of rules that are not hard-coded into the modification but instead are part of a code of conduct players are expected to obey. They of course often do not, as Brendan Caldwell writes in his article, “My Ridealong with a Rebel“:

[Hank] is also refreshingly candid. He tells me all about corruption in the police. Some officers give out weapons to civilian friends, he says. Although this is “very very rare!” This is a bannable offense and one of the worst forms of corruption on the server.
 “There used to be a whole constabulary that was corrupt,” says Summers. “A whole section of high-ranking officers and no-one could do anything about them because the corruption went right up to the third in command.
 “If one of them got into trouble… if someone did something blatantly wrong, they wouldn’t do anything about it.
 “They did some nasty stuff sometimes. The majority of the time they were nice people. But, as I said, a bit corrupt.”
From “My Ridealong with a Rebel”, via Rock, Paper, Shotgun

Both of these examples, mostly due to them being staged inside the ultra-realistic ARMA games, are extreme examples in rather extreme games. There are other examples that are far simpler, and are in relation to much simpler games. The following examples are also much more popular, due to them being easier to Meta-Play.

On the first season of his web-series Tabletop, where geek star Wil Wheaton brings various other geek stars on to play analog games on camera, the card game GLOOM by Keith Baker was featured. In the introduction to the video, before beginning play but after outlining the basic rules of the game, Wheaton explains that “What makes GLOOM awesome is the stories we will weave to justify everything that happens…” He and his guests then proceed to play the game, telling stories of the characters being “mocked by midgets” and “eaten by bears”, as those are the events on the modifier cards the move the game, but augmenting them with back-stories for the characters they each control. Guest Meghan Camarena explains that The Twins, members of her family of cards, became famous and went around signing autographs in the hospital after recovering from some horrible incident before being “beaten by beggars”, who are now jealous of all the loose change being donated to them. (A joke emerges that their game of GLOOM is happening in New England, and that bad things frequently happen on the fictional “Moors of Massachusetts”.) By adding an external rule that the players must tell a story that compliments their every modifier, the game becomes richer, longer, and more personal, and is an excellent example of simple Meta-Play.

The “Nuzlocke Challenge” is well-known amongst the international Pokemon community as one of the most challenging, potentially rewarding ways to play any entry in the series. Coined in 2010 by a college student now known to many simply as Nuzlocke, it is an external rule-set for any Pokemon game with two simple rules:

1. The player can only catch capture the first Pokemon they encounter in a new area.

2. If a player’s Pokemon faints — loses all of its health points and becomes unusable until resuscitated — the player is to consider that Pokemon “dead” and use the “release” function of the game to return it to the wild.

Since the original Nuzlocke Challenge hundreds of attempts have been made to play an entire game through in this manner, in every single iteration of the Pokemon franchise, and along with those “runs” come personal stories of Pokemon not just as digital fighting monsters, but as companions that were nursed back to health from the brink, or lost because there was simply nothing the player could do. One could argue that the Meta-Play involved in the Nuzlocke Challenge fulfills the Pokemon series’ original promise of raising pet-like pocket monsters to become allies and friends, as is depicted in the more narrative-focused television shows and movies, versus the games that in no way mechanically engender empathy towards the Pokemon themselves.

Finally, easily the most cataloged instance of Meta-Play that can be found is also in the game that is easily the most written-about digital game in recent history: The Sims. The life-simulation franchise by Maxis Games started in 2002, and from the beginning was famous for its ability to generate ridiculous stories and crazy scenarios, but also for its lack of ultimate objective: like life, there isn’t an obvious point to it all.

That changed when The Sims 2 came out in 2004 and so came with it the Legacy Challenge, a meticulously crafted set of rules for creating a 10-generation family of Sims starting with one sim on an empty lot. Players are not allowed to reload save games in the event of tragedy, and start off with only 1,800 simoleans to start. The Legacy Challenge rules have been revised with each subsequent release of the game, and in some instances when expansion packs have been released. The Legacy Challenge website includes healthy forums and several other types of challenges for The Sims, of varying difficulty and complexity.

A family tree from the Sims Legacy Challenge

Apart from the Legacy Challenge many players will simply enforce rules upon their digital children, such as what kind of house they can live in, where they go and why, and how they interact with others. The game in its original state does not mechanically or narratively reward true role-playing so much as it does reward an efficient exploitation of its systems, so that sims stay “in the green”, referring to the various bars that represent their biological and emotional wants and needs.

By creating the rule-set for the Legacy Challenge, players now have an ultimate objective to vie for, which fundamentally changes how they play a game that, in its pure textual form, has no win state. This is a fundamental, low-level change to the game and how it’s played, and probably the most understandable and cataloged form of Meta-Play.

IV. Conclusion

In many cases of Meta-Play, the play comes from a desire to want to experience something more than the text by itself can offer, usually in a more emotional way than mechanical. Games have always been good at creating new mechanics and systems, but creating emotional experiences alongside those expertly crafted systems is either left to the wayside or entirely in the player’s hands, and players rise to that challenge often and in exceedingly different ways.

The players of ShackTac and Altis Life create for themselves an intricate, delicate menagerie of new systems and hierarchies that take the complex systems already inherit in the games and put them to greater emotional use than in the original text — they create engaging, larger-than-life scenarios and an entire world to live in, respectively, where players feel both in control but also guided in what that control is for.

Challenges like the Nuzlocke and Legacy Challenge ultimately are player-made ends to the games they love — designers and marketers make them satisfying in a mechanical, consumerist way, but sometimes it’s up to the players to create a satisfying conclusion to it all, and fulfill the promise made by the game in the first place.

Christopher Livingston, author of “The Elder Strolls” series, Meta-Plays in a way that actively takes away power from himself in a game where every mechanic was designed in a way to make the player feel powerful. By doing so, Livingston creates victories for himself out of picking flowers, having a dog companion, and settling down with a wife in-game, until he meets a brutal end when a bandit chief bludgeons his character, Nordrick:

You lived like an NPC, and so you must die like one: permanently. Still, your life, though brief, can’t be seen as a failure. You survived the dangerous world of Skyrim for 52 days. You killed 37 people, 122 animals, and 3 bunnies. You crafted 92 pieces of armor, mixed 281 potions, and picked just shy of 1,000 flowers. With the exception of a couple minor tasks, you avoided quests, and with the exception of being pounded to death by the giant hammer of a heavily armored bandit chieftain, you avoided adventure.
On a personal note, may I just add this statement: DAMMIT. I can’t believe that happened! I was so close to getting Nordrick everything he ever wanted, and I was genuinely looking forward to continuing to play Skyrim with him for a good long while. And now, in the blink of an eye, it’s all gone.
That’s death in Skyrim, though. It comes suddenly, it comes shockingly, and it comes, often, at the hands of some dickweed with a giant hammer.

Originally published at ethanthibault.xyz on March 24, 2016.

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