Monday, July 20, 2009

I Meta man with seven wives

I had the great opportunity to play a session of D&D this week, hosted by King. It was my first in several years, and my first experience with the 4th Edition of the rules. Playing in a new system was a pleasure in itself, and not only because of the many changes made since I set the game aside. It was oddly exhilarating to not know everything anymore.

There is a certain epistemological crisis to roleplaying: The more you do it, the more information you have that you are forced to suppress. Playing characters with independent intelligence and wisdom from your own means, to some extent, having to fake it. You begin as a novice player roleplaying that he has a clue what’s going on, and end up as an experienced player roleplaying that he doesn’t.

This type of metagaming lends itself to some pretty absurd scenarios, of course. Sometimes common knowledge blends into play knowledge, until everything turns into an Abbott and Costello routine.

DM: All right, so you enter the tomb. There’s a fancily dressed pale guy, with two really sharp teeth.

PLAYER 1: Oh no! A vampire!

DM: You don’t know what a vampire is.

PLAYER 1: I mean, Oh no! A pale guy!

PLAYER 2: Wait, we live in a world where vampires are real, and we don’t know one when we see one?

PLAYER 3: I show it my holy symbol. Does it hiss?

PLAYER 2: No, that doesn’t work. You have to impale it. Or expose it to the sun.

DM: You don’t know that.

PLAYER 1: But I thought when you expose vampires to the sun they just twinkled like diamonds.

PLAYER 3: Okay, but I show my holy symbol. Does it hiss?

DM: Sure. Yeah. It hisses.

PLAYER 1: Oh no! The pale guy is hissing!

It’s for this exact reason that every vampire movie starts with a speech explaining why everything you know about vampires is wrong.

“Forget what you know about vampires. Now remember half of it again. That’s the true half.”

In these cases, metagaming is something recursive and reflexive, the unavoidable baggage of prolonged play-pretend. As a function of the game, is self-defeating: if a fantasy space is defined by the wonder of difference, once the fantasy becomes the function normal, it ceases to be different.

Recently I talked a friend of mine and longtime gamer about his playing of MMOGs. He had been playing World of Warcraft for several years, and had risen through the ranks to becoming the top raid leader in his server. I asked him if he still got any enjoyment out of the game.

He thought about it, and said, “I guess so. But I’d give anything to be a noob again.”

But is metagame inevitably self-defeating? In the days and weeks to come, I’ll be looking at ways in which our inevitable metagame experience changes and accentuates play experiences. From platformer games about platform gaming to violent videogames about videogame violence, we have begun to see a new breed of games that deliberately engage player knowledge of genre. There are games that know they’re games, games that are played by changing the rules, and games where the only way to win is not to play.

Thanks, Ferris Bueller. Thanks for thermonuclear war.

It’s a lot to chew on, but I’m game. Are you?

- Rook

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