When Meta-Gaming Breaks Play

Meta-gaming is a term that refers to when gamers try to think outside of the “box” of the game narrative…and just focus on winning.

You might not think this is such a bad thing, but it really is…because it infects more than just games.

World of WarcraftWhen Meta-Gaming Breaks Play — Kimia Wood

It’s easiest to see in a computer role-playing game (CRPG) like World of Warcraft.

Once upon a time, WoW gave your character “talent points” for leveling up, and you applied these points to a complicated tree that eventually led to other abilities or perks. (Other CRPGs frequently used this system also, such as Diablo 2.)

With so many branches to choose from – and different end goals that you had to work hard to achieve – you could truly make your character unique.

I personally poured all my talent points into making my mage’s cast time faster.

Other players? They crunched numbers and created Reddit pages dictating the exact specifications you “needed” to “really be an X, Y or Z.”

Are you a Warrior? You need this build order. Are you a Hunter? You must put your talents into these things. The algorithms are such that only this configuration will give you a “proper” character of your chosen class.

No matter if you just wanted to make your cast time faster, and wouldn’t be caught dead in a player vs. player (PvP) scenario (unless you’re doing the Children’s Week achievement…and the reason you avoid it is you usually end up dead! Ugh).

The Reddit types are no longer playing. They are gaming.

Instead of helping Varian and the Alliance defeat the undead, they’re now trying to max out their gear.

They’re not interested in breathing life into their avatar by giving them a totally unique build of talents and quirks. They want to know what will give them the maximum edge in combat, and then they’re playing to win.

No wonder Blizzard Entertainment simplified the talent system to where you choose one of three new spells or abilities every level (instead of funneling points toward different branching tree systems).

Dungeons and Dragons

When Meta-Gaming Breaks Play — Kimia Wood

Image credit: Wikipedia

Relaunching our campaign and delving into the world of AD&D has given us a chance to examine this gaming system.

My dad especially has found there’s a lot of tips to help Game Masters (or Dungeon Masters for some) prevent players from “meta-gaming.”

This is why players aren’t allowed to trade or give items to each other (imagine two siblings teaming up and sharing all their loot…how unfair would that be?). Same reason players are discouraged from running two characters at once (of course I will let Myself borrow my Magic Sword of Dragon-Smiting!).

You might be wondering, “What’s wrong with people being friendly and wanting to share?”

Meta-gaming!

See, each character in D&D has “stats” – like strength, dexterity, charisma (how convincing you are to people), constitution (how well you recover from illnesses), etc.

Meta-gaming knows what these stats are, and tries to work them to its advantage.

It tells the strongest character to try opening the door, the prettiest character to get information out of the innkeeper, and the smartest character to read the cryptic writing on the scroll. It gives the magic sword to the guy who needs it most (not the guy who found it, for example), and tries to distribute other items, potions, etc. according to stat needs.

Of course, with all these actions you have to roll the dice to see if you succeed…and a good GM can either give you a helping hand, or totally mess with your plans.

BECAUSE THE POINT IS NOT WINNING.

I mean, obviously we want to win. But the point of the game is not to play with pencil in one hand and calculator in the other, figuring out the exact probability of each fight and moving into just the right place to maximize profit. (Which is exactly what the brother and I do playing Battle for Wesnoth, by the way…:} .)

The point of the game is to play.

You are this character. What might they do? Sure, your character sheet says you have great charisma…but how good is your acting when you talk with the GM (who plays all the non-player characters)?

Yeah, the sheet says this character is the strongest…but his player has portrayed him as a gentle giant, unsure of himself, so it doesn’t make sense for him to rush into the fray.

Besides, the guy with lower strength got a really good roll, and opened the door with no problem.

I said earlier that meta-gamers think outside the box…but actually, they’re confined by the numbers and the probabilities, and don’t have the creative freedom to try a true “outside the box” solution. (Like “let’s pull on the door together – or use this broken sword as a lever” or “his character is ugly as sin but the player is great at improv – let him talk us out of this”…)

Where am I going with this?When Meta-Gaming Breaks Play — Kimia Wood

So meta-gaming can make a game less fun (unless lots of math or internet searches is how you like to spend your game time), but is it really worth a whole post?

Is it really so bad? Can’t I let some players do them, and let me do me?

Theology

It doesn’t just apply to games, see. Though that’s where it shows up most visibly…

Jesus had a lot of harsh things to say to the Pharisees – a brand of “hyper-observant” Jews who took the Law of Moses and the Old Testament super seriously and were doing their best to follow what God said.

Or were they?

What was that Jesus said to them?

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matt. 23: 23)

And He got more explicit:

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men. And he said to them, You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!

For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’

But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do. (Mark 7: 8-13)

See, they weren’t focused on playing. They were into gaming.

God said, “Here’s My game. Here are My rules. Now let’s play.”

But the Pharisees said, “I crunched the numbers, and this is how I need to play to win the encounter.” (I.e. their goal was “eternal life,” not actually “living with God wherever He is.” – see John 5:39-46)

And God said, “That’s actually not the point, and no, you don’t win.”

Go with the Game Master

It’s so easy to fall into the meta-gaming trap. We think if we put tracts in every bathroom we visit, then we don’t have to witness to our neighbor next door.

Or that because we went and visited lonely people in the nursing home, we can sass off to our mom at home.

We’ll say, “The man is not doing his job; but the job needs to get done. So we’ll have this woman do it” – even though that’s exactly what God said not to do!

We see that parents are not taking care of their kids…so we decide we’ll do it for them, instead of helping the parents fulfill their God-ordained duty to raise/teach their own kids!

WHO DID GOD GIVE THOSE KIDS TO AGAIN?

I know you couldn’t get an 18 on the parents’ character sheet if you added all the numbers together (18 is the max stat), but that doesn’t mean you can mess with the encounter.

The GM says it’s their role to do this. /end rant

This “pragmatism” is a “need to achieve.”

When you meta-game, you are essentially saying:

  • “We can’t trust the GM to arrange things in our favor. We have to become slaves of the numbers to make the system work.”
  • “The actual children aren’t important, only the test scores/high scores/level achievements we get. We’re not here to walk beside our children and trust God to bless us…we’re here to do ‘whatever it takes’ to get the output we want – e.g. the good grades, good jobs, good social skills we’re sure we’ll get if we use the Magic Wand of Academic Readiness.”
  • “I saw on a Reddit page that soup kitchens help reduce crime. I’m not sure how, so let’s not bother to establish strong, stable relationships with the hurting people we meet – or heaven forbid share Jesus with them! – but focus on running as many people through our lunch line as possible. Because Jesus said, ‘Go thou and get high attendance numbers,’ right?”

What does the “Game Master” really say?

He says that checking off the prayer, Bible reading, soup kitchen, and “smiling” boxes doesn’t win the game for you! This is not about getting the “proper” gear for your class.

This is about immersing yourself in the game, and playing with all your heart.

Cry when a side character dies. Don’t sweat that your stats aren’t high enough. Solve the puzzles in new, creative ways. If you “break the fourth wall” too much, it won’t be there anymore…and you won’t even be in the story anymore.

Trust the Guy-in-charge-of-the-game. If you play His way, you will win. The Referee is on your side, see 😉

‘Cause it’s not about winning. It’s about playing the game with your “Dad.”


When Meta-Gaming Breaks Play — Kimia WoodKimia Wood was raised by an aspiring author, so spinning words and weaving plots is in her blood.

She currently lives somewhere in the American midwest, bracing for the collapse of society by knitting, baking, gaming, writing, hobby-farming, and reading as much Twitter as possible before the web goes dark.

Subscribe to the mailing list for a FREE e-copy of her post-apocalyptic adventure novella Soldier! You’ll also receive periodic updates on her latest reading and writing projects.


Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

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