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Side Quest

Bijan Stephen
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List of games mentioned:

  • Magic: The Gathering
  • Fortnite
  • Valorant
  • Counter-Strike

List of ’90s trading card magazines mentioned:

  • The Duelist

As you might imagine, I play a lot of video games. I grew up with the medium; I sometimes feel like I came of age as it did, though I think everyone who’s lived alongside video games could probably say that. I grew up playing couch co-op and multiplayer games with my brother and our friends in unregimented, undocumented time. One of the more satisfying things I learned was how to modify my play in response to whomever I was matched up with—to attack more quickly against this person or wait out someone else. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that this concept was called metagaming, a word that doesn’t appear in many dictionaries and that describes the only way humans play with one another. 

Every game has a metagame: even spades, even tag. The word comes from Nigel Howard, a game theorist of the Cold War, who coined the term in a 1971 book that attempted to solve a version of the prisoner’s dilemma based on a “nonrational” approach—a version of the game that relied on a game that might exist if players chose their strategies with full knowledge of other players’ decisions. How does a game become different, in other words, if you know what your opponent will do? 

The definition that’s most commonly used now, however, comes from Magic: The Gathering designer Richard Garfield, who wrote his theorization of the concept in the spring 1995 issue of The Duelist, a magazine put out by the venerable game publisher Wizards of the Coast. Garfield realized that his relationships to the other players at his table influenced the outcome of their games—that each game wasn’t its own, independent event. Five years later he’d argue that “there is of course no game without a metagame… A game without a metagame is like an idealized object in physics. It may be a useful construct but it doesn’t really exist.” A game is a socially constructed thing. 

In video games, where mechanics replace rules—because rules are socially accepted, and because it’s hard to modify code on the fly—metagaming has colloquially come to imply all the externalities that surround games. That’s everything from optimal strategy to the social codes that form around each particular game; everything from knowing what the best weapons in Fortnite are at any given time to knowing how to conduct yourself on its subreddit. “Before a videogame can ever be played—before software can be considered a game in the first place—there must be a metagame,” Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux write in the introduction to their book Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames. The metagame, in other words, arises from the discontinuity between the experience of play and the mechanics of a video game.

When it comes to online multiplayer games, you have to be present; you have to be aware of and paying attention to the other players. Which is why I like Garfield’s definition: the metagame here is just reading other players. A further expansion, I think, comes from a concept published by theorists Marcus Carter, Martin Gibbs, and Michael Arnold, about Thomas F. Gieryn’s boundary-work theory. Gieryn’s idea is a sociological one, used to explain how people distinguish science from nonscience. It can be applied to video games, as Carter, Gibbs, and Arnold write, to explain how players figure out and enforce the unspoken social rules that every game has: “Players place recognition of the implicit rules of the game above recognition of the formal rules of the game.” 

Lately I’ve found myself playing a lot of Valorant. It’s a tactical shooter, which means that it’s part of the genre of games in which precision in positioning and strategy trumps raw aim a lot of the time. The point of the game is to win rounds by planting or defusing what’s called a “spike” in game parlance—it’s a bomb, really, much like the one you find in Counter-Strike—or by eliminating the enemy team. It’s a race to win thirteen rounds (though you do have to win by two in competitive games).

It’s also the first PC first-person shooter I’ve ever seriously played, which means that I’m at the bottom of a steep learning curve. It’s hard to internalize recoil patterns and remember to clear every corner I see, because it’s not something I’ve ever done in a video game.

But what’s kept me going—and what’s most satisfying about the experience—is the new group of people I regularly play with. 

I could tell you that Valorant’s metagame has a lot to do with coordinating team plays using imprecise and improvised information—that you play the other team by figuring out their quirks as much as by lining up your shots. But what’s more satisfying, I think, is feeling like I’ve somehow gotten back to those days on the couch, learning more about the people I’ve chosen to play with. Queueing up with a couple of friends and a couple of strangers to play Valorant over the internet isn’t quite like having people over to game and shoot the shit—but it’s not unlike it either. The point, in both situations, is to be with people. 

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