Can Metagaming Be a Valid Form of Gaming?

Gameplay versus story has been debated on such an obscure intellectual level that I didn’t hear about it until I stumbled on critic Chris Franklin’s podcast. This comes despite my own research into a similar subject for over a year. Franklin boils it down as this: The most enlightened gaming experts, who I imagine have long white beards and live in towers, have for the past decade been trying to figure out whether gameplay or story is more important to a game.

installation wizard
A gaming expert.

He dubs this the ludocentrism versus narratology debate. Obviously this is an oversimplification that to most people sounds absurd, and quite rightly so. In his podcast, Franklin sensibly points out that gameplay mechanics need to be part of the storytelling process for the game to be effective. For instance, war shooter gameplay would ruin the psychological terror of a survival horror game. If a rift between the two does occur, the game’s story loses its impact. In other words, gameplay is how a game tells its narrative.

But what if there’s some legitimacy to the debate? What if there is some modularity between different aspects that make up a game? Just like there are players who only play a game if the graphics look good, can there be players who prefer one other aspect over the other, such as gameplay or narrative? I found myself asking this when my gamer identity was put into question.

Story time: The majority of my family friends are gamers of both sexes. Some are even developers. About a year and a half ago, one of my male friends commented that I wasn’t a gamer, not really. It wasn’t a malicious jab, just a passing observation he perhaps thought was self-evident. I asked him what made him think that. His reasoning fell along these lines: I spend most of my “gaming time” talking about a game’s symbolism with friends or exploring fanworks, so I’m not using that time to play the game, ergo I’m not a gamer. I ran this past my other male friends, and most shrugged in agreement as if this is self-apparent.
I then asked my female friends what they thought. For context, one, who is a developer, loves Deus Ex so much that she played Invisible War on god mode so she could get to the story content faster. Another spends more time writing Gears of War fanfiction (that would make Anne Rice blush) than playing the games.

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All the homoerotic elegance of Interview With the Vampire.

Another only buys her games after becoming emotionally invested in the characters through other people’s fanart. A fourth runs an entire community dedicated to Payday, which takes up so much of her time that she never plays the game anymore. In other words, metagaming is just as important to some of my female friends as the actual gameplay experience.
They brushed the male friend’s comment aside as complete nonsense. How can we not be part of the gaming community if we are so heavily invested in games, more so than the guy who expressed the sentiment that we’re not? And so the subject was instantly dropped. It was too ridiculous to give it another moment’s thought.

But then I wondered, what if this is the crux of the gender conflicts within the gaming community? Sure, character gender misrepresentation and harrassment are massive problems, but what if they’re parallel issues, or symptoms of something larger? What if male and female players experience games a little bit differently, and misunderstand each other out of unawareness? What if the gameplay versus story debate that Chris Franklin talked about has some legitimacy, and he was just looking at it through a perspective of social vacuum? He spoke of story and mechanics as if they cannot be separated, but they are modular. For example, players need to experience the gameplay of Mass Effect 3 to experience its narrative, but after that, nothing is stopping them from theorizing on the ending with friends, long after the controllers have been put down. It could be, then, that the question at the heart of the debate is this: Can metagaming be considered a legitimate part of the gaming experience?

Before you knee-jerk to a “no” answer, consider the impact that gaming analysis (what Chris Franklin does) has had on the industry. Are critics who spend more time analysing than playing not gamers?  Can film critics be considered as exterior to the movie community? Now what about fanworks, which are transformative by nature? Aren’t fanartists and fanfiction writers “playing” with the characters, settings, and stories? I believe that yes, metagaming can be part of the gaming experience, or at least it’s a species of gaming experience.

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I know what some of you are thinking:

But then, what is the point of being a gamer if you’re just going to divorce gameplay from narrative? Why don’t you just stick to books and movies?

First, I’m not trying to convince anyone that gameplay and story are separate experiences. This article is about how modularity exists between the two, and how it creates an ecosystem of players. There aren’t just players who like mechanics and others who like story; there are also players who only play for the achievements, others because they’re game reviewers or students or modders, others just for the graphics or music. But these sub-groups are already plentifully catered for and accepted as part of the gaming community. It’s just the metagamers that are not really understood as existing at all.
Second, books and movies do not offer the interactivity that games do. Sure you can read a book about a grand adventure, or watch a movie about it, but you can’t experience it on a personal level. Other mediums don’t allow for the use of agency, either. It needn’t even be a deeply immersive title with next-gen graphics. Look at games like Thomas Was Alone or Loneliness. Any other medium would not deliver the same emotional impact because the characters and their stories would be external experiences to the player. Yes, interactivity is a gameplay mechanic, but arguably it’s intrinsic to all games and it’s the reason gamers prefer gaming over other mediums. This does not invalidate a leaning towards narrative.

Critic Daniel Floyd (of Extra Credits fame) recorded a podcast a few years ago commenting on how he feels the majority of female players gravitate towards casual games because they feel unwelcome in genres marketed for male audiences. As a female player whose social circles are made up significantly of other female players, I believe the case is rather of invisibility and that the ‘female casual gamer’ stereotype is not entirely true. For the purpose of this article I’m assuming you are aware that 47% of gamers are female, but may not imagine that many of us consume the same games as male players. We might just not do it the same way as them. And, like Floyd illustrated, because we are not camping outside GameStop on the eve of a Call of Duty release, the rest of the community assumes we don’t exist at all, or worse, that the only games we know about are The Sims and Candy Crush.

Later Floyd released another podcast that touched on how developers are aware of a difference in playstyles across sexes. This might be oversimplifying the matter, but the gist of it is this: Female players roleplay for real-life parallels (social interaction, dress-up, home decorating, etc), while male players for heroic escapism (big swords, big guns, big sword-guns, etc).

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BIG CHAINSAW-GUNS

And in a way, I feel this is true. At the core of story analysis and fanwork creation is a desire to humanize characters and explore how they’d interact with the world they’re inserted in. Developers interpret this, however, as a need for genre stereotyping that even Floyd would later criticize (“Call of Duty is for boys, The Sims is for girls”). What if the answer to bringing more female players out from the holes they’re hiding in is to simply create a space where metagaming is accepted and cherished? What if it’s as simple as somehow helping male players understand that it’s OK for other players to explore games emotionally beyond the act of interacting with the in-game mechanics? Valve have started doing this by allowing players to upload fanart to Steam. This effort illustrates that there’s at least some legitimacy to what I’m suggesting.

Psychologist Mark Gungor recently spoke about human behavioural differences across sexes. In his conference, he argues that female persons respond to situations by becoming emotionally hyper-aware, while male persons block emotional stimuli out and focus on practical solutions. Gungor’s talk was about marriage, but it helped me understand why female and male gamers sometimes don’t see eye to eye. So what exactly is this all about? In an earlier paragraph I mentioned a friend who has no problem cheating in a game if the gameplay gets in the way of the narrative. I’ve done this too countless times. The idea of it appals my husband. He tells me I’m ruining my own experience. Before I started looking into this, I dismissed what he was saying as crazy-talk. I don’t want to repeat a tricky mission twenty times, I want to interact with the narrative. My husband’s experience of the same game is very different. He derives the most pleasure from seeing those stats climb and overcoming challenges. Metagaming is more about emotional investment, while gameplay is about solutions and achieving a coda.

Much of what I’m talking about is from my own personal experiences and my friends’. Therefore I tried to collect some data to back this up. Admittedly not very professionally, but with all three surveys conducted I got vaguely similar results.

The first survey was conducted on tumblr. The post asked bloggers which part of the gaming experience they enjoyed the most: The in-game gameplay or the metagaming experience. The post became so popular that it was impossible to count the results without my browser crashing. I stopped at 1533. Of that number, only 180 preferred gameplay. 831 liked metagaming more. 452 felt unsure. Needless to say this was a flawed survey, as it says very little of respondents’ genders. Still, a bias towards metagaming within the tumblr community could be seen.

graph 1

The second survey was conducted by email. Here I allowed a third choice, for players who prefer some other aspect of videogames, such as graphics or achievement hunting. Of the 256 respondents, 172 said they enjoy metagaming over mechanics. There were 46 players who prefer mechanics. 38 placed themselves in the ‘other’ category.

graph 2

The exercise provided some interesting and enthusiastic responses, too:

cupofwitt: If it’s not gonna move me I don’t want it.

mike-wazowski-the-third: Gameplay is important, but can get old fast. A good storyline is what keeps me playing.

destoroyahwithagun: I think if you need proof you don’t need to look any further than the Zelda franchise which has the fanbase split between [ludocentrism and narratology].

varithoughts: If I’m playing something like Binding of Isaac, the story behind it is interesting, but the gameplay is MUCH more important. On the other hand, I would say something like OFF, the story is entirely the point. We played it 100% on auto battle. Gameplay is secondary.

The second survey didn’t explore gender, but the third one did. Of the 100 respondents, 27% said they prefer gameplay, and 71% story.

graph 3

The gender discrepancy is huge, with 47% of male and 17% of female gamers preferring the gameplay aspect of games. With narrative it was 19% of male and 83% of female gamers. While the sample is tiny, the results on all three surveys seems to indicate something’s clearly up.

graph 4

Now comes the hard question:

Even if this is the case, why does it matter? The gaming industry is fine as it is. This is just another attempt to insert gender politics into gaming.

No, that is not the case at all. It’s not that we want to worm ourselves into an external pre-established community, it’s that we have been an invisible part of it all along. I’m not arguing for anything different to be done to games on a development level, either. There only needs to be an understanding that some players enjoy the social experience of sharing a game’s narrative over the actual gameplay, and that this shouldn’t be a reason to exclude them from the gaming community. Mainstream gaming can only benefit from the acceptance of metagamers as a valid subspecies of gamer. If you’ve ever enjoyed one of The Game Theorists‘ videos or a cool piece of fanart in your life, you’ve benefited from metagaming. Metagaming could help games become more emotionally mature without developers having to delve into tokenism or “pandering”. I believe that the acceptance of metagamers as part of the gaming community would, in fact, ease gender conflicts by validating self-expression through derivative works.

Here are some examples of games becoming enriched by metagamers:

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Official Bioshock: Infinite concept art by artist Claire Hummel. She’s been posting videogame fanart on deviantART since 2006.
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Official Team Fortress 2 comic panel by artist Makani. She has posted fanart of Valve games since at least 2008. And some of it would definitely make Anne Rice blush.

During my research, various people I talked to pointed out the parallels of the ludocentrism versus narratology debate with the concept of Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. The characters are player archetypes of the Magic card game, in which Timmy and Spike are roughly equivalent of the gameplay gamers and Johnny is the artistic metagamer. So what I’m writing about here is nothing new. The philosophical concept of eight aesthetic principles of art  was also brought to my attention. This is more tangential, but it helps illustrates the myriad of ways of media appreciation that can be experienced.

A bit of a disclaimer: I’m not an industry professional and speak mostly from personal experience. The research behind this article is not fantastic and shouldn’t be referenced. It’s just here to give some idea of what I’m talking about. Feedback is welcome as I wish to keep researching this further.

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