You have five cards in your hand, each one bearing the title of a different game. For fun, let’s say you’ve got World of Goo, King’s Quest, Prince of Persia, Silent Hill and Myst. The judge turns over a card that reads, “Which is more like a comfy pair of slippers?” Is the choice clear to you? More importantly, can you convince the judge that you’re right when your opponent just laid down A Link to the Past? You’re up first; your two minutes starts… now!
As the name implies, The Metagame is a game about games. Equal parts rhetoric and nostalgia, the game is basic enough that almost all of the work—and the fun—is left to the players. Somewhat in the vein of Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity, Metagame proceeds from the simple mechanic of putting familiar things together in unexpected ways and relishing in heated discussion about the combination. It truly is one of those cases where you get back what you put into it, because frankly if you aren’t in the mood for debate, then there’s no fun to be had here. But if you’re itching for an argument, riled up for a round of energetic expostulation, giddy for some gamer-geek gab, then Meta Game offers just enough structure to stoke a rousing verbal rally.
In the most basic sense, the content of this game is two-fold: the library of classic and contemporary video games that it showcases, and the provocative, occasionally quirky prompts it offers to organize debate. In a more obscure sense, however, the true content of the game consists in the people who play it. What this means is that among a crew of people who are eloquent, incisive, clever and knowledgeable about games, Metagame is pure delight. But among a group of pedants, whiners, and/or shallow proselytizers, the experience would be utterly insufferable.
Metagame is also notable for what it has to teach us about the dynamic between critical engagement and nostalgia. So often, when I have informal discussions about games, and about the canon of gaming, I find my arguments are rooted in little more than fond memories of formative days in my youth. “Of course Police Quest is a great game,” I sometimes catch myself saying, “I spent hours working through it.” But the frame provided by a prompt like, “Which game gives players more freedom?” or “Which game has more progressive gender politics?” forces me to engage with what the game actually does relative to the culture of its emergence. It invites a level of historical engagement that is often lacking from critical discussions of games. There is room, of course, for an appeal to nostalgia – especially with something like the comfy slippers prompt cited above – but the best arguments recognize that appeal as such, and use it as one piece of evidence in a broader strategy.
That said, there is nothing inherent to Metagame that forces this level of conscious argumentation. Each player has two minutes to say whatever he or she wants. And that means some players will fizzle while others flash. Perhaps, then, Meta Game is best approached as a spectator sport – not something I can say about many tabletop games. But I mean that an awareness of spectators makes for a more interesting game. The ideal round of play has as much in common with dramatic performance as it does with the mechanical side of gaming, likely more.
In the company of non-gamers, the crucial function of the performance is all the more clear. When the debaters cannot make shorthand appeals to the form or content of a game, the need for rhetorical invention—analogy and contrast, for example—ramps up. For some audiences, I can refer to grinding in Pokémon and their understanding will not only be immediate, but deep, even visceral. For others, to whom grinding is merely a part of how one prepares coffee, I will need to drum up a relatable image or anecdote, and fast!
My point is not merely that being good at debating will make you better at The Metagame. Of course it will. But I am also trying to highlight the critical value of this game, what it reveals about the nature of communication as reflected through a third party. The fact that you are performing for a judge, and sometimes also an outside audience, constitutes a formal distinction; this performative component is the game-maker, the facet that imposes a game on what might otherwise be a comic shop conversation.
The presence of the other — i.e. the judge — is not neutral either; since that person is empowered to determine the outcome of the game, the stakes of any match hinge, in some sense, on interpersonal investment. They hinge on attentiveness to the particularities of an individual. If the judge values logical reasoning and loathes any attempt to pander, then awareness of those particularities may supersede awareness of generic bias, knowledge of specific games, etc. With a different judge, however, one who doesn’t care about quality debate, but really likes Valve, or ninjas, or food… well, then playing Left 4 Dead, Tenchu or Cooking Mama may be enough to win the round—no need to speak.
Regardless of the specifics, the necessity of processing a conversation with an opponent through the presence of an other prompts a fruitful kind of self-reflexivity. Metagame is little more than the imposition of a system onto a basic relationship, but as such—by turning the art of conversation into something that can be scored—it highlights the ways that games condition interpersonal relationships. In this sense, The Metagame is not just a game about games, or a even merely about the people who play games; it’s about the dynamics of interaction: about how systems of interpersonal engagement change the ways that we relate to, and through, each other.