Oh, so close…

I like Matt Colville’s work. He has good advice, even if he feels the need to couch it in language that’s more palatable to the sensitive viewer. I wish he would be more consistent with his views. It’d be nice if he was a little more critical. And I’m expecting the Strongholds and Followers book will contain quite a bit of useless material ~ not because I think Colville’s work is necessarily useless, but because I expect that his project will fall prey to the usual thinking that plagues the RPG industry ~ that innovation means capturing the desires of the masses without applying much critical thinking to the why behind those desires.

I really hope I’m wrong about that last one.

In this video, he discusses meta-gaming ~ a topic that inevitably comes up for discussion in every gaming group, and where inevitably everyone falls prey to common misunderstandings.

(Disclaimer: I fell in with this thinking for some time but came around to another viewpoint, one which I feel much more accurately represents the dynamics of the game.)

There are many things said in the video, but one that I want to focus on is this

I asked on Twitter what meta-gaming was, and I asked for examples… and overwhelmingly… 80-90% of the responses said some variation of, “meta-gaming is when your character acts on information that you as a player have, but that the character does not.”

I think that is a good definition and regardless of whether it is or not, it’s the one we’re stuck with because, ultimately, usage is what matters.

Conventional wisdom, yes? I mean, if the majority of the population believes it to be true, it must be, right?

Never mind that this was an informal poll taken exclusively of Twitter users. Never mind that D&D players and DMs who use Twitter are not representative of the community at-large. Never mind that meta-gaming has a definition outside of D&D, that that definition has been around for some time and that it applies equally well to a number of game- and sports-related hobbies.

Never mind those examples where “common wisdom” have been proven to be completely, utterly and totally false, time and time again.

This is what I find so damned frustrating about Colville (and other public personalities of the online D&D community): they’re not stupid yet they continue to support and advance stupid ideas.

The community says, “Meta-gaming is acting on knowledge that you ~ the player ~ possess but that your character does not.” But this is utter horseshit and immediately apparent to anyone who takes more than a few seconds to consider the implications.

Still… a part of me understands: most people simply aren’t interested in challenging preconceived notions. We’re not really interested in learning anything new.

When asked about his success with the recent Kickstarter, Colville said something to the effect of, “I didn’t build the Kickstarter campaign. I built the community. After I built the community, I said, ‘hey, I’ve got this idea, do you want to help me produce it?’ The community said, ‘yes.'” This is a great lesson for anyone interested in selling a product online. The problem I have isn’t with the advice itself but with what it implies: that, in order to build a community, I have to accept that people are stupid and I have to change my message to come across as accepting of people’s stupidity.

I don’t know that I can do that. I don’t know that I have a need to, either, but still…

I had another thought on the topic and I believe it’s worth exploring:

Meta-gaming is a thing that happens whenever a player becomes serious about the game they are playing.

Role-playing is a thing that happens whenever a player becomes serious about the game they are playing.

Meta-gaming and role-playing are pretty much the same thing.

Despite the name, role-playing in the sense of acting is not a requirement to play an RPG. Knowing the rules is a requirement. Getting into character, is not. Knowing when it’s a good idea to run away from a fight, is. The game is “pretend to be [insert one- or two-word descriptor].” How is this done? By reading these rules on character generation, these rules on combat and these rules that are relevant to your specific character ~ after that, just play pretend.

The serious player is one who identifies on a personal level with his character. He takes this collection of numbers and words on a piece of paper, and turns it into a living, breathing person. The interaction and story-telling that takes place between the players and the DM help to solidify this anthropomorphism. The character is made even more real because we refer to it as “you,” as though talking about the player. Role-playing in the sense of acting the part is just a natural extension of playing the game, where the game is about directing the actions of an ostensibly living person (a pretend person, to be sure, but on some level our brains don’t recognize this difference).

Meta-gaming is not a requirement to play an RPG. Just like role-playing (acting), meta-gaming is something that happens when the player becomes serious about the game. The serious player takes his game to the next level by thinking about the ways the rules interact with each other; by running through different scenarios in his head or out loud with fellow players; by studying the tactics and techniques of other players; by observing and testing hypotheses about how the DM runs her game; and so on.

The only real difference between role-playing and meta-gaming is this distinction about what the character knows as opposed to what the player knows. Since we’ve demonstrated rather clearly that that distinction is near impossible to make with any level of certainty ~ and without creating an entirely new meta-game, revolving around manipulating the DM to let you get away with meta-gaming ~ it follows that this distinction is not relevant.

If you’re serious about the game, you’ll find a way to get into character and you’ll find a way to use the rules to your advantage. And that’s exactly what we, as DMs, should expect of our players.


15 thoughts on “Oh, so close…

Add yours

  1. This rant confused me a lot.

    There’s such a thing as descriptivist linguistics. It isn’t stupid, it’s practical. The idea that people on Twitter of all places, seeking to make a video on Youtube, should go around prescribing the “right” way to use words for the sake of, I don’t know, “greater correctness” is foreign to me. I’m sure people do this nonetheless, but to me it’s a waste of time.

    You’re so viciously eager to call people stupid, and to call Matt a supporter of stupid ideas, but to me that just rings hollow.

    It’s a question of priorities. If both I and another person I’m speaking to can understand each other, I’m happy to move on. I won’t rigorously define all terms I use unless I view those terms as critical to my future communication – I imagine you agree with this stance.

    The difference is that what I view as “critical”, what Matt views as “critical”, and what you view as “critical”, differ, based on our stubbornness and our particular values.

    Also, if you actually join live chat on Matt Colville’s discord, you’d recognize that there are efforts to build a community there and that, surprise, *it is a multi-faceted enterprise*. It’s an enterprise of *management*. It isn’t this 1:1 conversion of smart ideas to stupid ideas, it’s interacting with live people and moderating them and paying attention to them and arguing with them. As I’ve commented before, when you community-build, your priorities shift. I’m alarmed that you view this priority shift as just “enabling stupidity” because that seems like a gross oversimplification. And even if you want to indulge in such reductionism, let’s be clear: this isn’t some plague on innovation or whatever other variation of boy-cries-wolf.

    WotC, Colville, Mercer, all the other people out there creating communities – they’re different from you. They think critically as well as any human thinks critically, and they apply that thinking to *different things* from you. These are non-controversial statements to make.

    As for your assertion that metagaming isn’t relevant and that distinctions are near impossible, well. I take the descriptivist view on that. It’s relevant because it *causes real conflicts* and being able to discuss it *resolves real conflicts*. Distinctions are very possible because *distinctions are regularly made* and people *regularly agree on those distinctions* within a given group. If within “pure math” an equation is meaningless and hard to define but within “applied math” an equation solves real-world problems and can be locally defined, I’m happy to keep both types of mathematicians around..

    1. The “common definition” of meta-gaming does not help me run a better game. It puts me in a position of having to adjudicate the player’s decision-making process. This is a violation of a basic principle of role-playing games, that the player has full control over their character.

      And you may argue, correctly, that “full control” is not a thing because there are exceptions, like with mind-control or illusion magic. I would counter that the, “You’re character wouldn’t know that,” argument is not a valid exception. It’s an excuse to bully, pressure and coerce a player into doing what you want them to do.

      Given that Colville (and many other D&D public figures) are very much against this sort of behavior, I find it baffling that he would not take the opportunity to establish a better definition.

      1. Nowhere in the video does Matt Colville suggest that bullying is okay, and if you had said (in a devil’s advocate sort of way) to the Colville server that “your character wouldn’t know that” is one of the tools in your toolbox to deal with metagaming, you would get a discussion, not a bunch of people nodding along.

        If the common definition explicitly doesn’t help you, then so be it. Don’t use it, right. I think you miss my point.

        The first point I make is just that Colville’s video isn’t somehow bankrupt of critical thought. It’s just following descriptive (what does the community currently do) rather than prescriptive (here is a new thing I think the community should do) principles.

        The second point, separate from the first point, is that the metagaming conversation is relevant in contexts that exist, and that this is non-controversially true.

        As a side note: Colville’s point with both the Night Below example and with the Ooze example was to showcase “things which the community might call metagaming” and then address how he felt about them. There’s no pretension from the get-go that his video is meant to resolve metagaming once and for all. He reflects situations in which it crops up. The video description even says that he doesn’t know what metagaming is, and that these are his thoughts on it.

        So I don’t want to contest that you personally find it non-useful, nor contest your right to rant about it. But the nature of the rant escapes me, for the first, second, and third reasons.

        1. Sorry about the double-post. I do want to clarify a very different understanding you and I have of a single passage:

          “I think that is a good definition and regardless of whether it is or not, it’s the one we’re stuck with because, ultimately, usage is what matters.”

          So I hear that and I hear “this definition serves a purpose” and “because people use this definition, we are stuck with it based on descriptivist principles”.

          You responded to this in a weird way: you said:

          “Conventional wisdom, yes? I mean, if the majority of the population believes it to be true, it must be, right?”

          I’m imagining this in some sort of scathing tone. Scornful. Pitying. Maybe fondly exasperated, at best. I don’t know how you intended it to come across, but those are the tones that come to mind.

          So you think that Matt Colville is, to some extent, saying that this is the “one true definition”. If he were, then the vast majority of your rant makes sense.

          But he’s not. It’s eminently clear to me, both from conversing with him directly and from the video description that he’s not. He hates doing that.

    2. Along a similar vein, building a community does not help me run a better game. I will never play with the people from this community. As such, their opinions and criticisms of the game are only relevant insofar as I can apply them specifically to my game. My rant is not against Colville, it’s against the ideas that Colville (and the community) advance. Specifically, I’m ranting against their (implied) and your (stated) position that all ideas are of equal worth.

      1. Feel free to tell me if it is me who is missing the point, because I do feel even more lost as I read your replies.

        >Building a community does not help you run a better game

        This is non-controversially true. No contest. But…you realize that just because someone doesn’t help you personally doesn’t mean they’re immediately enabling stupidity, right? People promote ideas not necessarily along the single axis of stupidity and intellect. They promote ideas that help them.

        >ideas are of equal worth

        I mean, maybe this is threading the needle too much and I’m being pedantic. Tell me if you feel so. But I don’t think ideas are of equal worth. I think that the target audience and intent are things to take into account when making broad condemnations of ideas.

        This exact same problem has gotten me banned for being a troll before, as you know.

        To me, it follows that “if Colville says he doesn’t know something” then we should treat the content which follows as “something he doesn’t know, but is giving his thoughts about”.

        To me, it follows that “if Colville states that he wants to build a community”, we can expect his content will be aligned with that. There has to be some coherence between what he states and how he acts.

        Since that coherence exists, I’m justified in saying “he’s not enabling stupid ideas, he’s enabling ideas which help him best reach his audience, and those ideas definitely line up with his stated goals. it’s all consistent.”

        If you look at that and go “okay those goals don’t help me thus I’m not the target audience” that makes 10,000% sense to me.

        But if you look at that and go “oh yeah, well he clearly isn’t interested in challenging preconceived notions. just cuz somebody says it is so it’s just true now amirite” then that makes 0% sense to me. Like sure, that isn’t the most rigorous or most technically accurate definition of meta-gaming. No contest. Sure, the idea promoted is worth less to you. No contest. My point is that you’ve projected a bunch of stuff onto him that he explicitly has written that he isn’t doing though.

        If I say to you “today in my session this happened and here are my thoughts on it. for convenience, i’ll use words the way you use words,” it is correct, in a technical sense, that in that statement I’m not challenging any preconceived notions. but if you critiqued me in that way, I’d be puzzled as heck.

        1. It becomes increasingly clear that there’s a lack of common ground between us.

          There’s a larger conversation about meta-gaming going on. My consternation with Colville is that he ignores this. He’s in a position to make a difference. He could easily produce a video that goes, “Here’s what people think; here’s some history behind this topic; here’s what I think the answer is.” He does the former and the latter; he doesn’t do the bit in the middle.

          Context matters. The meta-game existed before D&D. It continues to exist, clearly defined and understood by people who study it (and employ it to their advantage). Virtually every game (non-RPG) has a slightly different meta-game surrounding it, but they all share common elements. It’s only in RPGs that you get the definition Colville offered (by way of polling the masses and accepting their definition at face value). And it’s only in RPGs that this definition leads to the DM policing player behavior, undercutting their agency.

          Consider the answers provided here, here and here. Here’s a page that outlines the issues with defining meta-gaming the way the community does. There are other resources and I recommend taking the time to look them up.

          I don’t think it’s too much to ask that someone like Colville takes the time to become a little more educated on these topics.

          1. I agree with:

            “Metagaming [sic] is any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game.”

            and with:

            “Pretending not to know anything is unnatural.”

            and with:

            “Here’s a principle to game by: If your goal is immersion, then your response should always be to re-immerse the players.”

            I also agree with the big picture implied by those three things I just agreed with, and I agree with your comment that they assist a larger conversation. I think that’s a vast amount of common ground.

            When Colville says:

            “What is Metagaming and is it always bad? Mmm…I dunno, but here are my thoughts.”

            I assume he doesn’t know, and I assume he is going to give us some thoughts.

            I agree with this:

            “I don’t think it’s too much to ask that someone like Colville takes the time to become a little more educated on these topics.”

            It is NEVER too much to ask that ANYONE become more informed. I’m not a champion of ignorance or anything like that.

            However, I think it’s reasonable for me to ask you to accept that up front, Matt Colville doesn’t bother to pretend that his audience speaks the truth. He straight-up does not do this. Period. He also doesn’t support bullying. He straight-up does not do this. Period. Those are straw men you’ve thrown at him, and they’re unfair.

            Because that has been the thrust of my confusion in every comment thus far. And I don’t see you addressing that. You keep saying “well look at the conversation he could be having” and as I said before and here and elsewhere “YES THAT IS CORRECT” but that is worlds apart from claiming that he said things he didn’t say.

            I even agree with “He’s in a position to make a difference. He could easily produce a video that goes, “Here’s what people think; here’s some history behind this topic; here’s what I think the answer is.” He does the former and the latter; he doesn’t do the bit in the middle.”

            That is an astute analysis. Simultaneously kinder AND overwhelmingly more accurate than the original blog post itself.

            1. This must be a major difference between us: I’m not interested in being kind. Kindness suggests a lack of conviction and a willingness to compromise. These are important things when discussing a topic face-to-face. They matter less in the current environment, where the substance of an idea is more important.

  2. I have 2 major problems with your article. the first being here

    “Never mind that meta-gaming has a definition outside of D&D, that that definition has been around for some time and that it applies equally well to a number of game- and sports-related hobbies.”

    this completely ignores that words are used in different ways based on context. games like over watch and League of legends use the term in a way that would make almost no sense in a DnD setting. it is irrelevant what the overall ‘dictionary’ definition of ‘metagame’ is. what matters is how its being used in a specific discussion. in this case the discussion is about DnD specifically, and is about ‘meta-gaming’ a verb that is broadly understood in this context to refer to exactly the definition that Matt used.

    the second problem i have is this:

    “But this is utter horseshit and immediately apparent to anyone who takes more than a few seconds to consider the implications”

    the definition as given had no implications. your reaction is based on the assumed implication that Matt called meta-gaming wrong. which he explicitly didn’t. he provided several examples of what he believes to be benign meta-gaming. as well as meta-gaming that can be corrosive to a group.

    furthermore, its important to note, that everything Matt says is his opinion, and that he doesn’t consider himself to be The Authority on any of the content of his videos outside of the videos that he makes regarding his personal setting.

    1. Your first problem, if I understand correctly, is that I’m ignoring the context surrounding the usage of the term. Yet Colville ~ and the D&D community at large ~ ignores the context of the term outside of their immediate references.

      Your second problem is that I’m assigning implications where none exist. Yet if you had bothered to read the links ~ which I’ve provided twice, in the post and in the comments ~ you’d have a better understanding of what those implications are.

      I admit that I’m not always as clear as I intend to be. I write about the game because I’m passionate about my hobbies, not because I get paid or because I have a reputation to maintain. Therefore, if something is unclear, please let me know so I can try to sort it out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: