What is Metagaming and How Has it Impacted Video Games?

edited August 2023 in Gaming

Metagaming is any strategy, action, or method used in a game that transcends a prescribed ruleset. This includes using external factors to influence gameplay and going beyond the limits or environment set by the game. So what does meta mean in gaming, and what exactly is the meta game? Read on to learn all about this important gaming concept. 

Metagaming has specific meanings and implications depending on genre, because each genre has its own set of conventions and expectations that define what is considered acceptable behavior. In this article, metagaming is first described as it relates specifically to role-playing games and is then described as it relates to other genres, such as MOBAs.

What is metagaming in role-playing games?

Metagaming is a player’s use of real-life knowledge concerning the state of the game to determine their character’s actions, when said character has no relevant knowledge or awareness under the circumstances. Metagaming is often considered unsporting or cheating and is generally poorly received because it subverts the essence of role-playing games: accurate character depiction based on in-game experiences and backstory. Generally, if a player finds out information through out-of-character discussions either on a server or through social media, that player is not supposed to use that information in the game until their character has learned about it themselves in a natural way.

The following are examples of activities in role-playing games that are considered metagaming:

  • Pursuing secrets or locations based on your (the player’s) knowledge of their existence when the character has no knowledge of them. 
  • Using your (the player’s) knowledge of how the game works to create a character optimized to win. 
  • Sharing in-character information or secrets through out-of-character means, such as via Discord. 
  • Stealing from a character when you know the player is away from their keyboard, linkdead, or otherwise unable to prevent it in-character. 
  • Reloading older saves to replay an event more effectively due to knowing how it is likely to play out.

The following are examples of NOT metagaming:

  • Knowing that vampires are real creatures and you need a stake to kill them. 
  • Knowing that trolls are susceptible to fire and that that fire ends their regeneration for a short period. 
  • Using your knowledge of the opponent to select the most appropriate attack strategy.

What is metagaming in esports?

Outside of role-playing games, metagaming simply refers to players using knowledge or understanding of external factors, such as community trends or coincidental events, to gain an advantage in competition. Metagaming effectively encompasses any and all aspects of play that occur outside of a given game’s fictional setting. In the context of competitive gaming, metagaming is about selecting or creating an optimal playing strategy using means outside of the game itself to affect the outcome of a game. This requires strategizing and is directly linked to higher level decision-making as influenced by one’s understanding of the game, which in turn is mediated by one’s performance, knowledge, and innate biases about how the game is meant to be played and how one’s opponents in turn will behave. Metagaming is dynamic and the strategies that are created are never in isolation, but rather they are part of a shifting ecosystem of competitive play that is often highly public. 

Metagaming in esports can take the following forms:

  • Joining or fine-tuning existing popular strategies. 
  • Attacking the metagame: developing countermeasures against currently popular strategies. 
  • Strategizing against your opponents: knowing a specific opponent’s playing history (perhaps by reviewing their replays) and using this knowledge to exploit their weaknesses. 
  • Innovating: this is similar to attacking the metagame but relies more on your opponent being unfamiliar with your strategy. Occasionally, called “cheese” if the strategy can only be applied once. 
  • Using means completely outside of the game to affect a game, such as by trash talking online before the game or by stream sniping, which involves using a gamer’s livestream against them. 
  • Rules lawyering: taking advantage of the rules of a game/tournament in order to gain an advantage.

What is the metagame?

The metagame refers to any popular grand strategy, set of popular strategies, or overarching way of play that is optimized for an individual player or team based on both their perceived strengths and weaknesses as well as those of their respective opponents, using information contained both in and outside the game and its surrounding environment (e.g. tournament structure). The metagame is represented in a variety of different ways depending on the game genre, from timing and army composition in strategy games to team equipment and approach routes in team shooter games. Furthermore, the metagame is constantly evolving; players learn and adapt to the metagame, and developers make changes that affect how the metagame operates.

The following example describes the specific mechanics of the metagame for Hearthstone. Say you went against a mage in Hearthstone. Chances are you would face one of the specific archetypes players use (or used to use) for a mage:

  • Control Mage, a deck that tries to delay damage with spells until it gets to the big hitters like Frost Lich Jaina and Dragoncaller Alana. 
  • Odd Mage, an aggressive archetype that uses Baku and therefore can utilize only odd cards. 
  • Elemental Mage, a mostly minion-based deck revolving around elemental synergy.

Knowing that your opponent’s deck might be one of these archetypes, you then play accordingly as you figure out in your first few turns what the opponent’s deck is and how to best utilize your own to beat theirs.

Therefore, knowing the current metagame requires repeatedly playing until you start seeing patterns. You could also just go to a website that tracks the relevant data. At its most basic, the metagame is the knowledge of what the opponent might be doing and the associated countermeasures based on that knowledge.

The lifecycle of a metagame

A metagame cycle generally has four stages:

  1. Experimentation
. This is the moment when everything is new and players experiment with strategies. 
  2. Stabilization
. Strategies and corresponding countermeasures that were found to be effective in the experimentation stage are optimized. 
  3. Solution. Eventually, all of the most effective strategies are known and it becomes mostly a matter of skill to stay competitive. Games that remain in this stage for too long may feel stale for players. 
  4. Shake-up
. The metagame is reset. This can manifest in several ways:
  • A player manages to find a strong strategy that was overlooked in the experimentation and stabilization stage, thus shaking up the metagame. 
  • A balance patch was released by developers that renders old strategies ineffective. 
  • Game expansions or prominent new components are released that introduce new, unknown elements. 

The shake-up sends the metagame back to the start of the cycle. To keep the metagame healthy and players engaged in the game, the metagame cycle needs to reset regularly. Depending on the game and its community, the metagame cycle might need to be reset as often as every few months or once a year.

Is metagaming bad?

Depending on the game, metagaming and the corresponding metagame may be integral to the gaming experience. In role-playing games, the term is usually reserved for behavior that is seen as cheating or undesirable because it typically undermines the spirit of the game. Nevertheless, some activities that might technically fall under the definition of metagaming could in certain scenarios be considered helpful. For example, a gruff, unsociable character might go out of their way to help a newcomer to a game. The behavior (helping a newbie) might be considered out-of-character, but many players would consider it good for the game or community. In competitive games, the metagame is as much a part of the experience as is the code written by the developers.

Ashley is a technology writer who is interested in computers and software development. He is also a fintech researcher and is fascinated with emerging trends in DeFi, blockchain, and bitcoin. He has been writing, editing, and creating content for the ESL industry in Asia for eight years, with a special focus on interactive, digital learning.


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