I've been feeling a bit nostalgic about some old video games lately. This is thanks in part to some recent articles on Kotaku about struggling to fit video games into adult life, the joy of discovering JRPGs, and the fascinating phenomenon of Twitch Plays Pokemon. I'll get into Twitch Plays Pokemon in more detail later, but for now I wanted to start with something a little closer to home. Although I played Pokemon while growing up, I tend to associate the game-play with that of Dragon Warrior. This probably says something about my age, which is an interesting on its own, but the connection I'm going to focus on here is "metagaming".
I'm fortunate to have grown up with video games from an early age. My parents owned an Intellivision, and I would often beg them to play BurgerTime. I was really young at this point and there weren't many other games on the Intellivision that I could enjoy without being able to read. When the Nintendo Entertainment System came out, this opened the floodgates of exciting new games. The NES quickly became a family bonding experience. Between Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, Track and Field, and The Legend of Zelda, there was something for everyone in the house!
At this point, video games were still very much a question of motor skills and hand-eye coordination for me. As I grew older and started learning to read, my parents had the brilliant idea of buying me a subscription to Nintendo Power. This was a perfect move on their part! What better way to encourage a young video gamer to read than by giving him a magazine about video games? As an added bonus, the Nintendo Power subscription came with a free copy of Dragon Warrior. Dragon Warrior itself was a very reading intensive game, which was probably good for me, but it was also notably different from the games I had played in the past. It was more about strategy than reflexes. More about thinking than reacting. The game was so complex that they even so far as to include a 64-page "Explorer's Handbook", which was far more in-depth than your typical instruction manual. This simple walk-through would forever change how I looked at video games.
This is the earliest example that I can recall of metagaming. Metagaming, in its simplest terms, is the use of resources outside of a game to improve the outcome within the game. In the case of Dragon Warrior, the "Explorer's Handbook" contained a variety of information about the game that otherwise might have only been discovered through trial and error. It included maps of the entire game and information about the strengths and weaknesses of the foes within each area. The maps in particular were exceptionally useful for two reasons. First, visibility within the dungeons was limited to a small area provided by use of a torch item. Using a map made it possible to make it through the dungeon without using a torch, and also making sure to collect all of the important treasures. Secondly, the overworld map was divided into areas with radically different monsters. Wandering into an area at too low of a level would mean certain death. I probably wouldn't have even been able to complete the game if it wasn't for the "Explorer's Handbook".
The metagaming didn't end with Dragon Warrior. In fact, it was only the beginning. The monthly subscription soon turned into an addiction that almost paralleled the video games themselves ("almost" being the operative word). I must have read through the Nintendo Power Final Fantasy Strategy Guide at least a dozen times before even playing the game. I was always reading up on the latest releases during the week, and would rent the game that interested me most over a weekend for a marathon gaming session. It got to the point where the store I rented from was asking me about what up-coming titles they should order!
Over time, my passion for metagaming started to influence my choice of games. Games like Marble Madness and Bubble Bobble that were once my favorites, started to lose their appeal. My reflexes on titles like these had actually improved with extensive practice, but there was always a brick wall where those reflexes weren't fast enough. Even if I knew what was coming, lacking of coordination required to pull it off became a point of frustration. I gradually started to lean towards games where having an outside knowledge was an advantage. JRPGs like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy started to become my favorite genre. That's not to say I shied away from "twitch" games. I just focused on "twitch" games where strategy and knowledge could influence the outcome. I was particularly fond of fighting games like Street Fighter II, since knowing the move-set of each character was a distinct advantage in arcades where my quarter was on the line.
I've come to accept that I enjoy metagaming, sometimes as much as playing the game itself. However, there are places where it's not always acceptable. Metagaming is also often used as a negative term in pen and paper role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons where it breaks the sense of immersion when a player uses knowledge that his/her character would not know. I'm definitely one of those players that devours the entire rule-book before creating a D&D character to ensure that I'm developing it in an optimal way. I can't help it. For me, learning about the game is an integral part of the gaming experience. I don't necessarily do it out of a desire to win. I just enjoy the process of researching the rules, developing a theory about how best to play, and then putting it into practice to see if it works. There's a real science to gaming for those who are willing to look for it.
The reason I wanted to share this story is that I've been in a number of conversations with individuals in older generations who have a negative opinion on video games. "Kids these days just play video games all the time and don't understand what it's like in the real world," they often say. I wanted to present a different perspective here. For the metagamers of the world, the line between the game and real world is fuzzy. There's a generation of gamers who've learned important real world knowledge and skills to help them improve their game-play. For members of my age cohort, Nintendo Power provided an outlet for us to grow and excel as individuals. I, for one, am glad to have been able to experience the joy of metagaming and will continue to metagame my way to the future.