By Matt Shields

And I'll do it again

For reasons that have long since been lost in smoky haze that is my mind, I didn't initially devote much time to reading through the last issue of the Pouch. It wasn't until I was sitting around between rounds at the PiggyBack DipCon that people were talking about some of the contributions to this last issue, that I was reminded of what I'd missed.

Not surprisingly, a topic of much interest and discussion was Brandon's exploits at the Don Challenge. The particulars of the conversation aren't important, but as the hours went on, I found myself thinking about it a lot.

I am apparently in the minority, in that when I heard about, and when I finally read about, the strategy that won Brandon the Bismark Cup, I thought to myself "This man is my hero!" Sadly, after reading his second article, it would appear that Brandon's opinion of metagaming is not quite up to my standards, so I guess I'll have to run the gauntlet of public opinion alone.

Now that I have a sufficiently hostile readership, allow me to explain a couple of things. First off, a number of people seem to be confused about the difference between metagaming and cheating. There are a lot of things that meet the definition of metagaming, which are not considered cheating. Furthermore, most things that are considered cheating don't really meet the definition of metagaming. They are not one in the same, and in my opinion they share little in common. More often than not I believe that the confusion lies in poorly defining our terms.

A lot of definitions of metagaming have been thrown around over the years. Most of these are objectively wrong, at least if we have any concern for linguistic precedent. The prefix "meta" can mean a couple of different things, the most common essentially being "between", "among", or "over"; and on rare occasion "after". The most reasonable definition of metagame as a noun, would be something like "A collection of games that are played collectively as though they were one game." Therefore, "to metagame" would be to play the series of games as though they were one game.

Brandon cites a couple of definitions in his article, which I clearly take issue with. The definition of metagaming that Stephen Agar attributes to Gary Pennington, while perhaps a useful description of certain other activities, utterly fails as a definition of metagaming:

"the process of trying to force someone to behave in accordance with your wishes by using threats of actions which will be taken or not taken outside the context of the current game."

Brandon is generous when he implies that this definition is merely "stringent". This definition is wrong for reasons too numerous to list, but the most important is that my interaction with other players, and in fact the very existence of other players, is irrelevant to whether or not I am metagaming.

A Diplomacy tournament, by its very nature, is a metagame. It is a collection of games, which are played (and scored) collectively, rather than separately. To play the tournament, rather than to play the individual game, is by definition a form of metagaming. In my experience, most people who play in more than one game at a tournament metagame. It is not only considered acceptable behavior, it is encouraged.

The Bismark Cup, the ADR Grand Prix, and similar events are in essence "meta-tournaments". More than simply being metagames, they are collections of metagames played and scored together. So wherein lies the problem that created all the fuss? Well, it's because in a sense Brandon did exactly what he is accused of. He took metagaming to a new level.

In Denver, Chris Martin gave a little speech in which he talked about "playing the tournament" rather than "playing the games". He distinguished between the behavior that wins games, and the behavior that wins tournaments. Not one of the 25 people in the room expressed any philosophical objection to the concept that Chris talked about. Why? Because tournaments have been around long enough that people accept the manner in which they are played. They have, for the most part, set aside their lofty ideals about each game being played in isolation from all others, and accepted that in a tournament, things are different.

What Brandon did, rather to "play the tournament" as Chris suggests, is that Brandon chose to "play the meta-tournament". And why not? Wherein lies the sin, when all Brandon did was maximize his chances of winning the competition at hand? I believe that Brandon's "sin" was that he did it first. Before Brandon, no one had made a point of winning a meta-tournament at the expense of a tournament, and people simply don't know how to react.

It is my belief that DAANZ will find that it is impossible to create a system that will prevent what Brandon did, and I believe that in 10 years no one will care. If meta-tournaments survive and continue to be played, then there will be people like Brandon who will use successful meta-tournament strategies to win these competitions, just as in the past players have successfully used metagame strategies to win individual tournaments.

If in fact these strategies are found so distasteful that the majority of players simply can't stand to see them used, then the only solution will be to simply not have events like the Bismark Cup.

So where does it all end?

Despite the concerns of so many others, I believe that it ends right here. There are many slippery slopes in Diplomacy, but I don't think this is one of them. My esteemed colleague Stephen Agar writes:
"If meta-gaming is okay, then cross-gaming, bribery, and threats (provided they are within the law of the land) should be permitted."

I couldn't disagree more. (In fairness, I should acknowledge that since we've established that he and I are opperating on different definitions of metagaming, it is entirely likely that we would be on argreement of the consequences "If meta-gaming is okay".)

Cross-gaming, which is technically one particular form of metagaming, has been banned by long-standing precedent. (More specifically, cross-game play by multiple players as a form of negotiation is what is disallowed.) I have no problem with accepting the hobby's decision on that issue. Many tournaments also ban cross-gaming specifically.

Bribery and threats (which incidentally are NOT examples of metagaming) would be almost universally accepted to be inappropriate behavior. I don't even see why these are up for discussion. To bribe a player, you are getting them to make a decision based on things that have nothing to do with the competition at hand. Likewise with threatening a player with non-game related consequences. When you do this, you are introducing to the situation issues that have no legitimate bearing on the game, tournament, or other competition.

However, there is no precedent which says that all metagaming, in and of itself, is illegal. And how could there be? So many things are technically metagaming.

Have you ever attacked someone "to teach them a lesson"? If you have, what were you doing? You were behaving in a way in one game, in the hopes that the player would realize the consequences of their actions in that game, and behave differently in future games. That is clearly metagaming.

I was recently in a game, which was the last round of a tournament before the final board. Going in to the game, I considered it about 95% certain that I would make the final board. There was one other player who had already mathematically clinched a spot at the final board. The other five players could not get to the final board without a solo, which I considered very unlikely given the time limit in place. For that reason, my main focus in that game, was to make sure that the other player I'd meet on the final board did not do better than me in this game. I considered this a valid tactic in an attempt to maximize my final standing in the tournament. No one, including the player in question, considered this to be an inherently inappropriate tactic. However, it was also clearly metagaming.

I could have also chosen to attack that player because he was Italy, and I was currently in the lead for Best Italy. That also would have been metagaming.

These three examples of metagaming are all generally considered to be legal. Personally I think that is appropriate, but even if you wanted to make it illegal, how could you? Are you going to tell a player that they can't open Mar -> Pie, because you think it might be metagaming? Somehow I doubt it.

Well then, what now?

If you want to regulate people's behavior, then the way to do it is to only reward the behavior that you want, and stop rewarding behavior that you don't want. What does winning all the tournaments and awards and competitions mean? Well, it's giving players a chance to meet other people's definition of success. It's not that I think there's anything wrong with that, cause I don't. It's just that Diplomacy is unusual among games, in that we don't all agree on what constitutes "success" within the Diplomacy world, and even within a given game.

When I go to a tournament, I am guided in how I play the game, by what rules they establish and how they score the games. If you don't want me to throw a game or to pick who I attack to protect my best country award, then by all means change the scoring system, so that these actions will not give me a benefit. Come up with a system which doesn't reward my anti-social behavior, and my behavior will quickly change.

This is not at all a simple issue, and I don't mean to make it sound like I have a quick solution to the problem. What I do believe, is that we need to step back for a minute, and think about what styles of play we are willing to accept, and what we are not willing to accept, and factor that into how we run our tournaments. To fail to do so, is to invite players to come up with unorthodox strategies and approaches. There are pros and cons on both sides, and we certainly won't find a one-size-fits-all approach to running tournaments.

I do have some additional thoughts on that part of the issue, as well as some suggestions for DAANZ in their quest to discourage the what will surely come to be know as "The Brandon Clarke Strategy", but I'll save that for my next article, which may or may not make it into this issue.

Matt Shields
Diplomatic Pouch Face-to-Face Section Co-Editor

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