by Chris Babcock

A republished article, THE BISMARK PAPERS, LECTURE V: Diplomacy and the CIA Connection, in the last issue of the Pouch raised the issue of metagaming. Metagaming is the practice of applying information from external sources to influence a game through the metagame. The metagame consists of the circumstances surrounding the game and includes personal information about the players, other participants, biases in adjudicator behavior (whether human or automated), other aspects of the social and technological infrastructure that enables the game and possibly other factors. Since the metagame is less fun than the game itself (for most players), metagaming is generally discouraged and almost consistently used in a negative sense. As a judgekeeper and a game master, I have some very strong opinions about metagaming and how to properly delineate in game and out of game knowledge that include definitions of the appropriate boundaries in situations with potential for metagaming. These opinions are my own, but they have the force of law in 50 to 100 games at any time and, more importantly, I believe that these opinions rest firmly in the 25 year history and the proven best practices of the electronic Diplomacy hobby — which, in all fairness, was young when that article was originally written. There are behaviors that may be permissible in face to face or even postal play that are intolerable in Internet Diplomacy because of the potential for abuse inherent in a medium where it is possible to create disposable identities.

First, sportsmanship is important. No matter how you feel about using out of game knowledge in game, it is exceedingly difficult to have a successful career as a player without differentiating between in game conduct and out of game conduct. If you attempt to hold to out of game ethical standards within the game then you handicap yourself. If you take the same level of moral flexibility and deception in metagame conduct as is generally accepted as being conducive to in game performance and apply it to the metagame — conduct with respect to the game server, the game master and other players in matter that do not relate to the disposition of the pieces on the board — well, that involves certain risks which range from making the game less enjoyable for your fellow players to getting thrown out of the game, off the server or out of a playing group. Let me present the appeal of good sportsmanship in terms that can be appreciated by mature Diplomacy players. If you find community useful for any reason, whether because it supports positive metagame values like persistent and quality opponents or because you privately use out of game knowledge about opponents to your benefit within the game, then it behooves you to encourage the community aspect of the player base by helping others to have fun.

Second, the only way to attain perfect isolation of individual games is to play in, and to consistently abide by all the rules pertaining to, anonymous games. That's very difficult to do without an automated adjudicator. DPjudges force this. The nJudges make it an option. It's always my policy to make an anonymous partial press game available every time I start a non-anonymous game for experienced players. Despite this policy, the number of game starts in anonymous partial press games is 50-65% of the number of non-anonymous games with similar configuration. Either a significant proportion of players remain ignorant that "gunboat" means "anonymous" rather than "no press" or they genuinely prefer at least a minimal potential for metagame activity — at least on the nJudge.

Since a certain number of players prefer non-anonymous games for partial press, the question for venues that provide identity information in the game is how to provide the players with the best game possible for the largest number of players. My subjective estimate is that one in seven players prefers a "no holds barred" approach — one in every game. As you can imagine, if this is permitted it tends to diminish the enjoyment of the other players. Some boundaries are necessary then if the game is to be enjoyable for those players who do not wish to immerse themselves quite so thoroughly in the metagame and if escalation is to be avoided. If meanness and deception could scale indefinitely without inevitably ending in tears and recriminations then we would not need rules. Since we do need rules, let's examine the foundations of metagaming in order to determine the minimally invasive set of rules that will prevent the out of control spiral and guarantee the maximum enjoyment of the game for the maximum number of players.

The first of these principles is that there is a clear division of ethics between in game and out of game behavior. Lying, deception and other anti-social behaviors may or may not be part of your game plan, but they do not belong as part of a repertoire to influence the outcome of the game with respect to the game master, any computer systems used in game play or conversations with other players where they have clearly stepped out of their role as a competitor in the game and are seeking advice (for example, asking your opinion on whether a buggy adjudicator will handle a situation properly) and are relating to you as a peer in the hobby.

The second principle is that there is a difference between in game and out of game knowledge and how that may be allowed to be used. Not defining the acceptable uses yet, but accepting that there is a difference. The simplest categories are 1) that information which can be learned from openly available game reports; 2) that information provided by the game master and/or server which is not equally available to all players; 3) that information which involves sources completely outside of the game.

Openly available information naturally has more permissible uses. Other information available from within the game system can be used with the players' discretion on the condition that it is not altered to appear to be the first type. In other words, the means of conveying incomplete information to another player should not be done in any manner that artificially enhances the perception of that information based on metagame manipulation of the presentation. That means players should not attempt to disguise private reports, real or forged, as something sent from the game system or the game master, in any way whether directly forging mail or including it in replies that become part of press.

As for in game use of out of game information, that is unavoidable in this context. What can be avoided, however, is bringing out of game information into a game context to form a metagame basis for alliances. Simply put, let allies do their own research. The reason for this is that an alliance based on out of game information is an 'unbreakable alliance' from the perspective of someone operating entirely from within the game context. While personal use of metagame information is unavoidable and unenforceable, certain uses of metagame information are avoidable and enforceable. Specifically, any attempt to manipulate the alliance structure within a game by using out of game information about a player can be prohibited and prevented through community education and selective action.

The proof of this is the xp series of games on USAK. In 3 of the first 4 games, there were difficulties with metagaming of varying levels, none of which overtly broke EP House Rules while still causing significant destruction within the game. In response to this, I paused game creation in that series, implemented the policy of always providing an ap (anonymous press) game with each xp game and created the USAK House Rules specifically to address some of these margin cases before running more games in that series. After four games without incident, I stopped mentioning the specific issues that brought about their creation but continue posting the availability of the house rules. The result has been that games 5 through 12 in this series have been very good games.

Online Diplomacy is not a street fight. There are rules, effective rules, for managing the use of metagame information and controlling its effect on the game. The rules implemented on USAK do a good job of providing quality games without forcing anonymity They accomplish this by being fair, reasonable, and minimally enforced, and by encouraging players most likely to be sensitive to the effects of metagaming to join anonymous games. It is a game for gentle beings to misbehave, within limited and well-defined boundaries.

Chris Babcock

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