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Off the Grid: The Metagame at GDC


Every other week Scott Jon Siegel contributes Off the Grid, a column on gaming away from the television screen or monitor.

On the final day of the 2007 Game Developers Conference, Gamelab's Eric Zimmerman and area/code's Frank Lantz organized a one-hour presentation on a unique game concept they'd been developing. Dubbed "a battle of videogame smarts," the Metagame challenged both its participants and the audience to engage in discussion revolving around their favorite games of the last thirty years.

Two teams, comprised of well-established industry personalities, made their way around the virtual game board, attempting to qualify statements such as "Lemmings is more strategic than Civilization 3," and "Guitar Hero is more culturally sophisticated than Parappa the Rapper."

The red team consisted of game designer Jonathan Blow, industry veteran Warren Spector, and Tracy Fullerton, currently an assistant professor at the university of Southern California's Interactive Media Division. The blue team was made up of ludologist and videogame theorist Jesper Juul, Ubisoft lead designer Clint Hocking, and game designer and industry veteran Marc LeBlanc.

During a turn, each team moves its piece on a projected board; a web of classic games like Doom, Zork, Myst, and more contemporary titles like Rez and World of Warcraft. Each space represents a particular game, and the space that the one team lands on creates a comparative statement with the second team's space, formed by cards like "has better audio than" and "is more violent than" on a second projected screen.

Each team earns points for forming a valid statement by moving its piece, although the validity of a statement can be challenged by the other team. Each team gives its justification for whether or not the statement is true, and the audience decides by applauding.

If the comparative statement made by the team is successful, the team earns points and can choose one of three new comparisons to make between the games. If unchallenged, the team then moves once more, and control of the board turns to the other team. The game's designers credited Veronique Brossier for the implementation of the digital game board, and thanked her several times throughout the game for making the presentation of the system run so smoothly.

Eric Zimmerman, co-founder and CEO of Gamelab in New York, explains that the early inspiration for the game was Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, but that the motivation was to build a legitimate game based around intellectual discussion: "The intention was to make a game where the playing of the game itself becomes a conversation, a debate, about game aesthetics. And I think it actually really accomplished that. It was a real debate about game aesthetics, but it was also a generally fun game, in the sense that you're making real strategic choices, choosing when to challenge, where you want to go on the board, thinking a few turns ahead."

Frank Lantz, the game's other designer, and co-founder of NYC-based area/code, is excited that the concrete discussion of the game worked so well as a mechanic: "It's really interesting, because 'conversation as game,' this question of how you model dialog in a game ... is something we've talked about a lot. And this game does it, because it's a real argument; It's not a fake argument, where you're modeling things, or simulating." The game was conceptualized as a practical re-imagining of Herman Hesse's Glass Bead Game from Magister Ludi, which Frank describes as "a fictional game played by the intellectual elite of a sort of Mandarin culture. Hesse never describes [the game] in detail, but the idea is that every move in the glass bead game is a statement about culture. So a move might be a reference to famous works of art, or famous musical works, and so it's this kind of mysterious, interesting idea of 'conversation as game.'"

The audience's role in the game was particularly disruptive during the presentation, encouraging a team to move to a particular game, only to then vote against their comparison when challenged. In the game's final turn, the statement "Everquest is sexier than Starcraft" was formed by the blue team. The statement was challenged by the red team, with Jonathan Blow justifying the challenge by stating that a room full of sweaty Starcraft LAN players, mostly guys but "maybe 30% girls" was "highly sexual."

Marc LeBlanc leaped to the defense of his team, addressing the audience: "Raise your hand if you've ever had an Everquest sweetheart." LeBlanc, standing proud with his hand in the air, stared at a silent audience with few, if any, hands raised. The audience approved the challenge, and in the final round the red team beat out the blue, 1,700 points to 1,450.

"I think it went very well," Frank says after the game has concluded.

"Yeah," Eric agrees, "we're very pleased. This was the public premiere of the Metagame." Eric and Frank are so excited by the game's success, that they're considering building an online version, bringing the intellectual discussion from the closed sessions of GDC, to the open theater of the internet. Such a decision will most likely introduce a plethora of argumentative gamers to the Metagame, but I suppose arguments are the desired reaction, after all.

Scott Jon Siegel is a fledgling game designer, and fancies himself a bit of a writer on the topic as well. His words and games can be found at numberless, which is almost always a work in progress.

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