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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hunger Metagames

Oh my faithful drinking companion, how I've missed you! Ah, you weren't expecting me, were you? I can see from the expression on your face that you're trying to suppress a smile of welcome. And you kept my seat so nice for me! How is Abraxis? I take your silence to mean that all is well.

But enough of our silly banter, faithful companion. Let me tell you where I've been: I feel as though I've been spending the last few weeks tromping around the hostile woods of Academia, dodging essay fireballs, murdering graduate assistants, and struggling to keep fed and hydrated.

My nightmare ordeal began (ah, better call for another beer, this might take a while) when I was shipped back to Newark, Center of the Western World, on a plane that offered me what was, simply put, the most hellish sandwich of my existence. It was accompanied by some hellish reading--hellish in the sense that the story wasn't particularly chipper, not in the sense that it was badly written. No, I churned through nearly the entirety of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games on that flight, and enjoyed it considerably.

Hey, a book review about a book that actually exists! That's a change of pace

I came home that Sunday night and finished the book well before my bedtime, satisfied, tired, and prepared to return to my classes the next day.

Roughly a half an hour later I realized that my airplane sandwich had poisoned me.

I spend the next nine hours either rushing to the bathroom to be sick, or lying in bed hallucinating. Apparently reading novels about children murdering each other directly before suffering from a high fever, illness, and dehydration is not the best plan.

Still, somewhere amidst my haze of paranoid delusions (I think I dreamed at some point that you hated me... something about stealing your chair? Ah, I don't remember, it was very silly) I managed to pull together a few coherent thoughts on the novel and why it is not just a good novel, but an important one.

I've talked quite a bit about the power of media to shape culture, and I've talked a little about the three female characters I consider particularly important in our culture, and their relative value for readers.

I could do that with Katniss, the protagonist of The Hunger Games. It would actually be fairly interesting to delve into her psychology and what drives her as a character. She is, for one thing, a fantastically flawed character. Throughout the book it is apparent that she is rather emotionally walled off, protective of a select group of people but somewhat indifferent beyond that--or at least, she does her best to train her mind that way. Here is a sixteen year old girl who is essentially attempting to turn herself into a near-sociopath. The striking move Collins makes, though, is that she places Katniss in a situation where her massive character flaw is a massive character asset, and then destabilizes things again by throwing in a number of elements that force Katniss to choose between retaining the flaws that are keeping her alive or growing as a person along the lines that she clearly wants to. It's striking.

But her development actually isn't what I'm interested in. It's fascinating, but it doesn't have the kind of social impact I'm fascinated with.

To understand that impact, though, I need to borrow an idea from the much lauded fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. There's a sequence there that I think will be particularly useful to this discussion. Harry, who in this version of the story is a master schemer and a trained rational scientist (hence the title) at one point discusses the idea of playing at different levels. The key idea is that to outsmart your opponents in a battle of wits (as if there was any other kind) you must think recursively: you must be able to think about what your opponent is thinking. The amount of recursion you can handle is your level. I'm a little shaky on the math (feel free to clear this up for me in the comments) but I believe the system works something like:

I'm thinking about a plan - - -
And I know you're thinking about what I'm thinking - - -
So I'm thinking about the plan in terms of what you think I'm thinking.

That's level three.

Do you follow so far?

(Incidentally, one of the best jokes in the story comes after this discussion. Harry asks his dark-aligned mastermind mentor what level he is playing at. The mentor replies, "One level higher than you."

Not a bad answer, all things considered.)

Now, there's a particular weight to the choice, in the fic, of referring to the these levels as part of Playing The Game. It's meaningful because any gamers in the audience--whether video- or tabletop-gamers--will probably catch on to the fact that this recursive thinking in levels is very similar to the concept of the metagame. The metagame is what goes on around and outside of an individual match. Any alliances, choices of strategies based on other players, even attempts to out-think judges or the rules of a tournament... all of this stuff is part of the metagame, the game beyond the game. It's thinking about the game in terms of a higher level of play.

And it's what makes The Hunger Games so important.

Think of it like this. Katniss has been chosen for a game where she must battle against a bunch of other children, to the death, in an unknown arena. However, she can get help from a former winner from her district, and supplies from donors that like her pluck. All of this also happens against a backdrop of totalitarian control and desired resistance against an oppressive central metropolitan power.

If Katniss wants to survive, she can't think like some of the other players do--in terms of each individual battle.

She can't just play the game.

She must play the metagame.

Consider an early example. She is a day into the game, and she is desperately in need of water. She's on the verge of passing out from dehydration. She knows that it would not take much money for her guardian in the outside world to send her water, and yet he doesn't.

So, she thinks recursively. Why would the man trying to keep her alive refuse to send her the resources she needs?

They must, she realizes, be nearby.

Now, that's a very simple set of recursions. Katniss knows that her guardian is aware of her intelligence. So, she can predict that he will move based on her ability to read his thinking. He is thinking based on her thinking based on his thinking. So, they are able to communicate by thinking recursively about one another.

This becomes steadily more complicated as the book goes on. I don't want to give the plotting away for anyone who has not yet picked up a copy, but suffice to say that by the end of the game Katniss has begun thinking not just about the game, not just about the game, but about the... what would we call it, the petagame? She is thinking about the individual moves of the game in terms of how the metagame of alliances, sponsors, and the transmission of supplies reflects an even higher, more sinister political game played by the state against the subjugated provinces.

And here's where Katniss, and the novel, become so important to wider culture.

Because Katniss decides that she wants to beat the game on Every. Single. Fucking. Level.

Take that in for a moment, would you? Think about her decision to flip the proverbial bird at the state not in terms simply of rebellion, but in terms of forcing an outcome in the highest possible level of recursion. She has out thought the people running the whole show.

She is one level higher than you.

And this is what makes the book so important. Because this book teaches a lesson that few other young adult novels do: that it's not just possible but desirable to use your wits, to push your mind to the furthest possible point, and look for solutions that others might ignore.

What this book is is training. Not to be a brutal killer, of course, but to be a metagame thinker--to think recursively. Not only that, it teaches both that metagame thinking is cool and desirable in a hero, and, importantly, that metagame thinking has its own limits, and can be self-destructive when taken too far. There's a lot of nuance there, and nuance is also an important skill.

This game is, in essence, a preparatory program that sets up works like HPMOR, or Frank Herbert's Dune, or Le Guin's The Dispossessed, or any number of brilliant classic works of literature. And I hate to hammer this point home, but it does so when few other books do. How recursive of a thinker, for example, is Bella Swan? Not particularly, right? As much as we love him, is Canon!Harry Potter a metagame thinker? Not really. Although, interestingly, Hermione is... what does that say about the books, I wonder?

Lord Humongous is not a metagame thinker.
So, the reason I am currently quite excited about The Hunger Games is that they are endorsing cleverness and intellect in a way that few other things are. Their popularity seems to suggest that people are eager for such things, as well, which gives me great hope for the future of young adult literature, and literature in general.

Here's to you, Suzanne Collins, for figuring out a way to make metagame thinking cool.

But I'm sure you already knew I was going to say that.

Seriously, I spent nine hours having the worst trip ever, and then spent the next few weeks desperately catching up on work. I'm an absolute mess, but I just can't keep away from this blog for too long... Oh well. If you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave me some kind words in the comments below.


  1. If only the movie managed to convey all this...
    Because that's one of the main problems with the movie. They're more interested in selling it to, let's call it, the Twilight-crowd. This results in stripping most of the wonderful characters (because even most of the side-characters are pretty interesting) of their intelligence. Or at least failing to show that they are intelligent and playing on a lot of different "levels".
    The biggest offender in the movie is probably the romance sub-plot. They did away with the nuanced romantic tension between Katniss and her male ally/adversary/friend, in favor of a generic romance plot.

    Oh, and Harry Potter has one scene where he is a meta-game thinker. Actually, a few. In fact, pretty much every scene with a Minister of Magic shows him like this. Or am I misremembering and did Hermione explain it all to him.

    1. Ah, that's too bad... that was honestly the best part for me. :/

      Hm, I might be forgetting Harry's metagame thinking, actually... usually he seems to just charge in and act all heroic and so on. It's honestly been a few years now since I last read the books, though. I need to go back and check them out again.

  2. THG has definitely been added to my ever-growing list of things I need to read. Especially now that I know it involves metagaming.
    I wish I were a higher level player, but I think that part of the reason why I'm not is because I've yet to play a game worth devoting that level of CPU usage to. I've yet to play a real game with real stakes, so I've never really bothered with metagaming in real life. I've done a bit in video games here and there, but never above third level. I don't think I've ever really needed to think above third level.

    1. You might be surprised. It's interesting sometimes just to practice recursive thinking.


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