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Boluk and LeMieux Give Walkthrough of New Book

Two things began in 2008 that led Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux to begin writing Metagaming: the indie video game renaissance and the introduction of Google Docs. The two, both assistant professors in Cinema & Digital Media, wanted to think about video games not just as objects of analysis but a culture with histories that affect the current state of video games. They were interested in metagames: “all the things that happen around, with, through, before and after games,” says LeMieux.

On April 3, LeMieux and Boluk, who also has a faculty appointment in the Department of English, discussed their recent book at a DHI Book Chat and brought along a metagame of their own to help illustrate their approach. Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames looks at video games not as objects, but as cultures, with alternative histories that break into life beyond the screen and reveal that no game is ever “just a game.”

If writing an academic book is a game–an attempt to achieve a predetermined goal by following preset rules–then Boluk and LeMieux had to construct their own metagame in order to write. They agreed to write the book collaboratively, and for them that meant writing sentence by sentence, side by side, in Google Docs. And to continue their fascination with metagames, they decided to create their own playable metagames to accompany each chapter.

Photo by Alexandra Vieille

Writing about metagames is a tough subject, notes LeMieux, because “metagame” means many things–and has meant many things since game theory originated in the 1940s. At first used to talk about the social potentials in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, metagaming can also refer to the social and economic contexts, like the ways in which real-life relationships and access to funds affect gameplay of the card-collector game Magic: The Gathering.

Boluk and LeMieux also had to contend with an ephemeral archive when writing the book: much of what they discuss is time-bound and context-specific. Nonetheless, says LeMieux, it leaves traces. Experts like Narcissa Wright and Anita Sarkeesian documented and spoke about their experiences; players discuss the games in online forums, Youtube channels, and websites which still exist. “We’re doing a kind of digital ethnography,” says LeMieux, by looking at the media left behind after a metagame.

Which is exactly what Metagaming itself is: media about metagaming. Boluk and LeMieux constructed their book to be not just academic analysis but also an exercise in play. Metagaming is part of the University of Minnesota’s “Manifold” imprint, which presents academic texts as “living digital works.” So Metagaming is more than open-access: on the Manifold platform, it’s socially annotated and has high-quality video annotations, expanding the ways that readers can interact with the book.

Readers also get to play through the book, since each chapter is paired with a game. Boluk and LeMieux developed original pieces of software to accompany each chapter and play with some of the concepts in it. It is Pitch Black, for example, accompanies a chapter on disability and limited vision in games, and requires its players to explore a non-visual 3D space by scrolling through the thoughts of two women, originally secondary characters in maze-like games.

Even the footnotes are a game. Boluk and LeMieux built “Footnotes,” a game to let readers explore the footnotes and collect points for doing so. Gamifying this experience of reading exposes some of the unspoken rules of the “game” of academic publishing–namely, that no one reads the footnotes. But if you collect and read all of Boluk and LeMieux’s footnotes, “Footnotes” awards you the prize of …a high-quality PDF of Metagaming.

Boluk and LeMieux take this same approach in their undergraduate course, “Metagaming: Video Games and Culture” (ENL/CTS/STS 172), which draws roughly 200 students. Their students speedrun games, create audio commentary for games, write players’ guides, and create metagames of their own in order to get hands-on experience of class concepts.

It’s games all the way down.

–Samantha Snively, DHI Humanities Correspondent and PhD candidate in English literature

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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