No, “Meta” Is Not Short for “Most Efficient Tactic Available”
You may have seen this backronym going around online in the arduous time since my last article came out. I have certainly seen it for the first time and a few times since, as I wallow in the tail-end of COVID struggles and search for new apartments, pursue new love, and seek ways to make money without breaking my spirit (the answer is not retail, let me tell ya) … and I do often procrastinate, as one does when mentally & physically exhausted and / or stressed. One way I “productively” procrastinate is learning an inordinate amount about the metagame of whatever game strikes my fancy at the moment – watching videos, reading blog posts, playing in training mode, stuff like that.
As evidenced by my piece on Infil’s excellent Fighting Game Glossary, with its terms of the day and wide variety of games available to peruse through community terms for, I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the words we use to describe our favorite games, players, events, etc. This has led me to spend the aforementioned inordinate amounts of time-devouring content for a wide variety of esports and games generally.
This devouring of content is what in turn led me to find no less than three people saying that “META” is an acronym for “Most Efficient Tactic Available.” I’m afraid that this is simply an untrue acronym that was invented to fit an existing term. Maybe a fun un-abbreviation to use, and not far from the real meaning of the word “metagaming,” but in this short piece (for me), I want to talk about metagaming, “the” metagame, and other instances of the term (and its slightly varying definitions) in esports and gaming spaces.
The Power of the Internet
The Internet is a strange, beautiful, twisted network that connects a staggering number of members of our human family here on Earth. Like a magnifying glass with a near-infinite range of movement, it can focus for us, in the form of web pages, just about “anything and everything all of the time.” One such webpage is this xkcd comic that really illustrates the meaning of “meta,” a prefix generally referring to going above, beyond, or through a change (for example: metamorphosis). As a standalone adjective, its definition is usually “self-referential” or one which refers to a breach of the third wall. We’ll get to “metagame” specifically in a bit.
For now, I reflect on how the massive trove of knowledge contained in the seemingly infinite pages of the Internet is a huge boon for us weirdos who like to get really into video games, especially those of us who for whatever reason sometimes decide to hyper-focus on totally useless information like the newly-popularized “Super Tiny Koopadashbackwaveslide Hoverwalkmoonland” (stkdbwshwml) in my preferred Super Smash Bros. title, Melee, which has a frankly stupefying amount of useless and difficult “tech” with names that border on being as ridiculous as the linked phrase. I truly wouldn’t know where to begin, since every character has such obscure techniques, but even these fringe outliers affect Melee’s metagame in some small way, even if it’s just the metagame in friendly matches after tournaments, when everyone’s tired and delirious enough to play with items and banned stages turned on.
So, what we’ve got in the Internet for the purposes of this piece is an unbelievable, unimaginable wealth of information at our disposal, with just a few clicks and typed characters, about just about every game for which we have records of human beings playing. We collectively know so many objectives, goals, strategies, players, coaches, famous moments, and so on.
Our virtual Library of Alexandria is truly beautiful in its strangeness.
But there is a dark side to this potential treasure trove. Some people are really out here straight-up lying, and others, unfortunately, repeat incorrect information or relay information incorrectly.
Done maliciously, this is called disinformation, a word also correctly used for much propaganda and… I hesitate to call them “memes,” but you know… the type of stuff on Facebook or wherever that can get you (or perhaps more likely, your elderly relatives) to drink metaphorical Kool-Aid.
Disinformation also happens jokingly among many gaming communities. Or at least, it does a ton in my hometown’s Smash scene. People sometimes flagrantly say wrong frame data, lie about their character’s supposed strengths or weaknesses, or so on. “It’s just a prank, bro.” Ha ha ha. VERY funny.
Misinformation, on the other and more benign hand, is merely mistaken. An oopsie, if you will. “I didn’t know; I know now; sorry!” is a common response to realizing that one was spreading misinformation. This happens a lot less on the Internet than one might think at first, since so many places have editors and double-checkers – one strong suit of the connected network that is the “world wide web.”
Now, let’s move on to the main topic today – the meaning of “meta.” Assigning a “backronym” – making an acronym where there was not one before – is a kind of misinformation, in my opinion. Not a dangerous one, and there’s nothing wrong with searching for the “most efficient tactic available.” Finding efficient tactics is indeed a part of pretty much any metagame, but the consequence of using that backronym might be saying that certain characters aren’t worth picking because they aren’t the M.E.T.A. (the “most efficient,” or best, character to pick) anymore. I don’t think that’s as useful of a descriptor as saying “they don’t dominate the meta[game] anymore.”
Anyway, bringing up fact-checkers brings us to the Wikipedia article for…
Take that, English teachers of my past; Wikipedia is a fine source here. Factual, peer-reviewed, clear, concise.
This term has been a part of game theory for decades. I like the third definition most in the intro of that article: Metagaming “goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game.” The metagame, therefore, for any particular game, is the collected set of strategies employed by particular players to improve their individual chances of winning, in ways often not expected by the game’s creators. It’s not possible for one person to master all aspects of “the meta,” but it is indeed common for individual players to shape metagames for years to come with innovative strategies, previously-uncommon characters, or so on. Their tags are often “immortalized” in writings or videos about the game they play, lending a name to a tactic not seen before the innovator.
In my (admittedly biased) opinion, the Super Smash Bros. scene is a shining example of this definition of metagames. As illustrated in the (admittedly dramatized) documentary, “The Smash Brothers,” and its aptly named sequel “METAGAME,” the community around Nintendo’s platform fighters with all-star rosters has long been pushing to find the best strategies around what looks like a simple party game at first. Even the competitive Smash rules themselves go far beyond the usual limits of the games.
Of course, every metagame begins in the game itself. If you’ll forgive me for it, let’s continue with the Smash talk, because it’s where I’m most grounded in personal knowledge. Sakurai Masahiro, despite his meme-y reputation as the Smash Bros. director, was actually a Street Fighter II tournament champion “A long, long time ago.” As such, he knows “that type of pleasure to be had from the game.” He knows that type of pleasure derived from delving deep into the metagame, refining strategies, combining moves or mechanics, and as such, the two Smashes before Brawl contain treasure troves of advanced mechanics.
There’s no shortage of those in this series. Feel free to type these into Infil’s glossary, linked above. Directional influence to alter your trajectory when hit by a move, Smash Directional Influence to short-range teleport when you get hit but before you get sent flying, wavedashing, dash dancing, L-cancelling, edge cancelling, V-cancelling… all of these had to be programmed into the game itself before they could become staples of the metagame, where competitive players took them and ran.
From there, it’s on the most advanced players to go above and beyond “the supposed limits or environment set by the game.” Unlike older games like Melee, however, another power of the Internet is that developers now may respond to shifts in the metagame (like discoveries of “broken” or overpowered strategies) by patching the game, which inevitably causes the meta to shift again. Dota, League, Valorant, and any modern fighting game – the metagames of each are all heavily affected by patches, keeping competitive play fresh for years to come.
To round out this piece and just to be clear, the purpose of this article is not to come down hard on anyone who has said that the meaning of “meta” is Most Efficient Tactic Available. That is indeed part of the metagame; I just want people to be aware that it’s a backronym rather than what the word originally meant.
But still, here’s a metaphorical toast to all the freaks and geeks out there who have compiled such treasure troves of Internet information on all of our favorite games, from speedrunning routes to combo trees to defensive mechanics to tools of movement, and to the developers who spoil us with games that feel good to play casually but which are also immensely satisfying to competitively innovate within.