When I worked in CallCenterLand, dutifully typing conversations for the deaf and hard of hearing, I would count my time by a not-too-complex system of circles and Xs.

My ten hour day would be broken into 40 15-minute parts, each represented by a circle. I would cross them out, one by one, until it was break time. Upon my return, I would dive into the next set of circles. Each 15-minute period graphically represented, I would find myself with a visual reminder of how far I had come. Circle. Circle. Circle. X. X. X.

Even earlier, on my walks home from grade school, my route would be broken into one-block segments. How fast could I reach the end of stage one? Could I beat my record for stage three? The sixth block was extra long – like a par 5, I suppose – and it would be the biggest challenge.

This is the thought behind creating lists – not just to determine what needs to be done, but also to physically rid yourself of yet another stage, the dark black line crossing out a completed task signifying accomplishment like no other form of communication ever has.

Large or small, these are a form of metagame: namely, creating tasks within larger tasks. I suppose the true definition comes from true games; mini-games inside of ordinary tasks, like time trials during dishwashing or not touching the sidewalk during stage seven of your walk home, are now seen in today’s videogame world with increasing abundance. But for me, the idea of a metagame is just as much the way we spend time separating our everyday accomplishments into more palatable pieces.

No one can eat a sandwich all at once, or do the laundry in one load. Yet, we try to tackle projects in lumps – we look at writing books, not chapters; we look at writing campaigns, not individual print pieces. We take in the whole, even when it’s human nature to chop things up into pieces. It’s human nature to want completeness, even if it’s completing just one portion of a larger body.

I could talk more about metagames – and the issue of completeness – but I’d be entering into the territory of a fantastic article by Sleepover, San Francisco. An excerpt:

When a game has built-in achievements, explicit hidden items, and other layered-in experiences, it’s usually pitched as added value. In reality, they’re only adding in time consumption — a measure of value most likely derived from the era of arcades.

I believe the main reason games like Farmville maintain a huge player base is the enticement of the metagame. The actual game mechanic of farming — which comprises most of the game — is unfathomably dull. It’s the abstracted layer above the farming that creates the primary motivation: ribbons (achievements), new items, leaderboards, etc.

But the blur of time-consumption and value is simultaneously damaging Farmville. Because satisfaction is derived only from the metagame, success is a measure of how many hours you’re willing to play, not your abilities. Players who have invested a lot of time into the game end up feeling bitter about the fruits (or vegetables) of their labor.

You have to see the page for yourself. The article is a series of metagames of its own.

(Via someone, from his or her blog. Can’t remember. Sorry.)

This was lovingly handwritten on February 17th, 2010