Original Publication: April 07, 2014 by Mastin2.
Last Revised: March 29, 2017 by Mastina.
Over time, I've observed some annoying trends about a fundamental aspect of the game: understanding other players. This article is an attempt to explain those aspects of the game, how to use them, and to correct faults in how they are used.
I'll start with the basics.
Our wiki has a fairly good article on the basics behind meta, but it doesn't quite encapsulate everything meta is used for. Player meta (the focus of this article), for me, can be broken down into two base aspects: the things a player will always/often do (alignment regardless), and the things a player will do only as one specific alignment. A good use of meta will invoke aspects of both, to understand specifically the actions of the player in question.
Use of Meta
Why do we even use meta? Because meta is part of human nature. Meta is a combination of pattern recognition and social interaction. These are things human beings tend to be rather skilled at doing. Meta is essentially a form of basic psychology, where we predict the actions (or rather, alignment) of a player off of the known facts available about them.
When we are determining if someone is lying, we're reaching into that unconscious bank of information, essentially trying to match patterns. It's a very instinctual thing built on the experiences we've had with liars in our life and within this game. Even if you build up frames of logic to create rules, it's still intuition determining which pieces of logic are valuable.
Note that correlation = causation is still a fallacy. As a result, good meta is not looking for superficial traits. Our brains are hard-wired to look for these connections, and this is an instinct we need to fight off. Everyone has this bias to some degree (you don't need to use meta to fall into this trap), but limiting it as much as possible is still advisable.
One of our most common site rules breaches is to not talk about ongoing games. (Which is almost always a form of meta.) This is understandable, and perhaps even inevitable, for the reasons I outlaid above: creating associations is something which the human brain is hardwired to do, as a part of human society. We have great trouble breaking this tendency, so we will form a bias on players based off of their behavior in separate games, as disassociating between the two is nearly impossible.
I would like to make it explicit this article is not endorsing or encouraging the breaking of this rule, nor should it serve as a justification for having done so. The rule exists for an understandable reason: to not compromise the integrity of a game. Yet even experienced players skirt or even break this rule, despite knowing about it and its reason. They seek loopholes, they push boundaries, and will make as many references as possible which make it clear they are talking about ongoing games while not explicitly naming names.
As a mod, as a player, it doesn't matter. When we see an observable difference in behavior between two games, we are naturally inclined to think there is a reason for it, yet because the game in question would not be over yet, discussing this publicly is forbidden. Even if we hold back from even hinting at it in-thread, the simple fact is we still thought it in the first place: "these games have differences in behavior--why?".
So we can't stop events from one game from influencing another. We can recognize it is part of the territory, and do the best to maintain the spirit of the rule: preventing the cross-game contamination from actually damaging a game. The problem can be managed, but never fully eliminated. As long as the game itself is not compromised, then we are probably doing our jobs. By and large, it seems we do.
Timing of Meta
Meta is not the first, final, or only weapon of a scumhunter. Meta, like all other aspects of the game, is a tool: a part of the whole. As a result, one should not over-rely on meta, least of all based on spotty history.
What Meta Does
At its most basic level, meta is for reading mindset--on reading the intention, the motives, the trains of thoughts from a player. These thoughts can be tracked across games. For instance, being wrong in multiple contemporary games caused a steady decline in my confidence; being right in multiple contemporary games saw a steady increase in my confidence. Degrading mental health is also often visible in contemporary games, affecting mood, activity level, and investment across the site.
Meta, essentially, serves one purpose above all others: getting to know a player, and what's going on with them: in general and in the specific game at hand.
Use meta to familiarize yourself with someone, and to give you common ground--a "baseline" with them. Not in reads, but in reasoning. Meta is a great way to begin a conversation, one which might transcend the boundaries of the current game itself. This communication, at minimum, starts a dialog allowing for a deeper, more accurate read of them.
Using meta to read a player is a mistake. Avoid reading a player off of another game; read them in the current game. Other games are meant to give an idea of what drives them (for instance, I am both bipolar and autistic, both influencing my games), not set superficial similarities/differences as a guiding principle. Other games are other games, and will never be the same as your current game.
Burden of Proficiency is something closely tied to meta, in that it is assuming a particular player holds a natural level of competency. Circumstantially, it can be a valid tell, but otherwise is a logical fallacy. The main reason it is often invalid is for you to apply it accurately, you need to run it both ways: if a player is equally skilled as scum (or even more skilled as scum) as they are as town, then that is just as important to factor in as their skill as town.
Competency, after all, requires consistency. If a player had one scum game which was good and is otherwise unremarkable, that scum game was probably luck. If a player had one town game which was good and is otherwise unremarkable, that town game was probably luck. It is only when you get an existing, hard trend that you can form a valid point from this argument: a player competent as town yet not as scum displaying strong signs of being wrong may be scum; a player competent as scum yet not as town displaying strong signs of being wrong may be town. But even then, I would take caution with such arguments.
As a result, always keep in mind the relevant strengths and weaknesses consistently shown by a player in a given circumstance.
Know The Player
Some players are incredibly self-aware about their meta. Some players are always changing up their game. These are the types of players which meta has difficulty dealing with. However, if you are reading the player rather than the person, this becomes easier to do: you want to focus on knowing what about them doesn't matter, so you can focus in on things which could potentially matter.
Meta may let you know how a player operates and thinks. But against a player who knows how to manipulate their actions as to break established trends, it is not in their actions you should look, but rather, what they have done in the current game. The things a player will often/always do won't help you. The things a player does as a specific alignment are--by this type of player--easily manipulated and broken.
Instead of focusing meta analysis on what you think the player will do if town or if scum, find their fundamental drive as an alignment. Establish a modus operandi. Profiling their games is not something you will be able to do with perfect accuracy, but if you can find the immutable, unchangeable aspects of their game, then you can better establish what is important from them.
Avoid Specific Games
No, really. Traditionally, meta has been used to reference a person from a game--but that is a mistake. Good meta is not game-specific. So I will point out traits, trends, from a player, how those are in their town/scumgame, and why they apply to the current game.
Perhaps this trait was displayed most prominently in a recent game--referencing it would be akin to others' usage of meta. If asked for elaboration, it is okay to give such a link to a game like that, because it's part of a demonstration. But the meta should exist outside the other game. I do not use a game when thinking of a player. I use my profile of the player.
And this is what truly effective meta is to me. It's not them-as-someone-from-another-game. It's them-as-they-are. You can demonstrate them-as-they-are by using past games to show that behavior, but you can't rely on said past games.
Reading the Now
The main reason for this is that all players evolve over the course of their game history, and every game is going to involve different circumstances from another. A game played five years ago is MASSIVELY different from a game played today--heck, a game played two years ago is virtually unrecognizable to a game played today, and even in as little as a few months, a player can evolve so that the player they once were is entirely foreign to the player they are now.
Additionally, a player may have played 'that way' in 'that game', but did so for those reasons, whereas in the current game given a different context, those reasons aren't present, so 'that way' is different for 'this game'. Same player, playing in a way for different reasons, off of a different game.
That's why meta diving blindly is often prone to failure: because a player tried to read something that no longer holds significance. You have to understand that players are people, and people flow organically.
Do read the now!
You should still be trying to read a player, off their content and what they've done and are doing and what drives them and what's happened around and about them. Things like interactions, like VCA, NKA, just plain analysis, and so on and so forth.
Don't Ignore Meta
Just because you may not have what it takes to get something useful out of meta-reading a player (which is perfectly okay!) does not mean you should ignore a player who can.
Don't Accept Meta
That being said, you SHOULD be critically evaluating the validity of the player's meta read. Run it through the steps I've outlined above to see if they follow them or something close to. You want to make sure that they actually know what they're talking about, and if you feel they do not, explain why their meta is flawed.
And by 'explain why their meta is flawed', I don't mean "meta is bullshit", or "your meta is wrong", or "read the fucking thread". I mean critically analyzing what they have presented and laying out why you feel that their meta read is inaccurately applied, e.g. "I do not feel that the tell you are clearing playername for is valid".
Players who play a lot together (especially those with a close bond) tend to have a tendency to be highly accurate in reading one another--this should not be cast aside or discarded. It is akin to friends/family, in that you will have an instinctive knowledge of someone you are close enough to that should not be callously thrown away.
This is actually the form of meta I prize highest of all. It might seem like a "mystical magical meta read" to an outsider, but to those involved this is a natural insight into a players' given nature. Humans when paying attention to humans they value highly (in various forms of love, be it platonic, romantic, or family) are innately attuned to when something is 'off' in the person in question.
Mafiascum.net, in spite of its not-unjustified reputation for hostility, is actually an amazing place to bond with others. And when players have bonded, that connection can last a life-time in terms of reading one another in games, because mafia is still at its heart a social game. And when we socialize, we can sense when something's gone awry in our interactions with a person.
In using meta, use balance. It's equally foolish to read just from past games as it would be to altogether discard experience gained from them. Successfully reading a player is done through a combination of both.