Sunday, September 25, 2016


So I finally finished Seeing Like a State, and the second-to-last chapter on "metis", while very different from the rest of the book, was also very interesting.

The concept [and the word, metis] comes to us from the ancient Greeks. Odysseus was frequently praised for having metis in abundance and for using it to outwit his enemies and make his way home. Metis is typically translated into English as “cunning” or “cunning intelligence." While not wrong, this translation fails to do justice to the range of knowledge and skills repre­sented by metis. Broadly understood, metis represents a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment. Odysseus's metis was in evi­dence, not only in his deceiving of Circe, the Cyclops, and Polyphemus and in binding himself to the mast to avoid the Sirens, but also in hold­ing his men together, in repairing his ship, and in improvising tactics to get his men out of one tight spot after another. The emphasis is both on Odysseus’s ability to adapt successfully to a constantly shifting situ­ation and on his capacity to understand, and hence outwit, his human and divine adversaries.

All human activities require a considerable degree of metis, but some activities require far more. To begin with skills that require adapting to a capricious physical environment, the acquired knowledge of how to sail, fly a kite, fish, shear sheep, drive a car, or ride a bicycle re­lies on the capacity for metis. Each of these skills requires hand-eye co­ordination that comes with practice and a capacity to "read" the waves, the wind, or the road and to make the appropriate adjustments. One powerful indication that they all require metis is that they are excep­tionally difficult to teach apart from engaging in the activity itself. One might imagine trying to write down explicit instructions on how to ride a bicycle, but one can scarcely imagine that such instructions would en­able a novice to ride a bicycle on the first try. The maxim “Practice makes perfect” was devised for such activities as this, inasmuch as the continual, nearly imperceptible adjustments necessary for riding a bi­cycle are best learned by having to make them. Only through an ac­quired "feel” for balanced motion do the required adjustments become automatic. No wonder that most crafts and trades requiring a touch or feel for implements and materials have traditionally been taught by long apprenticeships to master craftsmen.

There is no doubt that some individuals seem to get the hang of a particular skill and master it more quickly than most other people. But beyond this ineffable difference (which often spells the difference between competence and genius), riding a bike, sailing, fishing, shearing sheep, and so on can be learned through practice. Since every road, wind, stream, and sheep is different and continually changing, the best practitioner, like Odysseus, will have had experience under many differ­ent conditions. If your life depended on your ship coming through rough weather, you would surely prefer a successful captain with long experi­ence to, say, a brilliant physicist who had analyzed the natural laws of sailing but who had never actually sailed a vessel.

Scott then goes on to talk about metis in emergency response, medical diagnostics, social situations, combat, and agriculture (his specialty).  He also contrasts metis with "techne", characterized as formal, quantified scientific knowledge of an activity (as suggested in his example of the physicist piloting a ship).

I see two obvious relations to the RPG field here.  The first is "why is so much DMing advice so useless."  Metis is why.  Canned advice is often inapplicable or downright harmful in the specific group that a DM finds himself working with.  Moreover, most DMs (being poorly-socialized nerds) are poor observers of people, and probably have very little conscious knowledge of the people in their group and the dynamics of the group (especially given that they as DMs are hardly impassive observers, being involved with the group).  To draw an agricultural metaphor, they know next-to-nothing about the soil and hydrography of the field they're trying to grow campaigns on.  DMing also lacks a good apprenticeship mechanism (which Scott notes is a common feature of metis-heavy endeavours) - while players do observe a DM working, their perspective as heroically-self-centered semi-adversaries who don't see any of the prep involved makes this ineffective for learning to DM.  In this light, it is unsurprising that many DMs are bad and many campaigns suck, fail spectacularly, or both.

Alexis' How to Run is notable among DMing advice pieces in part because it fundamentally acknowledges this, that DMing is metis-driven, and consequently demands a great deal of attention to the particular quirks of your players.  This is also one of its more frustrating features - when Alexis talks about the actual back-and-forth, the way he manages and runs his game during a session, it seems unattainable and maybe a little self-inflated, though he makes very clear that his capabilities are the product of long practice with his particular group (establishing, for example, shared language conventions for mapping).  This is another thing worth noting with metis, that it is intensely specific and local; Scott draws the comparison between the commercial sea-captain, who knows a little about a lot of places, and the harbor-pilot who knows one harbor very, very well.  When you change systems and groups, you lose the advantage of your "local" knowledge about the nature of your players, how they interact with each other, and how they interact with particular systems.

The second, less-serious note on metis and RPGs is the difference between the Intelligence and Education stats in Traveller.  Int in Mongoose Trav governs a huge number of apparently-unrelated skills, including Deception, Gunnery, training animals, haggling, hacking, gambling, diagnosing mechanical and medical issues, noticing the unusual, dealing in contraband, et cetera.  While many of these areas do benefit from formal education in that particular skill, they are also all intensely variable based on local conditions.  It seems very plausible to me that Int in Traveller represents a general capability for accumulating metis, while Edu represents one's store of techne, book-learning and mathematical maturity.

A few notes on metis outside the RPG-context:
  • I suspect that what Musashi means by "the art of strategy" in the Book of Five Rings is essentially this general ability to acquire metis quickly.
  • One of the problems I deal with at work is computer-security education.  What I have observed is this: formal education will only get you to basic competence, and absurd amounts of practice is what separates the really good (fluent) hackers from people who can sort of muddle their way through.  Metis.  Some very sharp people take an order of magnitude less practice to get really good, but they still practice a ton.  Apprentice/mentor relations also help a lot.
  • Finally, as much as I hate leaving my apartment and doing things, many skills I want to be good at cannot be learned to a useful level by reading about them.

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