My family used to spend a fair amount of time playing Magic: the Gathering (aka MtG), an engaging collectible trading-card game invented by Richard Garfield. (An aside: I met Garfield once at a rather bizarre technology conference where both of us were severely out of place. We chatted about our graduate school research, his in mathematics, mine in physics. He autographed some MtG cards for my kids. I gave him an old US coin, a two-cent piece — "just my two cents". See NiceHackers, 20 Dec 2000 ...) At our house we still play the occasional round of MtG, especially when in a nostalgic mood or, as during the past few days, when confined by bad weather.

In the MtG world there are rules for individual games. Then there's "The Metagame" — the overall cosmos of MtG cards, players, and interactions amongst them. Sometimes a card is fine by itself but horribly disruptive to the Metagame. It may be too powerful (e.g., too likely to cause an instant win), or it may slow down a competition too much (e.g., something that invokes a sub-game within a game, Arabian Nights storytelling fashion). Or it may be too goofy, too complex to interpret, or simply too random.

It's tough to strike the right balance between luck and skill, between playability and realism, between social interaction and serious competition. Many games have have come and gone over the years as they failed to keep their metagames healthy. Others have tried to adapt via rules changes. Is chess the same today, played at sudden-death game-in-30-minutes pace, as it was when only 40 moves had to be completed in 2.5 hours and adjournments could stretch overnight? Have composite materials transmuted pole vaulting into a completely different sport? Are steroids destroying baseball as they are baseball players' bodies? Tough questions.

Which brings to mind the metagame of computer operating systems. JonathanSturm [1] recently commented on some "glaring deficiencies" in the Apple Macintosh user interface, and opined "What a pity BeOS never bore fruit."

Maybe, maybe not. The fault, I am convinced, lies not in the operating system but in the metagame, the universe of users and software surrounding the OS. As I wrote to Jonathan:

... virtually everything depends on the savvy of an application's programmers and their consistency in following the standard Apple/Mac user interface guidelines. Those guidelines have evolved over the years and they're pretty decent most of the time ... but like everything, one can get into religious arguments over various design decisions. For example, a big war has broken out recently, I hear, between those who want to have visible file "extensions" (e.g., .txt, .jpeg, etc.) versus those who want to keep the invisible Mac four-letter codes that identify file type and creator (long long ago, in the mid-1980's, I registered the letters "CTLZ" for my little software development efforts — are those letters still mine? I don't know ....). And should file names be case-sensitive or case-insensitive? Should they be limited to six capital letters plus a three capital letter extension? Who can say ....

And as for "glaring deficiencies", well:

... like everything, there are reasons for those choices ... sometimes historical reasons (insufficient processor power or memory size, for instance, or insufficient foresight re what users will be doing in a few years) ... sometimes philosophical choices (like the difference between the Awk and Perl programming languages — Swiss army knife vs. fully-equipped machine shop). And I agree about the virtues of the BeOS, based on the little I have seen of it — but I would say the real pity is that it has taken Apple more than a decade to finally change to UNIX as the underlying operating system engine (in OS-X). Back in 1989, I had a Mac running A/UX (Apple's UNIX) — it was sluggish and buggy as all get-out — but if A/UX had been properly developed then, maybe history would have been different ....

Or then again, maybe some unforeseen interaction in The Metagame would have caused a meltdown, and we'd all be back to inscribing clay tablets and painting on cave walls ...

TopicProgramming - TopicHumor - TopicPersonalHistory - TopicSociety - 2003-02-18

(correlates: SirJonathan, Comments on Let It Snow, EssenceOfEducation, ...)