The Magic Circle: Criticisms and variations

disclaimer: I have not read Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of of the Play Element in Culture. I’ve only read other scholars’ descriptions. However, I still think I know enough to talk about it; trust me, reader =]

I definitely need to read the book. One can see how thoughtful, interesting, and diverse its content is just looking through its wiki page. Basically, Huizinga believes that play is critical to culture and civilization, and that our established, ideological constructs stem from play and demonstrate play elements at work within themselves. In the book, he focuses on the functions of play in language, war, art, the law, etc. The bits that I have read are really interesting, so hopefully I’ll be able to give a more comprehensive review later on.

Within Huizinga’s description of play, he touches upon a quality of play that he describes as “the magic circle.” He writes,  “all play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.

However, many scholars today take issue with his description of play as an activity that occurs apart from ordinary life and is “connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it;” it has “a non-materialistic quality in the nature of the thing itself.” The issue with this description is that it implies that play is an otherworldly,  non-consequential, trivial and hermeneutically sealed childlike enchantment. Play becomes, in the words of games and textual studies scholar Steven E. Jones, “a fairy circle in the primitive forest of the mind, rather than a robust and knowing, socially collaborative, cultural construct that affects and is affected by material reality.”

While addressing this issue, scholars haven’t dismissed the concept of the magic circle entirely as it is quite useful for conceptualizing playful activities, but many of them have altered Huizinga’s definition of play in order to address the very real, worldly, and affective aspects of play. Though the rules of play primarily influence the world inside the magic circle, players are never solely in one world or the other. Players don’t simply abandon the world they live in when caught up in play, and in fact, players are the primary medium for discourse between the worlds in and outside the magic circle. Heck, even the existence of the magic circle is a social convention that is very much informed by the outside world.

A great example of the magic circle’s permeability can be seen during a raiding session in World of Warcraft. When the players start the game, the magic circle is set temporally and spatially; the players agree to play at a certain time, until a certain goal is accomplished, and in a certain world with specific characters. The world is digital, not “real,” but the rules of the game are real, and the players are real, and have real concerns about the game, and about the real world, too. During the game, players communicate via voice chat, and although they usually call each other by their in-game names, they don’t actually believe they’re chatting with Taurens, Orcs, and Elves. At times, one can hear a player’s parents or friends walk into the room and talk to them, and people have to take bathroom and food breaks. Although all of the player’s focus is on the game and they are immersed visually, challenge-basedlly (lol), and imaginatively, they don’t fully lose an awareness of the “real” world. They are within the magic circle, but they’re very presence allows for the outside world to have a say within the magic circle.

The “real” world, or meat world as some call it,  also invades the magic circle through references made by the game itself. For example, if the game is set in New York or other real world locations, or if there are billboards advertising soda, etc.

The wording I’ve been using is somewhat misleading because the real world doesn’t invade the magic circle, but rather, they are dialogic. The magic circle is constructed and informed by the real world, and at the same time is set apart from it, but the real world players who create the magic circle never fully exist in just one of these worlds. As much as the magic circle is set apart from the real world, it also depends and communicates with it.

So, in order to account for this permeability, scholars have attempted to use new definitions of the magic circle. Will Wright (of Sims and Spore fame), for example, likes to refer to a “possibility space,” a grid of possible moves and states, a grid whose lines can be created and altered, a grid created by developers but appropriated by players. It is a socially co-constructed space that players and society agree upon as existing outside, alongside, but connected to the real world, and the space is only defined as such during the duration of the game, as it may be altered and reconfigured during different instances of game play. It is a space whose possibility includes a radical change of the space itself.

These conceptualization of play lends itself to Game Studies methodologies that focus on the dialogue between game, player, and world. Steven E. Jones, for example, focuses on what he calls “the paratext,” which in a nutshell refers to the aspects of games that “illuminate those connections and boundaries…trace the material and cultural determinants, from software code to design, to marketing, social networks of players and fans, and to wider cultural fictions and  key texts, that help to shape the production, distribution, and reception–which is to say the meanings–of video games.”

Methodologies that focus or incorporate the paratext can be said to take a very broad view of game, play, and culture, but one thing that these scholars have learned from the Ludology v. Narratology debate of the past is that games must always be understood as games, and that the core of their meaning exists in the actual playing of the game. The paratext definitely incorporates this, but it extends outwards, just as games do, and examines the way that games communicate with player and world in order to “mean.”

My next post will delve deeper, or broader, into the paratext and will have some examples of this methodology and its uses.


About Alphabet1

always already is
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One Response to The Magic Circle: Criticisms and variations

  1. Pingback: Conceptualizing Play and Game: Hardcore | Gamer Babylon

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