Removing the Magic Circle “Argument” from Play

Or: Why I Can Now Relent on the Magic Circle Topic

So, as if there was some kind of divine justice sweeping in to kill my own argument, Eric Zimmerman made a heartfelt confession last week about the whole magic circle snafu. Eric Zimmerman is the man behind the modern magic circle (Katie Salen is the woman behind it, but Zimmerman makes sure to say that he does not speak for her).  Zimmerman has made what is perhaps the most definitive statement about the magic circle that anyone could ever make. And that statement was that he and Katie Salen pretty much made up what they said about the magic circle in Rules of Play:

To be perfectly honest, Katie and I more or less invented the concept, inheriting its use from my work with Frank, cobbling together ideas from Huizinga and Caillois, clarifying key elements that were important for our book, and reframing it in terms of semiotics and design — two disciplines that certainly lie outside the realm of Huizinga’s own scholarly work.

But, raises Zimmerman, there is a problem with the magic circle in any context. The problem is that people have a problem with it. Zimmerman states that this is unwarrented because the problem people have with the magic circle isn’t what the magic circle is!  He accuses people for inventing a whole school of thought that nobody actually believes and then using that school of thought as a focus for scholarly writing in an effort to take the school of thought down. People are essentially creating a problem to immediately destroy, he says.

This happened, as you recall, not two weeks ago, in our own classroom, wherein I went on a tirade about the magic circle and how it can’t exist. The argument, stated briefly is this:

The argument goes something like this: the idea of magic circle is the idea that games are formal structures wholly and completely separate from ordinary life. The magic circle naively champions the preexisting rules of a game, and ignores the fact that games are lived experiences, that games are actually played by human beings in some kind of real social and cultural context.

This was the argument that I was reeling against, but there is a problem with the argument (and my making it). I actually don’t know where this whole argument started. I have just seen other people talking about destroying the magic circle and heard the arguments that this supposed elitist view of the magic circle embodies, but to be honest, I don’t know who started it. It wasn’t Huizinga for sure. In fact, in Huizinga there is very little mention of the “magic circle” except as an example of a ritual space where things take on different meaning while inside the space.  It isn’t in Rules of Play, because I’ve looked at their definition of magic circle, and didn’t find it. But I have been told that magic circle really means that games are separate from reality and that you can’t transfer from inside to outside (and that games stand on their own etc.). I was told that, and so I believed that someone somewhere had made that distinction.

According to Zimmerman, it isn’t true. No one thinks like that. Of course games exist in reality and of course the player changes as a result of the game. Time doesn’t stop in the magic circle. Nobody believes otherwise. Zimmerman made it clear, the magic circle is really just that objects and events take on a different meaning when you are inside the magic circle. This is how it is written inRules of Play.

So finally, and once and for all, we can stop seething and raging against something that doesn’t exist.  We have enough real problems to deal with, without creating new, imaginary ones. I finally can agree with the magic circle.

All of the quotes from this blog came from Eric Zimmerman’s Gamasutra feature: Jerked Around by the Magic Circle – Clearing the Air Ten Years Later. It was very brave of Zimmerman to write this, and I think it is a hugely important article to read, clearing up, with authority, a whole stain in the book of games studies. Read this.


4 thoughts on “Removing the Magic Circle “Argument” from Play

  1. ZImmerman’s piece is hugely important, but I think he’s writing from a narrow sense of games studies. I’m assuming he’s right that there actually is no “magic circle jerk” in the study of games design.

    However, there *definitely* is, in areas he’s likely not familiar with: (a) the sociology of play, (b) law and (c) anthropology of the internet/ “virtual worlds.”

    Much of the sociology of play work – which is still pretty central in schools of education that do games studies – came from a focus on children’s play and “folk” games, where the separation of this sort of play from adult activities is presumed absolute. You see Sutton-Smith, writing from this tradition, taking it on in his book.

    Likewise, the concept is *actually useful* in law, for explaining why actions which are tortious or criminal in one context aren’t in others, and why the legal system shouldn’t/doesn’t adjudicate (most) game-based disputes – and why there’s currently a legal issue around virtual property and game TOS’s.

    Worst is the internet anthropology crowd, where the Sherry Turkle/’cyberspace” paradigm is dying, but slowly. There are still a lot of academics who came of age in the 90s and the turn of the century who still write from that set of assumptions. It’s no coincidence that Castronova is probably the main user of the term in the past decade.

    So, Zimmerman did a great thing by killing off the concept at its source, but it had parallel lives entirely distinct from his and Salen’s use of it, and those are hanging on.

    Hm, maybe I should blog about this too. Been too lazy/priortizing effectively to do the needed research….

    • incobalt says:

      I think you are right and note that on page two of the feature, Zimmerman himself makes the same basic argument. The magic circle, as referenced in /Rules of Play/ is a concept for game design. Reading it from another point of view isn’t going to produce something very useful for that perspective. granted, I think the sentiment stands (that a the game provides a ritual space wherein objects take on new meaning that they do not normally have outside the space) strongly in other disciplines. If those other disciplines want to create further constraints on the matter, so be it, but at its core the magic circle is a very simple and extendable concept.

  2. tractates says:

    I’ve been writing on this topic for awhile (but haven’t published anything). I think Zimmerman is almost right in that no one really uses the term to mean the ‘strong boundary’ of a closed system. No one, except Caillois himself, who, though he doesn’t use the term ‘magic circle’, seems to think of games as completely separate otherly ‘pure spaces’ (in his terminology). I think Zimmerman and Salen probably read Cailois, then saw ‘magic circle’ in Huizinga and cherry-picked the term because it is a fancy way of stating Caillois’ position.

    The thing is, game theorists today who still use the term (Montola, Castranova, Juul, Bogost, Nieudorp, &co), equivocate between all kinds of differing concepts when they use ‘magic circle’. Interestingly, a lot of them hedge around the use of the term, with ‘almost’, ‘half-real’, ‘nearly’, and so on. That flags an unclear and problematic technical term to me.

    What really gets me pissed is how so many theorists attribute the concept to Huizinga, and even claim he ‘coined’ the term. He didn’t, and I think it really comes out of Caillois/Salen and Zimmerman misreading Homo Ludens. Go back to that first chapter in Homo Ludens and read through Huizinga’s five characteristics of play. Notice that ‘separateness’ (from other activities or ‘ordinary’ life) is characteristic number two, and ‘boundedness’ (in space) is characteristic number three. The magic circle seems to collapse these two characteristics into one, so that we have the idea of a separate space. That constitutes a serious misreading to me (then go read the first chapter in Caillois’ Man, Play, Games’ and you will find that Caillois uses ‘separate’ to mean ‘bounded in space and time’). That’s why people have such a problem with it, I venture. A separate space is patently absurd, and whatever Zimmerman meant by it, he did a terribly sloppy job defining it (I suspect because it is a half-thought misreading of Huizinga).

    • incobalt says:

      I think you are falling into the same problem I’m identifying a bit, by saying that Salen and Zimmerman’s magic circle represents a strong boundary, where you leave everything behind when you pass through, which is in no way indicated by Rules of Play. Their magic circle does not collapse separateness and boundary into the same thing, but says that both qualities are a part of their magic circle. The magic circle divides space, and so it creates a boundary, and that things within that magic circle take on new meaning than when we are outside of the circle (not playing), making it separate from other activities. They are not saying that the space is separate, but that what is in the space defined by the boundary is separate from other activities. Your argument here suggests that you believe that Salen and Zimmerman (and Frank Lantz) believe that when you are inside the boundaries of the magic circle, all things there take on a completely different meaning and are not the things they were before, and so are completely separate from everything outside the boundaries. This is obviously not true, and it is not stated in Salen and Zimmerman. Further, it’s the same argument that so many scholars attribute to Salen and Zimmerman, even though they did not say it and prompted Zimmerman’s response to verify that he did not say that, and that he doesn’t know where that argument came from either.

      I will give you the note about attributing magic circle to Huizinga. So many people do it, and he didn’t make the term. It was created by Salen, Zimmerman and Lantz (Zimmerman and Lantz had used it in their teachings before Rules of Play was written). I don’t think people attribute it to Huizinga anymore, though. Particularly after Zimmerman’s article about the whole business. I actually think that people are going to stop using the term altogether, as it is dated and there is so much confusion about it.

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