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.