(This post originally appeared on Jason Begy's blog, Game Bitiotics.)
Video games have no magic circle, but board games do.
The difference between these two media is, essentially, one of reaction and proaction. If I may be allowed to indulge in a McLuhan-esque theory for a moment, video games are a reactive medium. As a player, I am continually reacting to the game state as-defined by the computer. The computer communicates the current state to me (the means by which it does so varies considerably from game to game). I then process this information, make a decision, and the feedback loop continues. This is of course the same regardless of the nature or genre of the game: in this sense Farmville, Grand Theft Auto and Quake are all the same thing. In multiplayer games the situation is only slightly different: a varying number of people are affecting the state, but the state is still processed, maintained and communicated by the computer.
Board games, however, are a proactive medium. In these games the state is essentially a mental construct shared amongst the players. Each will have (approximately) the same idea of what the state currently is, and when the state is altered each must update his or her own construct accordingly. The actual bits, cards and so on can be thought of as reminders that communicate the state, used so that we do not have to keep everything in memory. These games are fundamentally proactive: as a player, it is up to me to process and update the game state, in addition to choosing how I will alter it when my chance comes. Without the player's shared understanding of the rules and the state the game breaks down. As such, everyone must actively maintain the information in the system that both defines the state and the rules.
With this in mind, I want to address Huizinga's famed "magic circle." Recent scholarship agrees (seemingly unilaterally) that the magic circle is porous at best. While Huizinga implies that a game is somehow set apart from reality, in practice this is never the case. Anyone who has ever intentionally lost a game, bragged (or annoyed by bragging) about winning, or bet on an outcome knows this firsthand. In short, our real lives permeate the games we play, and they cannot be cleanly separated.
As such, it seems that as a theory the magic circle as-described is incomplete, or even incorrect. However, I propose that we should view the magic circle as the information feedback loop maintained by the players of a board game. The magic circle implies that something special and distinct from ordinary reality is occurring during a game. When we play a board game this is exactly what happens: the objects we play with are imbued with a special significance. Paper money is "worth" something, flat discs can "jump" over each other, placing a token in a certain place earns "points." The meaning and information we attach to these objects belongs to the other half of the information feedback loop, a loop drawn between the players-as-players and players-as-processors. This loop is the magic circle, a circle that transforms random cubes of wood into bits of information that we are then somehow able to act upon in a meaningful way. When the game is over the paper money still has value, but it is of a different type.
With video games the feedback loop is fundamentally different. We do not need to attach any special meaning to Mario, the computer provides it for us. We see and interact with the objects in a video game without any special manipulation of our own cognitive processes. There is no magic circle here, only reaction to a state that is just partially under our control.
I want to conclude by noting that this is not an attempt at a value judgment that privileges one medium over another, despite whatever connotations "proactive" and "reactive" might have in today's business-jargon-infused world. Rather, I believe that board games and video games have some fundamental differences, and this short piece represents a first stab at delineating them.