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There is No Magic Circle (in Video Games)

(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.


Six victory points.

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.



I wouldn't be so quick in dismissing the magic circle, especially according to Huizinga's definition. While it is generally agreed that it is porous, this does not mean it has diluted to the point of being irrelevant.

When observing someone interacting with a computer game, it is still possible to leverage the magic circle to identify him as "playing a video game" and interpret his following comments and actions accordingly. The game controller holds the same function as a board game's play objects: this button means "jump" while this button means "shoot" and this stick means "move". To someone playing a different game, those same physical objects might hold a different meaning (like "build", "select", "pause"...). Also, that specific configuration of light impulses means "unit", or "cursor", or "score"... I could go on.

Still according to Huizinga, the magic circle's main function is not to define what is a game and what isn't, but rather to help observers determine whether a person is playing or not.

Your intention of delineating differences between board games and video games is brave, but the answer is, in my opinion, obvious: a mere difference of medium. What is the difference between chess played on a chess board against chess played on a computer screen? Aren't they both the exact same game?

I find it quite extreme to attempt to keelhaul fundamental theory over a personal medium preference...


I am reading Homo Ludens right now. Although I am still early in the book he's mentioned the magic circle several times, and I don't think he ever even vaguely implies it is "separate" from reality in the sense you suggest.

He knows games and reality are all mixed together. His use of the 'magic circle' is just the label he likes to use to describe what otherwise might be called the ritual space. A baseball field is "separate" from reality in the sense that it has it's own rules and meanings that are in effect when you enter it, but that's it really. I think that's all he's trying to say.

The magic circle isn't really Huizinga's idea in a sense. It's just the label he likes best for the ritual space, the play space, etc. It doesn't even come from him originally, because in the book (in the first chapter actually) he mentions it coming from occult practice and magic, as one of many formulations of the ritual space throughout history and culture.

I think he just adopted it as a general term because he liked it best for whatever reason. But what it's describing, at least in the book as I understand it, is fairly common knowledge of how play spaces work.

I think you may be right that videogames "have no magic circle" because, if we follow the concept of the ritual space, the space where alternate rules apply than those of everyday life, video games enforce those rules for us. If the circle is enforced via computer technology, one wonders if it remains "magic" even if it still is obviously a circle, a space of alternate reality. Maybe it's a "techno-circle". :P

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