The Magic Circle – The Imaginary Situation

The Magic Circle is a term I’ve seen and heard referenced by many a “ludologist,” game developer, games school teacher, and even games studies (ie, the discipline that looks at pre-elecrtonic games) academic. Well, the term seems to get thrown around a lot, seemingly without much first-hand knowledge or (dare I say it) understanding of the significance of the concept. As part of my research, I attempted to read Huizinga (I got lost somewhere amongst his descriptions of kites), but I was reading about the concept more than the name, and found that there’s more to the Magic Circle than I have been led to believe.

Firstly, while the phrase “Magic Circle” is from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1938) as most people assume, he only uses it in an extremely throwaway form and doesn’t actually seem to give too much weight to it, listing it amongst a number of other settings as “consecrated spots” or “play-grounds.” The concept, attributed to him, actually even isn’t his. The first documented example of a similar concept that I could find was within Lev Vygotsky’s essay, “Play and the Mental Development of the Child,” written in 1933. Vygotsky concedes that other earlier writers have discussed what he refers to as an “imaginary situation,” but they describe it as an aspect or secondary symptom of play, which only occurs within a subset of all activities that together can classify an activity as play. Vygotsky decided that this Imaginary Situation is far more significant in identifying play, and believed that all play must exist within a situation that has some sort of boundaries, whether physical/literal like a sports pitch, or completely abstract such as believable or acceptable portrayals of characters.

Vygotsky placed a heavy focus on play not necessarily being “pleasurable” (so much for all those ludologists-and-developers-turned-author-educators who say that the key aspect of games is that they must be “fun”!), but rather on the needs and desires of the child not being met immediately. Based on a generalisation of a number of events or let-downs, play, according to Vygotsky, is always an “imaginary, illusory realization of unrealizable desires.” These situations, he explains, already have an assumed code of conduct or set of rules which must be adhered to. They may not be pre-defined or explicitly stated, but they work on a preconceived notion of the appropriate behaviour of the individual within the play situation. In this respect, the player is like an actor playing a role, whether improvising or fitting their actions to the dialogue, based on the (often more defined and agreed upon by the director and actor) assumptions about the character and the situation.

In play, the imaginary situation is formed from a stereotype based on current beliefs about the world. Vygotsky gives the example of two sisters may play a game of “sisters,” and act out ideas about the way sisters should be, based on their existing knowledge from books, films, etc. A gamer will play a survivor in a zombie apocalypse based on their existing knowledge from horror films, or an assassin based on their assumptions about what assassins do and how they act. This knowledge can be primary, where they have seen or experienced it themselves, or secondary, where they are told/shown about it. Interesting to me is that sometimes these ideas are built and modified over time within society, so an individual playing a “vampire” would have a very different portrayal based on whether their primary reference was folk tales from the middle ages, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or Twilight. Gothic Horror, as well as the desire to experience fear, have their own explanations behind them, which I will leave for another day.

The Magic Circle is often used to merely describe in-game world versus real life, and there has been disagreement as to whether it protects the game from real life, or real life from the game. Sometimes there is an accusation that the membrane is entirely permeable, and that games directly influence someone’s perception of the real world. This assumes that this barrier is there to protect us from blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. It’s more like an oil bubble on water- sure, they can mix, but the natural state of play is to exist on its own, floating atop reality. I suspect the play influencing life argument stems from a “learning-through-doing” mentality, and requires a discrediting belief that no one can tell the difference between this imaginary situation and real life. Somehow, when I play Napoleon in Civilisation, I have no idea that I’m actually a girl. Now, I’ve played male characters on stage (the curses/blessings of an all-girl’s school), and as soon as I walk off stage, I remember who I am. I take my costume and makeup off. This might be different for a Method actor, but I guarantee that most gamers don’t put in as much effort to prepare for their role.

Essentially, the Magic Circle is an over-inflated concept based on an idea of unknown origin that was emphasised by one theorist, mentioned by another, and credited to them by someone else. If there is something to take away from this, it’s that most successful games should work on pre-existing concepts (and yes, pre-existing genre or control systems count, although that’s really a bit weak and not what I’m trying to talk about), assume an amount of shared cultural knowledge, and are understood by players to be a construction. If anyone can’t actually tell the difference between a construction and reality (especially one that is so visibly mediated through screens and controllers), then I’m sorry to say, but maybe they just happen to have a mental disorder and should be treated. For the rest of us, what’s wrong with having a little fun?

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