The brilliant designer and renowned MMO scholar Richard Bartle made a stink at a game conference several years ago by interrogating many of the presenters (most of whom were not game creators) about their research. After their talks, one by one, he asked them: "But how will your research help me make a better game?"
Now I, more than anyone, enjoy cantankerous outbursts, but Richard's repeated question was ultimately misplaced. You can't expect every research paper to address everyone else's disciplinary needs. In the end, it should be up to Richard to figure out if and how someone's research might help him make a better game, just as it was up to the historians, psychologists, and other researchers at the conference to decide if and how the design presentations from Richard (and myself) helped them with their work.
Rules of Play is a book about game design, and it was written to help game designers better understand what it means to create board and card games, social and physical games, and -- of course -- video games. In considering and critiquing ideas from the book, it is important to remember the disciplinary point of view from which it was written.
For example, if you read Rules of Play as a sociologist, the book is never going to possess a sociological standpoint as subtle and nuanced as an actual work of sociology. Rules of Play is not filled with research and footnotes from the history of sociological work, and its concepts do not build carefully on those from the well-heeled discipline of sociology.
The same is true when I read something through my own disciplinary lens as a game designer. I don't expect sociologists, or media studies scholars, or economists to have ingested and assimilated the whole of game design theory before they begin their work. I certainly can critique their research, but I would do so with an understanding of how their own disciplinary point of view differs from mine.
Just to clarify: I am not saying that one can't speak to issues and individuals outside of a home discipline. On the contrary, I so often find myself inspired by scholarly work outside of game design, just as I am constantly inspired by art, entertainment, and media that doesn't take the form of games. But as a practicing game designer I know that I myself must bridge the gap between these works and my own interests and goals.
Concepts and ideas should be understood within the framework of their originating discipline. This seems like an incredibly straightforward point, but critiques of the magic circle often point out how Homo Ludens or Rules of Play fails to present a concept as it should be understood within the discipline of the author. For example, just the aroma of the idea that game rules might be considered as divorced from a social reality has been enough to send many a game studies social scientist into a magic circle frenzy.
This is all complicated by the fact that game studies scholars are working in a radically interdisciplinary space, where ideas and fields mix freely. This only increases our need to be cognizant of our differences. Often, for example, we share and exchange concepts, but our methodologies and the aims of our research are wildly divergent. These differences are productive, but can be the source for misunderstandings. The phenomenon of the magic circle jerk is a case in point.
Rules of Play is a book about game design. Every concept between its covers was conceived as something useful for designers struggling with the process of creating games -- useful for generating concepts, for constructing games, for analyzing designs. Rules of Play emphasizes how games create meaning, by being or becoming contexts in which meaning gets made.
Within this larger set of ideas, the magic circle is a fairly simple concept. It is a term that reminds us how meaning happens. Imagine, if you will, coming to visit me in my Brooklyn apartment. The two of us chat over coffee, as a Chess set sits nearby. Consider the web of relations between you and I and the Chess set as we sit and talk. Perhaps the figurines on the Chess board serve as a conversation starter, or perhaps as a social marker that I am a game player, or maybe they are just part of the aesthetic décor of my living room. Or -- most likely -- all of these and many more.
Once we start playing a game of Chess, many of these relationships shift and change. For example, in a casual conversation, we might fiddle with the Chess pieces on the board, knocking them about. But after we begin to play, suddenly it really matters whether a piece is in the middle of a square or not, and which of us can move it, and when, and how.
Each of our kings acquires a special significance, and our social interaction shifts -- perhaps it becomes more adversarial, or more conversational, or simply more quiet. Time and space, and identity, and social relations acquire new meanings while the game is going on. This is how playing a game is "entering a magic circle" -- there are meanings which emerge as cause and effect of the game as it is played.
For me this idea -- that games are a context from which meaning can emerge -- is so simple as to be almost banal. Hardly a cause for debate! And note that this general understanding of the magic circle does not imply the impossibly brittle, heavy-handed caricature that is so often criticized -- the ideas held by the imaginary magic circle jerk.
For example, are the meanings that emerge from the chess game in my example completely divorced from ordinary life? Absolutely not! They are inexorably intertwined. A preexisting friendship, for example, will certainly impact the social interaction between players in a game. Are the meanings ultimately derived from the rules and formal structures of the game? Hardly! Meaning is everywhere and infinitely subtle, appearing wherever one wishes to look. Certainly there are game-meanings that are tied to the rules of the game, but there's no reason to assume that those elements always dominate over others.
In fact, there's no need to think about the magic circle (a context for meaning creation) as something exclusive to games. Could one think of almost any physical or social space as a magic circle in this way? Probably -- if that's your cup of tea, go for it. Certainly Huizinga makes a similar gesture when he places courts of law and religious temples in the same "play-ground" category as card tables and tennis courts.
Critiques of the magic circle often hinge on identifying in Rules of Play a subtle emphasis on the designed elements of games, rather than on more purely sociocultural phenomena. Critiquers, I have good news for you: you are correct. Rules of Play does tend to emphasize the meanings that are tied to the elements that designers actually create. Why? Because it is a book written by and for designers.
As a book about game design it has a special interest in the actual construction of games -- the rules and materials, the systems and code that game designers create, and the way that those elements impact player experience. But the book certainly also spends an extensive amount of time detailing the contextual aspects of games -- for example, one of the four sections of the book is entirely dedicated to thinking about the cultural contexts of games.
Rules of Play was written by designers. Understanding our disciplinary point of view can help explain why we might be interested in the meanings that are formed in part from the decisions of designers. However, there is a world of difference between a subtle emphasis on design and the ham-fisted hyper-structuralism of the mythical magic circle jerk.