Jerked Around by the Magic Circle - Clearing the Air Ten Years Later
February 7, 2012 Page 3 of 4
Thinking Many Ways at Once
I recently visited a game studies class. Throughout the discussion after my talk, the professor peppered me with questions about the magic circle: Can we REALLY look at rules in and of themselves? Is it truly possible to separate rules from the rest of games? And why would we even want to? He addressed me as if I was the very embodiment of the magic circle jerk, manifesting right there in his classroom.
Before I could convince him (and the class) that nobody really held any of the ideas he wanted to question, I first had to convince him that I wasn't really the enemy that he thought I was. It was certainly an out-of-body kind of experience.
One of the most basic ideas in Rules of Play is that we can look at games from multiple and contradictory points of view. And furthermore: that this is the right and proper thing to do with such a complex phenomena as games. As Katie and I write in Rules of Play, most of the chapters represent a "schema" -- a particular lens that can be used to focus on certain aspects of games.
We organize them into three general types -- formal schema focused on rules (i.e., games as systems of uncertainty or as cybernetic feedback loops), experiential schema focused on play (games as social play or as the play of desire), and cultural schema focused on context (games as cultural rhetoric or as ideological resistance).
This is the same thing as saying that literature can be understood as the rhythms of style, or as the representation of gender and class, or as the history of the printing press -- or as any number of things.
When we use one schema to understand, analyze, or design games, other schemas may need to be ignored or repressed. There are, for example, key mathematical aspects of games that are crucial for learning the craft of game design, such as calculating basic probability or understanding game theory functions.
Focusing on the math in making a game (such using a spreadsheet to juggle the relative experience point level-up curves of different classes in an RPG) might mean temporarily suspending a critical awareness of (for example) the sociocultural identity of the player base.
However, eventually the RPG designer would need to connect the pure math to the game's play and to its culture. A level-up experience point curve implies a certain tempo of play advancement relative to a reward/frustration pattern of desire.
And the shape of this play is certainly something that should be designed relative to an understanding of a particular kind of player's expectations and assumptions -- aspects of player attitudes that are closely tied to sociocultural identity. In other words, the math bone is connected to the culture bone. All of the schemas in Rules of Play really are ultimately intertwined, even if sometimes we have to separate them to see one aspect of games more clearly.
Applying different cognitive frames to knowledge at different moments is part of any intellectual or creative pursuit. A violinist in the midst of performing a Rochmananov cadenza is not going to simultaneously ponder the biography of the composer of the piece she is playing at that very moment. However, during her rehearsal period, that kind of research is certainly something that may have informed her musical practice.
I have always thought that the multiple-schema approach of Rules of Play offers an antidote to a narrow, rules-centric approach -- the approach of the magic circle jerk. The aggravating irony is that this is exactly the brush we get tarred with! Jesper Juul captures this bizarro-world logic in his essay, "The Magic Circle and the Puzzle Piece": "...theorists also claim to counter Huizinga, Salen, and Zimmerman by stressing the exact social nature of the magic circle that Huizinga, Salen, and Zimmerman also stress." Let's stop the insanity.
Design Isn't Science
As a designer, I am an avowed relativist. For me, the value of a concept is not its scientific, objective truth. The value of a concept is its utility to solve problems as they are encountered in the design process.
The concepts in Rules of Play are not meant to explain or define games once and for all. They are tools that can be used to understand, construct, and modify games. As MIT pioneer Marvin Minsky put it, a concept is a "thing to think with" -- not a law that points towards a truth.
This is why designers must embrace the deliciousness of contradiction. For example, to solve the feedback loop problems in your game's victory conditions, you might need to take off your media studies hat for a moment. Or to understand why all of your playtesters despise your game's main character, you might need to cease your formalist system-tweaking and consider instead the narrative politics of gender representation at work in your game.
One concept-tool might be completely useless for solving one particular problem, but crucial for something else. Thinking of games in all of their complexity as math, aesthetics, desire, social experience, gender, story, identity, etc. -- this is what game design is all about. Interpretive schema can violently contradict each other! But that's absolutely the way it should be.
Many approaches to the study of games operate under a more scientific model -- the idea that there are truths about games, and it is important to discover these truths and establish an accurate picture of what games actually are and how they really operate. I welcome others who want to hanker after scientificity, but such concerns do not motivate my own thinking about games. Just to restate: in my opinion, for a designer the value of a concept is its utility, not its ultimate truth. And concepts like the magic circle which come out of Rules of Play reflect this non-scientific designer's approach.
I believe this is why I often see presentations or read papers asking whether the magic circle really-ultimately-finally does or doesn't exist. The answer, as far as I am concerned, is yes and no. It just depends on what you are trying to understand about games, and why you are making use of the concept. If you want to look at games as a pure mathematician, or a strict ludologist, it makes perfect sense that you might adopt a more closed idea of games-as-rules. If you are a social anthropologist, then such a closed view wouldn't have much use in solving your research questions.
There is nothing wrong with temporarily adopting a limited point of view, as long as you're aware of the limitations of the blinders you are putting on. In fact, this is what research in an interdisciplinary field is all about! Understanding the limitations in our own points of view can help us in our understanding of each other.
Now you may be thinking... Aha! Articulating limitations -- that's the problem! Those darn magic circle jerks don't do enough to describe the blinders they are putting on. They don't sufficiently make the limitations of their limited perspective known! I want to remind you that there is no magic circle jerk. This naïve character -- the ultimate hardcore formalist -- is a phantasm. Nobody in game studies, as far I know, is taking that point of view seriously. The entire purpose of my essay is to point out that this magic circle jerk is a fiction that people project onto Homo Ludens and Rules of Play.
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