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Jerked Around by the Magic Circle - Clearing the Air Ten Years Later

February 7, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Preface: The Magic What?

A broad strokes definition: The magic circle is the idea that a boundary exists between a game and the world outside the game.

Outside the magic circle, you are Jane Smith, a 28 year old gamer; inside, you are the Level 62 GrandMage Hargatha of the Dookoo Clan. Outside the magic circle, this is a leather-bound football; inside, it is a special object that helps me score -- and the game of Football has very specific rules about who can touch it, when, where, and in what ways.

Is the magic circle a verifiable phenomenon? A useful fiction? A ridiculous travesty? And who really cares? This essay endeavors to answer these questions by looking at the history, the use, and the misuse of the term. And along the way, I offer some correctives to how we think about the concept, about game design theory, and about the more general study of games.

Shoot Me Now

At game studies conferences, I often find myself browsing through the scheduled program and finding one or more presentations on the magic circle. If you've ever been to an academic game gathering, you know the kind of talk.

They are generally given by earnest graduate students, and have titles like "Beyond the Magic Circle," or "The Pitfalls of the Magic Circle." A few years ago, there was an entire conference called "Breaking the Magic Circle."

Invariably, these presentations have a single aim: to devalue, dethrone, or otherwise take down the oppressive regime of the magic circle. They begin by citing either Johannes Huizinga's Homo Ludens or Rules of Play (the game design textbook I co-authored with Katie Salen), and then elaborate mightily on the dangers of the magic circle approach. They proceed to supplant the narrow magic circle point of view with one of their own -- an approach that emphasizes something like social interaction between players, a wider cultural context, or concrete sociopolitical reality. Dragon slain.

I regularly get emails from budding game critics asking me if I think the magic circle "really ultimately truly" does actually exist. It seems to have become a rite of passage for game studies scholars: somewhere between a Bachelor's Degree and a Master's thesis, everyone has to write the paper where the magic circle finally gets what it deserves.

We all know it's fun to take down an authority figure. But what I want to ask here is: what is this oppressive regime that these well-intentioned researchers feel a need to overthrow? Who is this Voldemort that these papers dangerously invoke, in order to stage a final battle of good against evil? Does anyone really hold to the orthodox, narrow view of the magic circle, or is the phenomenon of taking down the magic circle just game studies scholars tilting at windmills?

The Magic Circle Jerk

The problem runs deep. It goes beyond just wide-eyed graduate students. Sometimes, I see it in the work of colleagues for whom I have the utmost respect and whose work I otherwise admire: game studies icons Mia Consalvo, Marinka Copier, and T.L. Taylor all have written about the need to overthrow the oppressive magic circle.

The argument goes something like this: the idea of magic circle is the idea that games are formal structures wholly and completely separate from ordinary life. The magic circle naively champions the preexisting rules of a game, and ignores the fact that games are lived experiences, that games are actually played by human beings in some kind of real social and cultural context.

My question remains: who is this ignoramus that holds these strange and narrow ideas about games? Where are the books and essays that this formalist-structuralist-ludologist has published? Where is this frightfully naïve thinker who is putting game studies at risk by poisoning the minds of impressionable students? Just who is this magic circle jerk? (Note that the word is "jerk" as in annoying person -- I'm using it as a noun, not a verb.)

I am here to tell you: there is no magic circle jerk. We need to stop chasing this phantasm. I offer this essay as a corrective. It is meant to clarify where this magic circle idea came from, what it was intended to mean, and to stop the energy being wasted by chasing the ghost of the magic circle jerk -- a ghost that simply doesn't exist.

Birthing a Straw Man

Perhaps I'm sensitive to the phenomenon of the magic circle jerk because I (or Katie Salen and I) often are identified as the embodiment of the worst of the magic circle.

In fact, game designer Frank Lantz and I started using the term in our game design classes years before work on Rules of Play began. In 1999, we co-authored an article for Merge Magazine called "Rules, Play, Culture: Checkmate" that referred to the magic circle as "the artificial context of a game... the shared space of play created by its rules."

However, the term only reached full fruition in Rules of Play. It's certainly true that in the nearly 10 years since the book was published, the idea of the magic circle is easily the most popular concept to come out of it. So in many ways I do feel responsible for the magic circle shenanigans that have followed the book's publication.

Where does it come from? Frank and I first read the phrase "magic circle" in Huizinga's Homo Ludens, where it appears a scant handful of times -- once each on pages 10, 11, 20, 77, 210, and 212 (of the 1972 Beacon Edition). Its most prominent and oft-cited mention is in this paragraph on page 10:

All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the "consecrated spot" cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground.

The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.

Here "magic circle" appears in a list of phenomena that includes game spaces (card table, tennis court), spaces for art and entertainment (stage, screen), and even "real-world" spaces (temple, court of justice). The magic circle is yet another example of a ritual space that creates for Huizinga a "temporary world within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart."

The "magic circle" is not a particularly prominent phrase in Homo Ludens, and although Huizinga certainly advocates the idea that games can be understood as separate from everyday life, he never takes the full-blown magic circle jerk point of view that games are ultimately separate from everything else in life or that rules are the sole fundamental unit of games. In fact, Huizinga's thesis is much more ambivalent on these issues and he actually closes his seminal book with a passionate argument against a strict separation between life and games.

The magic circle is not something that comes wholly from Huizinga. To be perfectly honest, Katie and I more or less invented the concept, inheriting its use from my work with Frank, cobbling together ideas from Huizinga and Caillois, clarifying key elements that were important for our book, and reframing it in terms of semiotics and design -- two disciplines that certainly lie outside the realm of Huizinga's own scholarly work. But that is what scholarship often is -- sampling and remixing ideas in order to come to a new synthesis.

Game Studies eminence Espen Aarseth made a similar point about the origin of the magic circle in a discussion after his presentation Ludus Revisited: The Ideology of Pure Play in Contemporary Video Game Research at the most recent DiGRA conference. According to Espen, after trying and failing to locate the idea inside Homo Ludens, he had decided Katie and I should be blamed for the concept, and everyone should just let Huizinga off the hook.

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E McNeill
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Thanks for making an informative article hilarious as well. :)

As a student of game design, I found the magic circle to be a simple concept (as you describe) but also very helpful. I tend towards very formalist, rule-centered design, residing entirely within the magic circle with my players. Identifying and discussing the magic circle from the outside encouraged me to examine the possibilities that come with social context. The concept took me in the direction exactly opposite to that which its critics feared.

Tora Teig
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This might be slightly blasphemic, but I've never heard or read about the Magic Circle before. But I can see where it fits, and I am glad you are explaining it so thoroughly here.

I think that some are eager to position different techniques and methods of game design - into clear categories. That things are either right, or wrong - on or off. A simple system we can understand. But we are only just exploring this medium and there is nothing ultimate about anything yet! The magic circle is not really-ultimately-finally anything, it is just a tool, a thought-experiment or a concept like any other we should be intrigued to explore.

Thank you for clarifying, maybe "we" will stop chasing the jerk/voldemort and just pick it up, learn from it and take it to the next level instead.

Jonathan Jennings
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The thing I love about gaming is to me it demonstrates fun can take any form. I honestly feel like the game katamari damacy destroyed any concept I had about what fun had to be or how it had to be presented perhaps. I honestly would be horrified at the notion of someone trying to define fun or place fun into a certain box there are several types of fun . I have had fun with tetris and I had fun with Heavy Rain what they offer is worlds apart but at its core it's all an enjoyable experience.

Thank you for the great read !

Mariano Cerrutti
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I find the use of the term "ridiculous travesty" rather offensive. I'd dig a bit more into the intention of the phrase then try and use another image as a metaphor. I mean no offense, best regards

Andy Lundell
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You find "travesty" offensive? It means "a debased, distorted, or grossly inferior imitation".

Roberta Davies
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"Travesty" at one time (centuries ago) meant "wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, especially as a disguise or parody". BUT THAT'S NOT WHAT IT MEANS NOW. Language changes, and it's only language fanatics who know the etymology.

In fact, before "travesty" meant cross-dressing, it meant simply "wearing a disguise" or "wearing someone else's clothes", with no reference to sex.

If you're so touchy about the use of "travesty" in its modern meaning, presumably you also object to "denigrate"?

Andy Lundell
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Huh, that Archaic definition doesn't even appear in my Merriam-Webster's, which I checked before replying.

Some people really dig deep to find something to be outraged about.

Jesse Fuchs
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I think he's just pandering.

Lars Doucet
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Really interesting article, and well put. I wonder how many arguments both in and out of academia essentially boil down to talking past the actual person and haranguing a straw man instead? In my own personal experience this accounts for ~90% of the disagreements I've been involved with.

Tim Elder
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I was thinking the exact same thing as I read this, and have had very similar experience.

Laurent Stanevich
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Mr. Zimmerman -- really great essay. (I can understand your frustration, but I guess there are worse things than having helped shepherd an idea into the world that's so compelling, it takes on a life of its own.)

Personally, though, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said "It is a term that reminds us how meaning happens." I mean...what _isn't_ a "magic circle"? Our society? A company? A marriage? They're all a function of shared rules, shared commitments and shared values. It definitely does seem arbitrary to set aside a specific class of all the "meaning contracts" that we strike with each other, and say that because they're associated with play, that they're somehow different.

Games are only "different" if you believe that there is a "real", or intrinsic, meaning at the center of most relationships, and that games are different, because we construct the meaning in them, and so that's "magic", or "false". If you believe that we construct _all_ the meaning that we see in the world around us, then they're not so different, at all.

J Tuomas Harviainen
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Delving into the connections between ritual and play, I have found Huizinga's concept particularly accurate, and your interpretation of it to be academia-wise a bit shaky (because of its design orientation), yet extremely useful. As noted by scholars such as Klabbers and Suits, the rules of a situation significantly change when play or ritual begins, and the circle is a very apt descriptor for that. The presumed border of play (both mental and physical) turns into a barrier of sorts that changes behavior and ethics inside it, and alters information that crosses it. The fact that some games (particularly pervasive ones) do break it is IMO a matter of examining exceptions, not of negating the concept. In many games and similar activities, the circle exists, but is porous.

Bart Stewart
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A good piece that needed to be written (if only to find an acceptable way to use the phrase "magic circle jerk" ;).

An academic impulse toward busting up someone else's beautiful theory is probably part of the reason for inventing the MCJ. But I wonder -- especially for those academics who publish in this field because they are also gamers -- whether the antipathy toward the concept of the magic circle is more personal.

One of the things I think I've seen in watching gamers (and people in general) is a bifurcation of preference toward either that which is concrete and "real" or that which is abstract and internal. In gaming, these lead to preferences for either "playing in" or "living in" gameworlds. Every mentally normal human knows he's sitting on a sofa reading a novel or playing a game. But some find it easier, and even preferable, to put the real world to one side and pretend that the world of the novel or the game is a real place. For these people, experiencing the world of the novel or the game as what Tolkein called a "secondary reality" -- the magic circle -- is a required part of what makes that created place enjoyable. They (unlike the "it's just a game" natural realists) don't just want to play in these worlds -- they want to (notionally) live in them.

How many, I wonder, of the anti-magic circle academics have pro-realism, "it's just a game" personalities by nature? How much of the invention of the MCJ is the result of wanting to find a way to deny the validity of the "live in" preference for deeply-realized gameworlds where a magic circle is necessary to maintain the glamour of such places?

Tadhg Kelly
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"Now you may be thinking... Aha! Articulating limitations -- that's the problem!"

This is exactly where I think these arguments come from. I've noticed it a great deal in the responses to my own writing (which often talks about limits and basics and what games are), an almost allergic reaction to any concept that places 'game' and 'limit' (or 'boundary', 'constraint, 'creative constant', etc) in the same sentence. In particular the sorts of folks who want to talk about the potential future of games when technology is infinite and Hollywood is dead get very put out by the idea that games may have ground rules, and it can be hard taking the discussion past that point.

Bart Stewart
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Those people definitely exist; I've seen them, too. The idea that appropriate structures can actually create or enhance the fun of a game seems very difficult for them to accept. (Experience making real games will cure that, I suspect.)

In fairness, though, there are also a lot of people who take an almost feral joy in puncturing the ideas of others, in generating one constraint or risk or "rule" or "you're obviously ignorant of X" after another.

The people who can help are the ones who've made their way through both of these styles, and who are capable of seeing (and discussing) the world both as it is and as they believe it could be. It is possible to be both practical *and* creative!

Tadhg Kelly
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Possible? Nay, imperative!

Cordero W
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Haha, it's been a while since I read this book. Man, to think I nearly dread seeing that cover when I saw this article. lol

No offense there, Zimmerman. It was just one of those books that I had to read a second time to understand the abstraction that you were talking about, and finally got the concepts for what they were.

The magic circle was one of those ideas you spoke about in your book, and I remember the explanation of how it was another dimension and how meaning was taken on when engaged in this circle. A key ingredient for keeping immersion involves this circle, too, and causes that moment of "flow" where you lose track of time. A fundamental game design.

Adam Ruch
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I am probably one of those earnest graduate students you speak of, Eric, currently writing my thesis, and have been reading Rules of Play (I complained the other day about the small type in the book!) and I totally understand your point. I'm not sure I can fit this in anything I'm writing now, but another antidote to the magic circle problem is this notion of a homogeneous "real life" to which the game can be contrasted. Whatever real life is, its not all uniform in shape, meaning and whatever else. Goffman talks about the contexts in which we play roles, Gee talks about semiotic domains, danah boyd presents similar work regarding online communities--and hey even I wrote about Facebook, Google+ and "Zones" of our lives intermingling in unexpected and sometimes difficult ways.

I think you can point at a game and say "this is a special time/place" but that you can't forget that there is no neutral, non-special, normal space in life that isn't able to be labelled in a similar way. Domestic home life, work life, time you spend with certain friends, and not others, time at church, reading a book, time in the bedroom with your partner, etc etc. These are all special arenas where things take on different meanings according to rules, its just that these rules weren't all drawn up at the same time by someone working in a game studio.

Tadhg Kelly
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I often characterise it that the real world is effectively infinite, while the game world is effectively finite. That finity (there's another word for limit I suppose) is essential.

David Boudreau
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Tadgh, I'd have to modify your characterization slightly before I can fully accept it. How about "... while the game world'S IMPLEMENTATION is effectively finite." That is, it's finite until the next patch/supplement/add-on etc.

Tadhg Kelly
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That's not what I mean at all. I mean because it bounds your actions to specific rules and sets conditions for success and failure that are much less variable than real life. It's less about the extent of game content and more about the capacity to achieve meaningful success.

David Boudreau
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Ahh, ok I see. Yes, that makes a lot of sense to me then. Interesting that games serve their purpose and provide value by _limiting_ definitions of success, rather than allowing for more meanings of success.

And then there are limits to the limits; a billiards table can host a game of nine ball, as well as other variants; a deck of cards allows for poker as well as solitaire, etc.

Darcy Nelson
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I just picked up Rules of Play yesterday, and while I've been relatively recently exposed to the idea of the Magic Circle, I'm really surprised that anyone would rail against it and want to tear it down. I thought the Magic Circle was what makes a game... magic.

Jerome Paul Esteban
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I would just like to add to your idea that the Magic Circle not only makes a game "magic," but it is what makes a game "a game" in the first place.

To illustrate, "Extra lives" is an expectation of many gamers about many games. "Extra lives" is an impossibility to many people about real life.

The context is inextricable from the definition, and the sooner the misunderstanding behind Zimmerman and Salen's concept is cleared up, the better; it really is, to use Mr. Zimmerman's words, "so simple as to be almost banal," and the more we bring up the Magic Circle only to tear it down again, the more it seems like a waste of time and opportunity to discuss other matters of game studies and design.

Tim Flemming
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Maybe it's just my background in philosophy, but the concept of the Magic Circle always seemed to me like a natural extension of Paul Ricoeur's work in Figuring the Sacred (among others), forgive the block quote:

"What is most remarkable about the phenomenology of the sacred is that it can be described as a manner of inhabiting space and time. Thus we speak of sacred space to indicate the fact that space is not homogeneous but delimited ... Innumerable figures, such as the circle, the square, the cross, the labyrinth, and the mandala, have the same spatializing power with respect to the sacred ... All these phenomena and the related phenomena by which the passage from profane to sacred space is signified--thresholds, gates, bridges, pathways, ladders, ropes, and so on--attest to an inscription of the sacred in a level of experience beneath that of language." He goes on to make the same case for the heterogeneity of time (e.g. the festival, etc.).

I think that maybe some of the confusion around the magic circle is a focus on the circle as a thing, an object, rather than an ongoing process created and sustained by its participants--as Ricoeur put it, "to see the world as sacred is at the same time to *make* it sacred ... thus to every manifestation there corresponds a manner of being-in-the-world."

Glenn Storm
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This !

Altug Isigan
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Aaah Ricouer :) Great that you mention him, thank you very much for that... 10-15 years ago someone from the "game studies" circle labelled him an old man who doesn't know what he's talking about :) What a stupid thing to say about Ricouer! :)

Your last paragraph puts it wonderfully. Btw, Mircea Eliade, Victor Turner, and Clifford Geertz are some others that contributed to such perspective.

James Miller
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I read the introduction and basically interpreted it the way you explained later.

Of course games exist in a "magic circle", it would be stupid otherwise. A computer screen is just a grid of pixels, but in the magic circle they take on meaning in the correct configuration.

An enemy might just be a picture on my screen, or an in game model, but he is the enemy. If he kills me, I am not really dead, but the "death" has meaning inside the circle that doesn't translate to the real world, i cannot respawn and kill that person in revenge. In the magic circle, things have a different meaning and that meaning is what makes a game, a game. Otherwise you might as well just be living a normal life.

Roger Tober
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I don't like it when games try to take me out of the separate world they create. Some examples I can think of are, sending emails to people, using Google, etc. It seems creepy. I don't like social games because they do that. For a little while, I want to be someone else, or something else, with a different set of problems.

William Huber
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I've thought for some time that thinking of the magic circle simply in terms of its separateness misunderstands Huizinga. I think of it as a place of supplementary signification: that play creates a a circle of meaning in which things (and places and activities and time) become something in addition to what they are: a mound of dirt, temporarily, becomes "the pitcher's mound," and its operation becomes that described by the rules; swinging at a ball and missing becomes a "strike," etc. The social aspect of that circle encompasses the community of all those who don't "spoil the sport" - everyone who, in their interpretation of the elements of play, sustain the network of that provisional meaning. It isn't as if old mappings are suddenly vacated - the pitcher's mound is still, also, a mound of dirt. The right fielder is still your cousin, etc.

One way of thinking about this is through the lens of Gilles Fauconnier's idea of "mental spaces" (in his book of the same name), in which he shows how human use "imaginary" spaces of reference to think (in phrases like "if I were you, I'd order the french toast.") The subjunctive, in a sense, can be seen as a kind of magic circle.

Katrin Becker
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The concept of the magic circle is not unique to humans - animals also understand it, which implies to me that it is a fundamental concept common to most intelligent life.

Example: When dogs are play-fighting, they exhibit almost all of the same behaviours they would when fighting for real. There are some important differences though - the secondary physiological reactions are absent (like the hair up on their backs), and the normal dominance hierarchies are not enforced (a subordinate dog can 'best' a superior dog in play without retribution). If you've spent any time watching dogs play, you will also have seen times when the magic circle is broken (someone breaks a rule) and suddenly it becomes serious.

There have even been studies that imply that this kind of play is essential to normal development: In one experiment, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt (human ethologist) discovered that polecats who are not given the opportunity to play with siblings did not know where to bite prey and rivals or how to hold females during mating once they grew up (Lorenz & Leyhausen, 1973).

I think we can argue over the precise definition - though personally I don't see the need, but that the concept exists and is understood by people and animals alike on a very deep level does not seem to be disputable.

Isaac Barry
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Yes! And this is key to understanding our own play (and in fact experience with art generally). (Katrin, if you haven't read The Genesis of Animal Play, you should.)

What I love about Huizinga's concept is how curiously and neatly it fits the continuing scientific work in cognitive science, including neuroscience and comparative (animal) studies, particularly on emotion and play. While I think it's a bit of an egotistical stretch to expect that Rules of Play really did much more than to resurrect or champion the notion (insofar as it's actually a useful mnemonic for concepts already being explored by science, perhaps it really moved game studies forward: bravo!), I personally really thank the work because it nudged me to appreciate the necessary significance of context in emotional appraisal. For example, "Why can we enjoy being scared/sad/angry if the brain responses resemble actual fear/sadness/anger so closely?" "Because those emotions occur in an understood context of safety, or, more simply, they occur in the magic circle."

I care most about what is having clear, supportable models of what's going on in people's heads when they play, not so much what is going on in the construction of our formal tools to study them (though I value and amazed by that work). It's a problem is a widespread failure to appreciate that video games may technically evolve from traditional games, but the suite of stimulation that they can provide, right now, results in experiences that are quite different, even when the rule-structures are the same. In fact, there a many examples of games being used therapeutically (such as in wound care), where the "game part" is used to maintain patient attention but the other aesthetic components are the critical parts to creating the desired experience, and when the "game part" becomes too prominent, the therapeutic effects are diminished.

I've learned the hard way that models don't have to be "real" to be useful so I'm cool with formalisms and scholastic argument and people having opinions. As far as people demanding that the magic circle isn't good because it's not "real" or not "distinguishable" enough... funny how our minds don't seem unbothered by this every time we experience art in any form.

Altug Isigan
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Gregory Bateson developed a similar understanding back in the 1950s. The idea he had was that play requires the capacity of "speaking/understanding" meta-languages.

The tricky part about is that this somehow creates a problem with the definition of culture. A famous quote of Huizinga says that "play is older than culture", but if play requires a type of consciousness that can invent or deal with meta-languages, then problems arise: for one, we need to expand the term culture beyond one that only recognizes the "culture"s of humans; and on the other hand we probably cannot claim that play is older than culture, for culture seems to be a prequisite to play. Games are playing on already existing systems of meaning in order to create their own signfication processes.

Greg Lastowka
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I take a tour of the Magic Circle and Huizinga in Chapter 6 of my book: (free PDF)

I draw on Foucault's notion of heterotopia and Michael Walzer's "Spheres of Justice" to explain how there is something to the concept and that the rules of games are politically important -- especially when it comes to legal ordering.

I think you're right Eric, that you and Katie are largely responsible for all those who attack Huizinga -- and that Huizinga never would have never endorsed any sort of radical cultural exceptionalism for games. I think Richard does have something to do with it too, as do the State of Play conferences, where TL and Mia, for instance, listened to Richard and Ted Castronova making some pretty radical claims about the nature of the magic circle. Currently, I think Jane McGonigal may be carrying the banner of games exceptionalism and she cites you and Katie w/r/t the Magic Circle.

In a way, the whole thing reminds me of the ludology/narratology debate -- a great source of game studies papers about a provocative concept that can be (perhaps too easily) misunderstood.

Bart Stewart
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One other note: how far removed is the notion of the magic circle as a "hard" concept from the concern over games as "murder simulators?"

More broadly, consider the strong magic circle position, which says that games as secondary realities must be free from real world stuff that's not already part of the gameworld. (E.g., you shouldn't be allowed to talk about baseball or current politics in a fantasy MMORPG.) Is anyone who holds this view necessarily also acknowledging the contention that games can change people -- for better or worse -- through the intensity of the constructed experience?

Conversely, is someone who denies that games can alter a person's behavior also embracing the "culturalist" view of the anti-magic circle academics?

Is this yet another way of framing the ludology("it's just a game")/narratology("virtual stories have real effects") split?

Greg Lastowka
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"Is this yet another way of framing the ludology("it's just a game")/narratology("virtual stories have real effects") split?"

Yes, I think there are certainly some similarities.

Adam Ruch
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If I might contribute a bit more here: Is it an assumed and therefore unvoiced observation to say that any (even slightly) ludological approach to videogames as Systems (rather than networks, or texts) requires or implies a kind of magic circle-like frame or border? Systems theory demands a limit, where we can point at an object and say "this" is our system, and the stuff outside is not.

I suggest N Katherine Hayles' book How We Became Post-Human as a great way to contextualise the whole concept of systems thinking/theory, which made it a bit easier for me to get into stuff like Bogost's Unit Operations approach (not a perfect segue, but it helped).

Ernest Adams
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I had no idea there were so many people hating on the magic circle.

From an ethnological point of view, all is one: behavior and culture are what they are and we don't change the scientific rules for examining what happens within the game just because it's a game.

And yet... the magic circle does DESCRIBE something that people DO: attach artificial and arbitrary value to things. Men fighting hand-to-hand for their very lives on the deck of a Napoleonic warship would suddenly stop and move apart when the colors came down, and some would become victors and others prisoners. Because a bit of cloth was lowered. That's powerful magic. It can't be ignored.

Thomas Malaby
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I have in my publications spent a fair amount of time lamenting the dominance of the magic circle concept in game studies (and beyond). While I do not see a real engagement with the ideas of people like me, Mia Consalvo, T L Taylor, and others here (instead the "anti-magic circle" people seem to be the object of a mirroring strawman-building project here), it is actually quite straightforward what, in my opinion, is the damage that has been done by the magic circle concept.

Two things. First, as a concept devised within the relatively narrow field of game studies, it lacks any robust connection to the broader social theory with which our efforts to understand games ought to contend. Why should we do so? Because games are a significant enough social phenomenon that their study, like that of ritual, cannot afford the lazy luxury of no real engagement with social theory.

Second, and more directly to the point of what is lost under treatments that invoke the magic circle: It gets us off the hook. The concept directs our attention *away* from the social project of boundary maintenance that must be undertaken for each and every game, in each and every circumstance. That's something we should be very, very interested in, as game studies researchers witnessing games' incursion into more and more areas of our lives.

Relatedly, the concept supports rather lazy assertions about what brings about that boundary in the absence of looking at this social effort, most predominantly in the fetishism of "rules" surrounding games, as if games owe everything to their rules. That is like saying that a playing of Beethoven's 5th owes everything to the score. Games are governed by much more than rules, and also are uniquely contrived to generate new outcomes and new meanings due to the complex interplay of (yes) rules with a bunch of other things.

At the end fo the day, game studies will be better, in my opinion, when we give ourselves enough credit to join our conversations with those in other areas about the social and cultural phenomena which shape how we live. The study of ritual accomplished this and is enormously important in many areas of empirical inquiry. We ought to follow its model for games.

Eric is right that there is already a good amount of good work out there that avoids some of these problems, and in that sense discussion of the magic circle is, in a way, quite dated. The funny thing about social theory, however, is what one of my professors once said about it: it helps you avoid repeating past mistakes.

Greg Lastowka
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Thomas --

I think the pro-magic circle forces break down into 3 groups: 1) ludologists (Eric & Katie?), e.g. those interested in game rules in opposition to games as texts -- they can have a rules-fetish; 2) lawyers and policy makers who tend to see things through the lens of rules (myself included); 3) escapists/separatists -- and I think Ted Castronova and Jane McGonigal do this to some extent.

I agree that game studies is moving past all of these, but I think, for better or for worse, we'll still be hearing about the magic circle for awhile. (As the comments above seem to indicate.)

Bart Stewart
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Hello from an old Terra Nova commenter! I'm glad to see your comments on this subject. The critics of the "magic circle" as a tool for understanding and creating games should have their say.

I think your comments help make the case *for* the magic circle, though, or at least do it no injury.

1. You assert that "damage" has been done by the magic circle theory. What damage? Done to whom? You seem to be implying that the damage is to "social theory," but you don't explain the mechanism by which this occurs, its form or practical effects, or even make a case that damaging social theory would be a bad thing. Some things deserve to be damaged.

2. In your first and second points, you imply that "engagement with social theory" and a "social project of boundary maintenance" are required of games. I can understand a proponent of social theory making this assertion, but relevance has to be earned. Game developers create tangible products with demonstrable real-world value. If anything, social theorists should be humbly requesting consideration of their perspectives by game developers, not demanding that practicing game developers should set aside functional concepts (such as the magic circle) merely on their say-so.

3. Games don't owe everything to their rules (there's a strawman for you). No players, no game. But rules are fundamental to games -- no rules, no game. A bunch of musicians could get together and start banging away on their instruments, but it's not Beethoven's Fifth -- or any other recognizable thing -- without the rules of that particular score, which every participant tacitly agrees to respect. To the extent that the magic circle is a mechanic for understanding the rules that uniquely define a gameworld or secondary reality (or, per Huizinga, any constructed human system), it has real value.

That doesn't mean the contribution of players is irrelevant to the construction of performative fun. On the contrary, I suspect most game developers would quickly acknowledge the requirement for players to their games. If social theorists want to try to make constructive contributions to that part of understanding play, I believe that would generally be welcomed.

Pooh-poohing the centrality of rules to games, however, or trying only to deconstruct working design concepts... that can only make it harder for criticisms of the magic circle concept to be taken seriously. If there's a better alternative, what is it? And why is it better?

Thomas Malaby
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Bart, all of these comments are fine, but they seem to presuppose that I would believe that the primary aim of game studies is to be of practical use to game designers. The magic circle may quite practically be a useful concept for them, but the questions scholars are asking of games are not reducible to such uses, nor should they be. On that standard, the magic circle concept hasn't shown itself (I have argued) useful.

The damage is not to "social theory," it is to the productiveness of our questions and the reliability/robustness of our answers. If the magic circle works in a practical sense for game design, this simply means that it does, and I would then say: Go for it! But in invoking it, I would hope that you not claim that rigorous empirical research has shown it to be a useful concept for understanding the role of games in human experience, writ large. On that question, it seems past its sell-by date.

Thomas Malaby
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Oh, and I never "pooh-poohed" the centrality of rules to games. I merely pointed out the deep problematics of fetishizing what they mean for games; that is, I criticized reducing games to them (Greg is spot-on about why that happens, I think). Beyond that, you ask whether I have alternatives. I believe I do. They are out there, and you are welcome to find them, but it's not an argument that there is space for here. (Besides, in general, the idea that we ought to re-do all of our arguments from scratch just because this blog post has attracted attention is strange, isn't it? Why not go read our work?)

Bart Stewart
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You're right that I presume a requirement for utility.

Greg notes below that game studies should be "open to useful criticism from those 'outside' the discipline." I agree... and I see nothing wrong about his emphasis on "useful," not just to the critics but to practitioners in the field whose tools are being criticized.

_Rules of Play_, even as a hardback, remains at #44 is sales at in the Game Programming category. That suggests to me that a fair number of practitioners continue to find the ideas in it useful. Can the same be said for any text that disputes the utility or goodness of the magic circle notion popularized in _Rules of Play_? (That's not a rhetorical question -- if this question is to be resolved on empirical grounds as you propose, this is as good a place to start as any.)

I understand that there's not space here for a full explication of the anti-magic circle arguments. But I don't think it's unreasonable to ask for a succinct statement identifying the perceived harm (again: harm to whom?) of the magic circle concept, the mechanism by which that claimed harm is inflicted, and at least one better alternative way to understand games as games. That's not just for me (although I'd appreciate it), but for anyone following this discussion who is interested in what gives games their power.

If that criticism has no utility to game development, or is too subtle to be communicated in a few sentences, why make it here? That's not a "go away"; it's a request to help working game developers see clearly why they should take seriously the "magic circle considered harmful" claim that Eric's article rejects.

Thomas Malaby
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Bart, I'm replying to Eric about this here because he purports to invalidate the scholarly work on the magic circle *on scholarly terms*. While, as I said, I don't think the substantive critique actually happens in the above, that is the frame for his dismissal. As such, responding in those terms (though not at length) is absolutely fair game here. I think I have given succinct statements about the limitations of the magic circle for our project of *understanding games* (not the same project as *making games*).

As for usefulness, I think it's quite interesting that you cite popularity as "empirical support" for Eric's work. Yes, I think we should turn over all of academia to the wisdom of crowds. That's a great idea! Or not.

Sorry to be glib, but that notion, that we can do away with expertise and empirical rigor in the face of market-like forces, is such a familiar one to me (in fact, I now study it and have named it in my work on Linden Lab as "technoliberalism") that it is difficult to resist a little sarcasm. Once, on TN, someone was attacking the "usefulness" of the humanities (or something like that) and Greg, in exasperation it seemed, said something like (apologies Greg, if I get this wrong): "Defend the project of the university here? I don't have the time." It was a wholly appropriate response, I think.

So I'm sorry, but I find the arrogance of practitioners in this area (after all, *I'm* not telling you what's useful for your work, but apparently you have no hesitation about presuming to tell me, and to impose your own standards of validation on to me to boot) to be galling, even if I know (historically) where it comes from.

Eric Zimmerman
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Thanks everyone for the excellent discussion! This is exactly what I had hoped to accomplish with this essay.

A few thoughts: Greg and Thomas, your comments about "rules fetishists" and "reducing games to rules" describe exactly the magic circle jerk that it is the point of my article to banish. Greg, I admire your boldness in labeling Katie Salen and I rules fetishists - in the very shadow of an essay where I do my best to show that nobody (especially the two of us) actually takes kind of position.

Greg, you seem to lament that an uncritical understanding of the "magic circle" continues, as evidenced in the comments on this page. I'd say just the opposite! Comments from E McNeill, Laurent, Tadjg, Adam, William, Katrin, and others help me see that many are grappling rigorously with the subtleties, contradictions, and problematics of the concept.

Lastly, Darcy: I'm with you. Although I didn't go there in my essay, one of the things that I like about the "magic circle" is its magic. Play can be a transformative human experience, and if magic does exist in the world, it happens when we play games.

Greg Lastowka
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Eric --

Sorry, I didn't really want to tag you and Katie as "rules fetishists" (did you see the appended question mark?) -- but at times you do seem to play the part of the rules-enthusiastic ludologist, right? What I guess I should have said is: 1) Your book is titled "Rules of Play"; 2) like Espen, I think you deserve the blame (if blame is the right word) for the magic circle concept, which is largely about separate rules (imho); and 3) what you said above: "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." So can we agree that often you sort of *like* to look at games through the lens of rules? Or at least, you think a "strict ludologist" would be right in looking at games that way?

You're right, I think, that many game designers *do* like to look at games that way, because a large part of crafting games is crafting game rules, and there is much to learn from looking at games that way. But part of what's going on with attacks on the magic circle concept has to do with whether "game studies" should be treated by the rest of the academy as a separate "home discipline" along the lines of, e.g., your example, sociology. You say, e.g., "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."

So does that mean sociologists don't understand the discipline of game studies? As you note, at present "game studies" is a big interdisciplinary tent, and many people who come to the table come with disciplinary grounding in other fields. Resistance to "the magic circle" may be, in part, a resistance to game studies walling itself off, under the rubric of disciplinary independence, from certain ways of framing questions. This isn't a critique of ludology -- indeed, I completely appreciate and admire current efforts around the world to give game studies a home in standard academic settings rather than have it folded into some other disciplinary rubric. Here's a post I wrote about that five years ago:

TLDR version: I think it's completely healthy for game studies to seek to carve out its own terminological turf, but I think part of that process has to include borrowing and building upon the work of other disciplines -- which includes being open to useful criticism from those

"outside" the discipline (and at this point, I'm not sure we have a firm "outside" of game studies) that question key concepts.

There have been those who have used the magic circle in controversial ways. At the State of Play conferences, Richard and Ted sometimes advocated for the position that game designers should have exclusive authority to structure the rules of social interactions within MMORPGs and to deny them that right (legally) would be to break a separate sphere called the magic circle. I realize that is not your position, but it is one way the concept has been presented, one that I think many folks on the cultural side of academia found problematic.

Again, the issue is that game studies is still a big tent. As a result, I think we need to continue to keep having these discussions -- What is the magic circle concept exactly? Is it helpful? Does it have political implications? What are its shortcomings? We should keep talking about these things and refining the discourse in game studies -- that's how you build a discipline.

Greg Lastowka
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(And by the way, I've been criticized for liking the magic circle too much too.)

David Serrano
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I think Neal and Jana Hallford's quote from Rules of Play perfectly frames the magic circle: "it’s surprising how many developers forget that it’s the victories and treasures – not the obstacles – that make people interested in playing in the first place. If you stop giving out the carrots that will keep players excited, or even worse, if you start punishing them for their curiosity, you’re only going to drive away the very people who want to enjoy your game."

My guess is when a designer or academic views the magic circle as kryptonite, they do so because they believe games should be about obstacles instead of victories, treasures or god forbid... a mainstream definition of fun. So they simply rationalize away the fact that their belief directly conflicts with real life, common sense and basic psychology.

Eric Zimmerman
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Greg, you make good points. Game studies, if it is a field, is one of those areas of inquiry defined by its object of study rather than by a methodology or shared set of ideas. That's how we can have computer scientists, anthropologists, and media studies scholars sitting together at a conference listening to a presentation on some games. For me that moment of exchange across disciplinary lines is incredibly exciting. But it's hard to pull off without some friction.

For example, I'd never say that sociologists might not understand game studies, as you put it - because "game studies" is such a radically interdisciplinary field! My point in the article is that when we come together to talk about our overlapping work in *designing* and *understanding* games (as Thomas efficiently describes this difference), we should try and avoid the strong pull of wanting to see our own discipline as a master domain.

It's incredibly hard not to do this! The discussion going on between Bart and Thomas in this column of comments is a great example of this push and pull between disciplinary approaches. I do think we can all just get along. Game design and game scholarship are useful for different people in different contexts in different ways.

Thomas, I hope you realize I'm a superfan of your intellectual work and I very much see the point of this essay not to bring down others' positions but instead to lay groundwork for interdisciplinary exchange. Your social science-oriented critiques of the magic circle are perfectly valid: as a game design concept, it's never going to satisfy the requirements of your discipline. Rather than seeing something lost in that translation, I wonder what it is we can gain.

Thomas Malaby
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Well said, Eric, and I appreciate the comments about my work. I believe that what we can gain is a move beyond exceptionalism and parochialism and toward pragmatism. To do that, of course, we'll need always (in any discussion) to be clear what we're aiming for. Better games? Okay, that frames the discussion in one way. Greater understanding? That frames it in another.

The push-pull is there, as you say; I think the conversation will improve to the extent that we recognize that (1) we're not all in this for the same thing; and (2) we're not just dealing with interdisciplinarity, in the classic sense (that is, within academia). We've got practitioners in the mix, and that means we're having conversations across professional boundaries. That calls for a more humble approach to what we might find useful in what the other side is working on, and an awareness that, epistemologically, we're coming at things differently.

One last thing: Magic circle-bashing has started, I think, to become the kind of thing one hears done in a kind of lazy, de rigeur way by younger scholars and graduate students, who have read this debate and think the best way to "fit in" is to join in a kind of unexamined bashing of the concept. This is not helpful. As I, and others have said, we are extremely interested in the same phenomenon that has been called the magic circle, but there are very good reasons we have laid out for why that particular way of framing it is unproductive, because it directs our attention away from the process of how the semi-boundedness of games is actually accomplished and also ghettoizes game studies by resolutely hewing to exceptionalist language without grounds for doing so.

Do games, as a cultural form, have unique characteristics that we should be very interested in? Are they (for example) something other (or more) than a text, or the like? Yes, absolutely. Does connecting our study of games to other aspects of our human experience mean that games are not special, that we've reduced them to some other form of understanding (again, like "text")? Absolutely not. Games, like ritual (or bureaucracy, I would suggest), are productively understandable as a unique cultural form with unique characteristics. But it's clear that we'll have to do hard work to create a robust set of tools for understanding them.

That reminds me of something I've said about the narratology-ludology debate: Narratologists, armed only with the hammer of textual analysis, saw every game as a nail, whereas ludologists created tools for understanding games entirely on their own – and it shows.

Gordon Calleja
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Apologies for the late entry into the discussion but had some issues registering to the site. Eric, thanks for getting the discussion going here. It’s great that the debate has been kicked-off. You formulate the article based on a caricature of a person, be it designer or academic, that has some sort of oppressive desire to enslave game studies in the strictures of the magic circle. The issue of the magic circle, or any other academic concept, does not revolve around personal attacks or overthrowing oppressors, but of finding the most robust concepts that help us understand a particular phenomenon best. This is particularly important when the phenomenon in question is a foundational one that describes essential qualities of the object under scrutiny (games). A better understanding of a phenomenon is built by such engagements – critique, defence, rebuttal etc – that is how concepts are honed and strengthened and indeed the modus operandi of most academic fields. If this doesn’t suit developers, that’s fine. We’re not here to service the industry. We’re here to understand the phenomenon in question, and possibly, by doing so, will be of use for practitioners in various areas. When Thomas, myself, TL, Marinka and others have taken issue with the concept, and your use thereof we stuck to academic conventions (call us conservative) such as citing the work of those whose concepts we question and built an actual argument based on that specific citation not simply mentioned you in passing. The latter is what you are doing here and not exactly the best platform for an informed conversation on the topic. I understand and agree that back-channel, corridor discussions about contentious topics overflow this sort of rigour and become counter-productive. I agree with you whole-heartedly there and can see how the magic circle conversation might have gotten to that point. But it makes little sense to address academics who have built a researched and documented argument in the same way as you address these corridor conversations.

On to the issue itself. The magic circle is not simply a catch-phrase, it’s a metaphor that stands for a particular ontology – in this case that games are acts apart, bounded, in however porous a manner, from “ordinary life”. The apartness described by the metaphor of the magic circle is a salient feature of all the facets of culture Huizinga discusses and the magic circle becomes a short-hand for the notion of boundedness of play, and consequently other facets of cultural life which are ritualized in a similar manner. Huizinga, in fact, talks specifically about the magic circle in law: “But whether square or round it is still a magic circle, a play-ground where the customary difference of rank are temporarily abolished (Huizinga, 1955, p. 77)”; war: “Despite appearances to the contrary, therefore, war has not freed itself form the magic circle of play” (p. 210) and spirituality: “The human mind can only disengage itself from the magic circle of play by turning towards the ultimate” (p. 212).

When you borrowed the magic circle you didn’t just appropriate an idea, you borrowed an ontology. What a number of us are critiquing is that ontology (and the comments section of a design website doesn’t seem like the right place to make those arguments). Yourself and Katie have chosen to give prominence to the magic circle as the embodiment of that ontology. I disagree with Huizinga about that ontological perspective on games, and I thus disagree with you and Katie for taking it on for reasons I’ve laid out pedantically in a number of papers including the one you cite. When it comes to Huizinga, this ontology is present from The Waning of the Middle Ages, through In The Shadow of Tomorrow and culminating in Homo Ludens. It is also a major, if not the major area of critique his work has received amongst Literary and Cultural Theory scholars much before our current field Game Studies came about.

Of course, all this can be dismissed by standing behind the shield of game design and claiming that Rules of Play is all about design and thus not wanting to take on such pedantic theoretical discussions. Well, wherever a work derives from, if it is going to take on (positively or through critique) a particular concept derived from another field, it is responsible for making that statement – particularly when it takes such a salient position in the field (kudos to you both for such a comprehensive work!). I have a literary background, but have written extensively on player experience. Now if I take on a view on social agency, for example, as part of an argument I’m building I don’t expect to excuse myself from its critique simply by lifting the shield of literary studies and tag myself out of that discussion.

Altug Isigan
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The best interpretation of Huizinga's "magic circle" that I can come up with is the way in which the notion describes to me the persuasive power that a game's proposed contrivance between contingency and its own concept generates. This is as powerful as if the mechanisms of mythical speech were at work: the call of the game has something magical to it, as if it were created solely for me, in the very moment of my encounter with it.

This doesn't mean that the magic will not be worn out at some point, or that every proposed contrivance will be perceived as such irresistible call, but when it's there, it's there. And I think good game design is the type of design that makes you see that it's there.

Patrick Coppock
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Thanks for an interesting and provocative position posting on a well-know, often misunderstood theme, Eric. It's also interesting to follow all the lively discussions this has raised here on Gamasutra. Just thought I'd mention that at the Potsdam Philosophy of Computer Games conference in 2008, where Jesper Juul's keynote you mentioned in your posting took up the issue of the limits, or not, of the Magic Circle, there was a segment with several other papers dedicated to the same theme.

The proceedings of the whole conference, including Jesper's keynote, can be downloaded in pdf format here:

The conference website with links to videos of the various speakers in action is here:

Best regards