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

February 7, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

Play On

I have made a harsh caricature of the magic circle jerk -- as a silly super-structuralist that dogmatically believes in the truth of a hard-edged magic circle. Perhaps I have replaced the myth of the magic circle with a myth of my own -- the impossibly idiotic magic circle jerk. But is it possible that the ghost of the jerk remains somewhere, as a tendency, as a predilection, as a potential that can still poison game studies?

In his excellent essay "The Magic Circle and the Puzzle Piece" (from which I quoted earlier), Jesper Juul echoes many of the ideas I have put forth here: that there has been a wave of criticisms against the magic circle, and that they stem from a misunderstanding about the concept as presented in Homo Ludens and Rules of Play.

One of Jesper's ideas is that the criticism of the magic circle is a symptom of "binary thinking" -- an intellectual sensibility that seeks to identify and then overthrow theoretical dualities.

The magic circle, according to Jesper, represents a particularly ripe binarism to tear down, because it (or rather, its misunderstood caricature) is the idea of a hard binary separation between what is inside and what is outside a game.

I agree with Jesper. My own feeling is that the impulse to overthrow such binarisms is a residue of the critical sensibility that dominated the '90s -- the era of deconstruction and poststructuralsim in which many game studies scholars came of age.

The instinct to exaggerate the dangers of the magic circle so that it can be valienty deconstructed is linked to the notion that ideas are most authentic when they tear down an authority --. even if the authority is no more than a highly confected, imaginary effigy.

Or, let me put it in another, less diplomatic way: propping up invented straw men just so you can knock them over is a lazy way to do research.

A final thought. You are probably reading this essay because you love games. Perhaps you love to play them, to study them, to create them -- or some combination of all three. It is amazing that we can cross radical disciplinary boundaries, accept our differences across concepts, methods, and aims, yet still be united in our polyamorous and unabashed love for games. This love that embraces contradiction is beautiful. It has many names, but I like to call it play.

Let's play together. And put to bed this magic circle jerk once and for all.

Summary: Myths of the Magic Circle Debunked

1. Nobody actually holds the orthodox view of the magic circle. There is no circle jerk behind the curtain.

2. While it was based on a passing term Frank Lantz and I noticed in Homo Ludens, Katie Salen and I more or less introduced the concept of the magic circle as it is used today. Blame us for all the trouble, not Huizinga.

3. Keep in mind the discipline from which a work or idea originated. Don't dismiss concepts in one field of knowledge because it doesn't fit your own discipline. The onus is on each of us to translate ideas from the outside into our own areas.

4. The magic circle, as put forward in Rules of Play, is the relatively simple idea that when a game is being played, new meanings are generated. These meanings mix elements intrinsic to the game and elements outside the game.

5. In my opinion, design concepts (such as the magic circle as described in Rules of Play) derive their value from their utility to solve problems. Their value is not derived from their scientific accuracy or proximity to truth.

6. Looking at a complex phenomena like games from many points of view, it is important to embrace contradiction. The magic circle can be thought of as open or closed, depending on why you are making use of the concept.

7. The magic circle jerk doesn't exist. Nobody really takes the hard line that everyone wants to criticize. I'm sick of the magic circle jerk. Let's bury the bastard.


Because I didn't want to make this an angry and defensive finger-pointing rant, you may have noticed that I never actually cited any evidence for the magic circle jerk. There are no embarrassing quotes from papers or presentations attacking the magic circle. Although this lack of footnotes certainly relegates this essay to mere pseudo-scholarship, I am assuming that the phenomenon I describe is so pervasive that actual references just aren't necessary. (If you must dig deeper, a good place to start is Jesper's essay "The Magic Circle and the Puzzle Piece".)

Regarding Espen Aarseth's comments about letting Huizinga off the hook, he later told me his comments had been infuenced by Gordon Calleja's essay "Erasing the Magic Circle" -- to be published in an upcoming issue of The Philosophy of Computer Games.

This essay was written solely from my own point of view, and does not represent the ideas of Katie Salen, my amazing Rules of Play co-author. I sometimes included her name to make sure that she was credited with the core ideas and concepts we wrote together. But she may well have a very different perspective on this magic circle business than I do. Vive la différence! And same goes for my game design hero Frank Lantz, with whom I originally encountered the work of Huizinga.

Special thanks to insightfulness engines Jesper Juul and John Sharp for their feedback and editing. Also big thanks to Gamasutra and to Christian Nutt for additional feedback.

PS: I love you, Richard Bartle! Promise you'll never stop being you.


Photo credit: Chess with champagne! photo by Flickr user Mukumbura used for header image and in article per Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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