Thursday, 8 March 2007

Homo Ludens - Imaginary versus Virtual Magic Circles

Johan Huizinga believed that “play” was a fundamental building block in the construction of social identity and culture. He states “Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them playing.” (Huizinga, J: 1950, pg 1). If we accept this theory then we understand that through play we evolve. However, play is also far more serious than we intend to believe. Huizinga believes that within all games there are logical objectives and set boundaries, a method in playing madness. He states: “play is more than a mere physiological phenomenon or a psychological reflex. {…} It is a significant function-that is to say, there is some sense to it.” (Huizinga, J: 1950, pg 1).

Whenever we play a game we create a new environment where new rules and objectives are strictly followed. This environment that is created upon starting play is known as the “magic circle”. In the most elementary description, the magic circle is merely where the game takes place. This could be physical: a chess board or football pitch, virtual: within any computer game, or imaginary: any game that is improvised. Within these imaginary games, both time and space are at once limitless and limited. Katie Salen et al states: “The magic circle inscribes a space that is repeatable, a space both limited and limitless. In short a finite space with infinite possibility” (Salen K et al: 2004, pg 95).

Within the very basic but highly addictive game Snake, the player upon starting the game must enter this magic circle. Once started the player becomes highly immersed within the game. Although the game has a very basic level of interaction, with simple rules and objectives, its ability to engross the player is astounding. This immersion into the game requires a certain mental state or focus that is referred to by Huizinga as a lusory attitude. This lusory attitude is becomes more apparent as you progress further into the game and the objectives become more difficult. The harder the game becomes, the more focused the player.

However, I believe the concept of the magic circle within games applies more accurately with video games than other games. The player’s entry to the magic circle becomes far more apparent within video games and with developments in graphic technology our immersion within the magic circle becomes far more real. Similarly there are more boundaries, rules and objectives in many modern video games. This has two opposing effects on the magic circle. Firstly, with the increase in rules and conventions videogames loose the ability to provide the player with infinite possibilities. Video games are constructed by a game designer and for that reason the game has boundaries. Nevertheless, the aesthetics of game play within videogames is constantly developing allowing players to become far more immersed within the game.

Huizinga, Johan (1970). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. London: Temple Smith

Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004) The Game Design Reader, A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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