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Protecting the magic circle

In a new Gamasutra feature, Eric Zimmerman -- one of the first to apply the concept of the "magic circle" to video game design -- defends his often-malign
In a new Gamasutra feature, Eric Zimmerman -- one of the first to apply the concept of the "magic circle" to video game design -- defends his often-maligned "simple concept," which is meant to be a tool for game designers. The concept was first fully codified in Zimmerman and Katie Salen's 2003 book Rules of Play. "The magic circle is the idea that a boundary exists between a game and the world outside the game," writes Zimmerman, by way of explanation. Many writers have tried to strike down the magic circle as overly constraining and formalistic, but Zimmerman argues that they're missing the point -- that it's a useful abstraction aimed at game designers. "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," writes Zimmerman. "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 decor 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." "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!" The full feature, in which Zimmerman puts the arguments against the circle through their paces, is live now on Gamasutra.

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