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Re-Examining the Magic Circle

On the reality of play

Mr. Saltsman recently wrote about how games should never violate the sanctity of the magic circle of play. This is an idea echoed in the frequent axiom that immersion should never be broken if it can be helped.

I want to argue (though not particularly against Mr. Saltsman or that specific article, with which I agree on many points) that these (Huizinga's) ideas about the strict separation of games from reality are in fact a disservice and limitation to games. We’ve largely given a free pass to what Huizinga wrote decades ago, but there are some fundamental aspects to his theories which, with advancements in the appreciation of psychology, can no longer stand.

Huizinga famously said that play is free from consequences—it is play because it is free. And the “magic circle” of play is a ritualistic arena that separates the free from the un-free, the real from the unreal.

I would dispute this understanding. Instead, the magic circle is a conceptual conceit (almost a sort of psychological defense mechanism) that attempts to separate the psychologically real from the materially real (where time is both). In Huizinga’s understanding, the psychologically real is not real, but we know today that psychological consequences are as dire as anything material (more so because they become material). Play, then, is our ability to experience psychological reality without an exact or real material counterpart.

If we accept that play is beneficial, we need to understand why it is beneficial. This, in turn, requires us to critically examine the given assumption that immersion is automatically good. What I want to argue is that immersion should be broken—only intelligently. Let me explain.

When we are truly immersed in play, our attachment to our play is as ardent as our attachment to our ego. We know how destructive over-attachment to one’s ego can be, and it can also be said that the process of psychological maturation is the process of detaching ourselves from our egos.

Thus the value of play is that it operates as a manifestation and proxy of our egos. When we can recognize play for what it is—play (sorry for being tautological here)—we are also taking a step towards recognizing the ego for what it is—an artificial attachment. To put it another way, every time we meaningfully lose in a game, or every time immersion is meaningfully broken, we experience ego denial.

So the contrivances Mr. Saltsman talks about are cases where the magic circle (and the player’s ego) is broken without meaning, without inducing examination, because the player never felt himself to be truly represented in the game in the first place (this is where it becomes a failure of design).

(The difficulty, of course, is that our egos—what we imagine ourselves to be, and thus what we consider a true representation and reflection of ourselves—are utterly mercurial and biased. And, what is a contrivance for some is exactly a tool of self-expression for others [grinding, for instance]. A good rule of thumb, as noted by Mr. Saltsman, would be to question any situation where player skill has no impact on player agency. But even this doesn’t always hold true as we can deny or limit agency in meaningful ways.)

What, then, is the ultimate purpose of play? To gaze at ourselves as we exist within the magic circle from outside of it—to eventually achieve real meta-cognition and understanding through self-examination. And the most fun we can have in a game is when we stumble across or earn some truth about ourselves which we couldn’t see, or didn’t know to be possible, before. These are the moments that we remember, that last.

To be sure, Huizinga’s definitions of play have served us quite well. But it’s long past time that we left them behind. By limiting games to the “free”, “inconsequential”, and “not real”, we are also limiting games to the meaningless and immaterial.

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