The magic circle: a hypothesis

The magic circle is a subject which I will keep coming back to several times in this blog. Its definition is well known among game studies companions and I won't dig deep in the matter. However, the magic circle being a key notion in game studies main debates, I will briefly summarise what I think are its most important features (take this as a very simple outline of the theory, almost a caricature):
  • The act of play sets boundaries to every game. This means that the experience of playing a video game is bounded, perfectly framed.
  • The game has its own well delimited space-time. The magic circle is where the game takes place. You enter in and get out of it. You're in the game or not.
  • As no liminality seems to be possible, the reality of the game is self-contained and bound to rules. Rules that only apply to that particular game and make sense inside the magic circle (or at least they have a particular meaning that is not necessarily shared when they're invoked outside). 
  • Obviously the experience of play is not completely detached from the social context in which takes place, but the magic circle works as if it were an exception or interruption in the general norms and rules that govern the regular social relationships.
The magic circle theory has been equally praised and criticised. Some have completely refused it while others have accepted it almost without criticism. Most academics have probably taken pieces of it and have developed it in different directions (either closer to its negation or its appraisal). Although I stand closer to those who criticise it fiercely, I would like to launch a hypothesis that could explain its resilience and partially accept it. Let me elaborate the hypothesis a little.

On the one hand, it is almost absurd to consider that any activity, experience or interaction happens in some sort of social void. Even if we consider that games and the act of play are bound to special (social) rules, it would be almost equally absurd to think that doesn't apply to the rest of social interactions: a wedding, a lecture in a classroom, a visit to our doctor, a meeting with friends, standing in a queue in the supermarket and so on. The reality is full of mediations. Everything is mediated by the actions of other actors (human or not). In a way, there is no thing which doesn't depend on other things. There can't be a magic circle independent from the social reality where it dwells. In fact, it's part of that social reality, shaping it and being shaped by it. 

On the other hand, we still experience some activities, like video gaming, as being enclosed, attached to their particular rules, meanings and interactions. A finite experience. One in which people put all their senses. How often do we hear video gamers saying how they lose all sense of time when they're playing and how they feel the immersive experience of gaming as though they were in another world? Should we ignore and discard these discourses and experiences? But if there are an almost infinite number of events that happen before, after and during gaming, interactions that are not related to the game itself (though they might help to make it work), how can we sustain the magic circle theory? And if we get rid of the magic circle, how can we explain the common experience of video gamers of being immersed in a particular world almost detached from the rest of their social context?

And here it goes the hypothesis. In my opinion, we should not think about the magic circle as a starting point but as what needs to be explained: how the experience of being in a magic circle detached from the rest of the social reality emerges, even if we know there is no social interaction - formal or not - that can exist on its own. Furthermore, my hypothesis states that what 'breaks' the magic circle is precisely what helps to construct its boundaries. It sounds paradoxical, but it makes sense. Keep an eye on future posts and you'll see. I promise.


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