Gamasutra – Features – Jerked Around by the Magic Circle – Clearing the Air Ten Years Later

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

Gamasutra – Features – Jerked Around by the Magic Circle – Clearing the Air Ten Years Later.

A broad strokes definition: The magic circle is the idea that a boundary exists between a game and the world outside the game.

Outside the magic circle, you are Jane Smith, a 28 year old gamer; inside, you are the Level 62 GrandMage Hargatha of the Dookoo Clan. Outside the magic circle, this is a leather-bound football; inside, it is a special object that helps me score — and the game of Football has very specific rules about who can touch it, when, where, and in what ways.

Is the magic circle a verifiable phenomenon? A useful fiction? A ridiculous travesty? And who really cares? This essay endeavors to answer these questions by looking at the history, the use, and the misuse of the term. And along the way, I offer some correctives to how we think about the concept, about game design theory, and about the more general study of games.


Games (and play) exist in a space somewhat apart from reality: a dimension of time and space(*): ‘the magic circle’. Within this magic circle things are permitted that cannot (or should not) happen in real life, yet we can learn things from games that we can apply to real life. Children of almost any age seem to understand that this special realm exists,and most of us probably remember playing complaining that someone in the group “wasn’t playing right” – there are always rules to game-style play, even if they aren’t explicit.

The problem runs deep. It goes beyond just wide-eyed graduate students. Sometimes, I see it in the work of colleagues for whom I have the utmost respect and whose work I otherwise admire: game studies icons Mia Consalvo, Marinka Copier, and T.L. Taylor all have written about the need to overthrow the oppressive magic circle.

The argument goes something like this: the idea of magic circle is the idea that games are formal structures wholly and completely separate from ordinary life. The magic circle naively champions the preexisting rules of a game, and ignores the fact that games are lived experiences, that games are actually played by human beings in some kind of real social and cultural context.

My question remains: who is this ignoramus that holds these strange and narrow ideas about games? Where are the books and essays that this formalist-structuralist-ludologist has published? Where is this frightfully naïve thinker who is putting game studies at risk by poisoning the minds of impressionable students? Just who is this magic circle jerk? (Note that the word is “jerk” as in annoying person — I’m using it as a noun, not a verb.)

I am here to tell you: there is no magic circle jerk. We need to stop chasing this phantasm. I offer this essay as a corrective. It is meant to clarify where this magic circle idea came from, what it was intended to mean, and to stop the energy being wasted by chasing the ghost of the magic circle jerk — a ghost that simply doesn’t exist.



The concept of the magic circle is not unique to humans – animals also understand it, which implies to me that it is a fundamental concept common to most intelligent life.Example: When dogs are play-fighting, they exhibit almost all of the same behaviours they would when fighting for real. There are some important differences though – the secondary physiological reactions are absent (like the hair up on their backs), and the normal dominance hierarchies are not enforced (a subordinate dog can ‘best’ a superior dog in play without retribution). If you’ve spent any time watching dogs play, you will also have seen times when the magic circle is broken (someone breaks a rule) and suddenly it becomes serious. The growling changes, their posture changes, the hair goes up, the growling changes, etc. and a whole new set of rules come into force, for now this isn’t play.

There have even been studies that imply that this kind of play is essential to normal development: In one experiment, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt (human ethologist) discovered that polecats who are not given the opportunity to play with siblings did not know where to bite prey and rivals or how to hold females during mating once they grew up (Lorenz & Leyhausen, 1973).

I think we can argue over the precise definition – though personally I don’t see the need, but that the concept exists and is understood by people and animals alike on a very deep level does not seem to be disputable.

(*)“….You’re traveling to another dimension. A dimension of time and space. A dimension of sight and mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance. You’ve just crossed over into..” Sorry, couldn’t resist…this is the intro to the Twilight Zone , Rod Serling’s television series that ran from 1959-1964.

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