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.