The interaction between play as a unique phenomenon and culture remains a controversial issue in the interdisciplinary sciences. For decades, the social, cultural, and psychological experiences of play have been explored and several theoretical foundations developed. One of the most popular frameworks for linking play to culture is the magic circle coined by Johan Huizinga. The basic idea of Huizinga (2006) is that the magic circle of a game is the space where the game takes place. In one of his works, Huizinga (2006) states that play is older than culture since culture always presupposes human society. Additionally, he expresses that even animals have developed their play without waiting for humans to teach them. Therefore, it can be argued that the best way to comprehend the cultural, social, and psychological uniqueness of the play experience is by referring to the magic circle. The focus of this essay is to present the relative advantages and disadvantages of the magic circle as a method for comprehending the social, cultural, and psychological uniqueness of the play experience.
Defining Games and Huizinga’s Magic Circle
Before examining the advantages and disadvantages of the magic circle, it is important to gain an understanding of what a game is and what the magic circle is about. Nguyen (2017) addresses some of the basic philosophical questions regarding games, including what games are, what we do when playing games, and what the value is of playing games. To answer these questions, Nguyen (2017) turns his attention to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, the text which first defined the magic circle. In this case, games can take many forms, including fictional activities with rules and artworks produced by individuals or communities in which engaging in the play activities produces fun and excitement. The play has also been defined by Özdoğru (2018)as a universal form of human behavior intended for recreation. However, many scholars on the subject of play believe that these behaviors have cultural, social, and psychological implications on the development of human beings, especially children. Regardless of the definition, a game or a play is an activity in which people engage for fun and which is controlled by rules that when broken can ruin the entire experience.
The concept of the magic circle was coined by Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Luxens to imply the time and space in which the play takes place. According to Nguyen (2017), players inside the magic circle tend to take up new roles and rules for behavior. Additionally, what happens inside the circle may not have direct implications outside of it. In other words, what happens in a game does not necessarily apply to normal life. For instance, if the players disagree in a game, then the same complaints and accusations cease once they step into real life. Huizinga’s idea of the magic circle is that it is where a game takes place, which means that playing a game requires one to either step into a magic circle or create one as the game begins. Games are closed systems of play, even though they do not require physical boundaries. Overall, a magic circle defines the parameters of a game and is a real difference from normal life, which is also governed by its rules.
It can be argued that the rules are the key component of a game considering that even the slightest deviation can ruin a game. This sentiment is shared by Nguyen (2017), who defines a game as a set of rules that specify victory and loss conditions. Additionally, a game becomes a set of possible sequences, which means that games may produce narratives, but they are not themselves a narrative. All these parameters are included in the idea of a magic circle, which means that the time and space comprise a set of rules governing the actions, strategies, and behaviors of the players. According to Kawitzky (2020), the magic circle is not necessarily an impenetrable barrier between the game space and the real world. Behaviors and ways of relating to participants within a game may seep into the real world and affect relationships. In other words, the magic circle often has a socio-political meaning.
Advantages and Disadvantages
The magic circle can be considered one of the best methods of understanding the cultural, social, and psychological uniqueness of play. Several benefits and drawbacks can be inferred from the multiple scholarly works in support or criticism of Huizinga’s idea of a magic circle. The first advantage is that the magic circle offers a framework for defining games and delineating them from other activities and human behavior. Games comprise a set of rules and possible sequences, which define winning and losing (Nguyen, 2017). Play is different from the activities undertaken in the real world and the interactions within the two realms are different. In a game, players can be opponents but upon entering the real world they resume their roles and identities as friends, siblings, or relatives. In terms of delineating play from the real world, some scholars observe that the magic circle can be considered to be a boundary that players negotiate (Hofstetter & Robles, 2019). In such a case, the methods used in interaction in the game context or within the boundaries of the game differ from those used in other contexts.
An example of this benefit can be illustrated using the Pandemic Legacy, a cooperative game where players have to work together to produce cures and prevent outbreaks of diseases (Ultra Board Games, n.d.). It can be argued that the cultural, social, and psychological experiences of this game are different from the real world. Therefore, the players have to step into the magic circle and take up roles, as well as make moves predefined by the game’s rules. The actions and behaviors will define the success and failure of the players as it is the basic idea of a magic circle. Additionally, stepping into the magic circle means that the players immerse themselves in a world where cultural, social, and psychological experiences differ from the real world. Any experiences after the game is over may not be transferred into the players’ daily lives. Therefore, it can be observed that the magic circle is the best method for defining play and the cultural, social, and psychological experiences contained within the games.
Another relative advantage of the magic circle is that it creates a world in which people can create and experience personal identities defined by the parameters of the game or the boundaries of the magic circle. The social, cultural, and psychological issues can be created and manifested either through participation or by the rules of the games. In the real world, society can be described as male-dominated where men are mostly in control of various aspects of human life. Similarly, some players, especially females, experience the same domination and discrimination in play, especially where the games are dominated by men. Young female gamers may experience harassment and other unenjoyable play practices that may prevent them from joining the magic circle and participating in immersive gameplay in social scenarios (Vossen, 2018). The Pandemic Legacy can illustrate this since it is a cooperative game. A young female gamer may be discriminated against, especially when playing among male counterparts. Additionally, the roles and responsibilities of the individuals in a group may reflect certain cultural aspects and experiences that could either be unique to the game or mirror the society.
Cultural and social experiences often result from a sense of belonging. In other words, there would not be a society without people and or culture without its creators. Another relative advantage of the magic circle is cultures and societies are created, even though fictional, to facilitate the play and the cultural and social experiences. Group membership is also associated with personal identity, which means self-perception and self-esteem become part of the social identity within the games (Güneş, 2021). In the Pandemic Legacy game, it is assumed that people can develop cures to prevent an outbreak. In such a case, the members of a group will likely play different roles depending on the slots available and potentially the self-perception of each individual. It can be expected that in every social setting, even where cooperative efforts are needed, there have to be leaders and followers or other hierarchical arrangements. Such social classifications are the result of personal and social identities that can be developed within the boundaries of a magic circle.
Most games developed by people do not have the same features as the Pandemic Legacy, which means that cultural, social, and psychological experiences are different. For example, the game Critical Play has been described as a subversive and deviant plant where the digital magic circle allows players to enter an environment of experimentation and subversion (Vossen, 2018). The idea of a magic circle becomes advantageous in understanding the experiences created in such a game since a virtual and fictitious world is created through immersive experiences. When the players emerge out of this world, they can resume behaviors of norm and compliance. Therefore, it can be argued that the magic circle creates the possibility of building on fantasies that are not possible in the real world. Game culture is different from social culture, but the rules define each culture and the experiences in them.
Despite the advantages of the magic circle, there are traces of disadvantages, most of which can be inferred from the multiple critiques of the theory. The first relative disadvantage is that the magic circle fails to provide a platform for interpreting games. According to McDonald (2019), many of the critiques of Huizinga’s work illustrate the importance of interpreting play over defining it. As mentioned earlier, a magic circle is the best method for defining games since it allows the rules of the game to be outlined and boundaries set between the plan and the real world. That way, the two environments do not mix and, when they do, they cannot detrimentally influence each other. However, most of the cultural, social, and psychological experiences of play can be understood better by understanding the meanings behind games and outlining why people play. The magic circle does not offer a platform for the interpretation of games, which means that the experiences within the play cannot be adequately explored using this method.
Another relative disadvantage of the magic circle is that it focuses a lot on separating the place space and the real world. McDonald (2019) explains that Huizinga’s explanations emphasize more on objective qualities at the expense of experiential ones. Looking at games objectively means distancing one’s perceptions from any personal feelings, attitudes, or even experiences. Therefore, delineating play from the real world means detrimentally even the cultural, social, and psychological experiences should adopt a different definition without transferring the ideas from the real world into the magic circle. In the game Pandemic Legacy, entering into a different world would mean creating new frameworks for the experiences. However, there is a possibility of transferring one’s identities, cultures, and social values into a game realm, which could define the role and identities taken up by the players.
The paper has described the relative advantages and disadvantages of the magic circle as a method of comprehending the cultural, social, and psychological uniqueness of the play experience. In this case, the main advantage is that the magic circle offers the necessary parameters for defining and understanding games, as well as delineating games from the real world. The main disadvantage is that while the magic circle helps define games, it leaves no room for interpretation, which is the more important element in exploring the experiences in play.
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