There’s this lens from games studies that I keep coming back to, the “magic circle”.
All play moves and has its being within a playground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the “consecrated spot” cannot be formally distinguished from the playground. The arena, the card table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis courts, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function playgrounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.
Johan Huizinga, 1938, “Homo Ludens”
So, a “magic circle” is a name for the space in which a game takes place. When we step into the magic circle, we suspend the rules of ordinary life, and allow the rules of the game to mediate our interactions.
Once you sit down with a friend to play a game of Backgammon, the arrangement of the pieces suddenly becomes extremely important. The Backgammon board becomes a special space that facilitates the play of the game. The players’ attention is intensely focused on the game, which mediates their interaction through play. While the game is in progress, the players do not casually arrange and rearrange the pieces, but move them according to very particular rules.
Within the magic circle, special meanings accrue and cluster around objects and behaviors. In effect, a new reality is created, defined by the rules of the game and inhabited by its players.
Salen, Zimmerman, 2004, “Rules of Play”
The magic circle has boundaries—temporal, spatial, mental. Sometimes we mark the boundary literally, like when we paint the boundaries of the soccer field on the grass. Other times the boundary is implied.
We often mark the boundaries of a magic circle through ceremonies:
Playing the THX deep note before a movie
Singing the national anthem before a game
Ringing a gong before yoga practice
Walking down the aisle at a wedding
These rituals help us pass from ordinary life into the magic realm of play.
The boundary of the magic circle is semi-permeable. We can pass through it at certain moments, and step into the world of the game.
This is the problem of the way we get into and out of the play or game… what are the codes which govern these entries and exits?
Brian Sutton-Smith, 1971, “Child’s Play”
So this boundary zone is a space where things can pass between worlds—the “real world” and the world of the game—and exchange information, interfere with each other. A turbulence zone. A membrane. An ecotone.
Stepping across the boundary into the magic circle is a choice. Play is voluntary. You don’t have to follow the rules. It’s always possible to move pieces on the board any which-way, just move the knight in a straight line, or throw it across the room, or pick up the soccer ball with your hands and run, or face backwards at a concert, or drive on the other side of the road.
Some self-veiling is present in all finite games. Players must intentionally forget the inherently voluntary nature of their play.
James Carse, 1986, “Finite and Infinite Games”
There are no rules that require us to obey rules. If there were, there would have to be a rule for those rules, and so on.
James Carse, 1986, “Finite and Infinite Games”
…But at that point, you aren’t playing the game.
So, to engage in the game is to suspend disbelief and choose play. In games studies, this stance is called a “lusory attitude”.
A lusory attitude is a kind of magical thinking where you choose to believe that the objects and relationships within the game have so-and-so meaning to you, and that they are to be interacted with in such-and-such a way.
Without a lusory attitude, you can’t play.
I’m thinking about the magic circle as I play with Geist prototypes.
In my experience, some kinds of spaces and headspaces are more conducive to generating ideas than others. For example, maybe I draw an Oblique Strategy…
But when I draw this card, my mind is busy, or I’m distracted, or I’m in a critical frame of mind, or in a fog. It does nothing for me. Later, I could draw the same card in a different frame of mind, and spark a creative breakthrough.
The card doesn’t mean anything by itself. It has to be interpreted, and the effectiveness of that interpretation depends upon the interpreter.
So, if we want to build an effective creative oracle to provoke ideas, we’ll need to construct a magic circle so that its gnomic utterances don’t just hit our mind and bounce right off. We want to set the stage, suspend disbelief, make space for creative magic to happen.
One way to provoke a lusory attitude is through posing questions.
Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question – you have to want to know – in order to open up the space for the answer to fit.
Too much efficiency can dismantle the magic circle.
Games are inefficient! Ritual is inefficient! Creativity is inefficient! Is moving a soccer ball across the field without your hands really the most efficient way? Working within the constraints of the rules generates the conditions for unusual solutions, and creative play.
Efficiency, frictionlessness, automation, for a creative oracle these can be counterproductive, even harmful.
Remember to invite people into the magic circle! I recently came across this passage in the Quest RPG sourcebook:
This is a special place:
a retreat from your worries and obligations.
close your eyes,
take a deep breath, and open your mind.
Ready? Let's begin.
A magic circle spell! You can feel the call to adventure. Why does this work so well? Breaking it down:
“Welcome” (into a world within the world)
“Special place” (set apart from ordinary life)
“Retreat from” (set aside distractions)
“Close your eyes / take a deep breath / open your mind” (lusory attitude)
“Ready? Let’s begin” (cross into the magic circle)
Moments of invitation.
Questions I’m asking myself:
In what ways might Subconscious mark off a magic circle?
In what ways might Subconscious invite you into the magic circle? What rituals and ceremonies should it involve?
What does a lusory attitude feel like in Subconscious? In what ways might we invite it?
What should be inefficient? Where should we take our time? Where should we add friction?