The Magic Circle

The magic circle is a concept which many have pointed out as the essence of all game design and game experience.[1] The magic circle originated with Johan Huizinga who used the term in his book Homo Ludens (1938) when listing places where play happens. Huizinga stated that there was not much difference between a sacred place of religious observer and an actual playground. According to him, the courtroom, church and sports hall were all comparable – all temporary worlds within the real world, meant for special events.[2]

Over 60 years later, Huizinga’s idea of the magic circle was expanded by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman in their book Rules of Play: Fundamentals of Game Design, published in 2003. Since then, game designers have been preoccupied with “the magic circle”. In Salen’s and Zimmerman’s version, the magic circle contains the boundary between the gaming world and the actual surrounding real world. Once you step over this boundary, everything changes, including rules, norms and behaviour. 

Normally, these boundaries are clear and once you step into the game, the gaming world takes over and you cut the ties with the real world. Playing is not the same as being involved in a game. The biggest difference is that a game has a beginning, middle and an end. Whether you play cards, hopscotch or a computer game, there is a frame, there are rules. When the game starts, magic happens and you submit to the game. The magic circle surrounds you, separating you from the reality. Thus, the circle becomes a symbol for a specific world which repeats itself and offers limitless possibilities, like Zimmerman and Salen have pointed out.[3]

Johanna Koljonen diagram of the user’s experience, created by Ed Rodley.

In recent years, museum people have started focusing on the magic circle to gain a better understanding of the visitors’ experience, particularly as museums and exhibitions contain a similar boundary between the specific world and the real world which the visitor must cross to enjoy the communication. The Finnish Johanna Koljonen is one of those who have pointed this out in her teaching of experience design.[4] She has drawn people’s attention to the fact that it is not enough to only think of the innermost core, the magic circle. You also need to bear in mind, for any experience which is designed, that the visitor has already started the game before they enter the magic circle itself. Their culture and own experiences shape the expectations which build up before the visitor arrives, as well as the memory they leave with (see diagram). Everything which happens before and after you step into the magic circle matters and affects the experience. Hence, it is important to pay special attention to the part of expectations which we can control, for example through marketing and promotion. If the expectations are too high, disappointment inevitably follows.

Alibi for Interaction: social rule, physical object or situtation that allows someone to try a new behaviour or experience or initiate an interaction.

Johanna Koljonen. 2015.

One of the parts which make up the magic circle is the so-called interaction alibi. This is the excuse which allows us to be someone we are not or to behave differently – an alibi from the real world of sorts. This alibi can take many forms but it creates the space for us to participate. For example it can be in the form of parts, rules, story, play, mask, costumes, instructions or presentations. All of this helps us understand what is expected of us and what we are allowed to do. It gives us a sense of security so we accept and participate – step into the magic circle.

[1] Rodley, Ed. 2018, March. “Playing with the past, part two: Magic circles and interaction alibis”. Thinking About Musuems.

[2] Huizinga, Johan. 1949. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Pg. 10. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

[3] Salen, Katie & Zimmerman, Eric. 2001. Rule of Play: Game design fundamentals. Chapter 9. MIT Press.

[4] Koljonen, Johanna. 2015, November. “Introduction to narrative experience design”. Alibis for interaction: Nordic Masterclass for designers of experience. Oct 22-23 2015, Landskrona, Sweden.

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