Posts Tagged 'magic circle'

ARGs, Serious Games and the Magic Circle

In “Alternate Reality Games: What Makes or Breaks Them?“, a blog post reviewing the rise of alternate reality games (ARGs) (see ARGs Uncovered for an into), Muhammad Saleem suggests several characteristics that a successful ARG should embrace:

- Storytelling or narrative
– Discovery/deciphering and documentation elements
– Cross-medium interactivity
– Blurring the lines between reality and fiction

To what extent do you agree with this view? If you are familiar with an ARG, write down how the game conforms to Saleem’s list. If you aren’t particularly familiar with an ARG, see if you can identify features of the ARG Perplex City that correspond to the categories listed above. To what extent do you think these “essential characterstics” apply to any digital game, ARG or otherwise?

The post also describes some ‘features’ that the ARG should avoid if it is to be successful:

- Lack of interactivity, too linear
– Lack of a reward
– No instant gratification
– Too difficult
– Same old game, different name
– Too scripted, too commercial

To what extent are these ‘negative features’ likely to detract from the success of any digital game, ARG or otherwise?

One popular refrain of the actors/characters in an ARG is that “this is not a game”. This reflects the fact that the game is being played out like a piece of invisibe theatre in the real world. At the same time, the actors act out the game narrative in a way that encourages audience participation, providing interaction with the game as far as the audience member is concerned, even if the actual direction of the game is largely scripted and tightly plotted ‘on-the-inside’.

How do you think the ‘this is not a game’ view relates to the idea of the Magic Circle, described by Salen and Zimmerman as “the boundary that defines the game in time and space” (see Getting Philosophical About Games)?

In the section “Community Formation and the Magic Circle” from the Game Studies article The Playful and the Serious: An approximation to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, Hector Rodriguez comments thus:

Game designers aiming to highlight trust and suspicion sometimes take the radical step of rendering the boundaries of the magic circle deliberately ambiguous. Phone calls or text messages received in the middle of the night may be real calls for help from a friend or part of the game’s conspiracy. Well-known examples include the Electronic Arts game Majestic and the plot of David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game. This uncertainty can generate experiences that resemble philosophical scepticism about reality. The designer becomes the equivalent of a Cartesian evil genius capable of controlling, and potentially deceiving, our sense of the distinction between reality and make-believe. From the designer’s standpoint, the players become toys to be played with; the game designer is the only player who for sure knows where the boundaries of the magic circle are.

A footnote in the same article elaborates further:

[6] The fuzziness of the magic circle is not restricted to children’s play. Recent scholarship on “expanded” or “pervasive” games has highlighted three techniques that subvert the magic circle (Montola, 2005). First of all, the location of the game can be ambiguous, uncertain or unlimited, so that participants may not be sure about the place where the game is played. Secondly, the temporal boundaries of play need not always be sharply demarcated from the rest of daily life. A game may, for instance, lack a clear-cut beginning or end; or its duration may extend until it coincides with a player’s entire life, even span several generations, so that its temporal boundaries become effectively irrelevant. Thirdly, games can blur the boundary between players and non-players by bringing “outsiders” into its sphere.

Serious Games and the Magic Circle

Just as ARGs make use of the ‘real world’ to roll out the game, we have also seen how real world situations can be ‘folded back’ into digital space, opening up the possibility of playing ‘real world’ games in virtual worlds (for example, The World of Serious Games).
To what extent do serious games require the player to adopt the view that whilst they are playing a game (and so insulating themselves from the real world by entering the magic circle) they are also not playing a game, in the sense that their performance in the game world could actually be replayed ‘for real’ in the real world, maybe as part of their job?

Do Game Players Tell, or Create, Stories?

Part and parcel of any course on game studies – and by extension something that I guess should be mentioned in an uncourse on the same subject – is the argument between narratologists and ludologists on the role of story in games. (Some authors include a third critical position, that of commentators who view games as a form of interactive fiction; for example, “Definition of Videogames”, Grant Tavinor, 2008).

As I understand it, the narratologists were claimed to take the view that video, or computer, games can be described in much the same way that films can be described – as cultural artefacts that are constructed by their designers/producers to tell a particular story. Under this view, it is hard, though not impossible, for the casual observer to interpret the story that puzzle games such as Tetris or Bejewelled, for example, are supposed to tell…

On the other hand, the ludologists’ were seen as approaching games from the point of view of critical analysis, taking a view in which players immerse themselves within the game world that exists within the magic circle of the game. The players’ interactions with the rules of the game and the other players drive the evolution of the game (rather than any narrative the designer may have tried to impose on the game, for example).

(The interactive fiction camp seems to me to distinguish itself further by taking the view that the player engages in some sort of fictional world and plays out their own story within that world at a ‘higher’ level than just engaging with the rules. That is, they play out a story in the game world, conforming to socially accepted norms of behaviour, for example, or plausible, self-styled narrative scenarios, rather than consciously playing the game out against its predefined rules.)

One widely quoted article on the debate was penned by ludologist Jesper Juul in 1998, and is well worth a read: “ A Clash between Game and Narrative

However, in more recent years, the narratologist vs. ludologist debate is perhaps seen as wearing a bit thin, and maybe even a non-story – “Ludologists love stories, too: notes from a debate that never took place“.

Even Juul felt obliged to write on the matter in 2005:

Especially a few years ago there was a real need to take on the automatic narrativism that was floating around. I think we have wasted perhaps 25% of our research and made impossible perhaps 50% of the student projects the last 5 years due to an unhealthy obsession with narratives. If we had just talked about “player experiences” rather than trying to square the circle, we would have been much better off. [N&L: I Can’t Take it Anymore!]

This refrain is repeated in Adams and Rollings “Game Design and Development”Fundamentals of Game Design“:

In the 1990s, the academic community began to consider the issue [of what 'interactive storytelling' actually means] and drew their own battle lines. The narratologists conducted fierce and often impenetrable arguments with the ludologists in the learned pages of scholarly journals. …
These interesting and sometimes important arguments may eventually change the industry, but in the meantime you need to build a game. We suggest that you be guided by … player-centric design. Don’t worry about the theoretical arguments, Build a story into your game if you believe it will help entertain the player, and don’t build one in if it won’t.

This approach may seem a little cynical, but Adams and Rollings book - subtitled Fundamentals of Game Design - is very much intended as providing a sound set of principles for designers and developers of games, rather than critical theorists. That said, the critical approach may at times uncover certain principles that are useful to game designers.

A more detailed critique of the debate can be found in the online Game Studies journal article Narrative, Games, and Theory by Jan Simons.

Read the first two sections of Simons’ article, bearing in mind the following questions as you do so: what distinction is made between “external observers” and “involved players”, and how do their perspectives of how a story may be told, or revealed, by a game differ? What does Simons mean by agency and how is this perceived differently by the players and observers of a game?

Picking up on Juul’s “N&L: I Can’t Take it Anymore!” post, games researcher Lars Konzack comments in a post on the Ludologica blog with the practical point that:

What we need to understand is that neither the narratologist nor the ludologist perspective is actually focusing on fiction. They are in fact discussing which structure comnputer games essentially are based upon, arguing whether or not it is a narrative structure or a ludic structure.

… Games are based on a ludic structure, but may couple this with a narrative structure as we see in quest-based interactive narratives like adventure games or action-adventure games.

We ought to first analyse the structure of any game as a ludic structure and if there is narrative, we ought to analyse the narrative structure as well. These two kinds of structures or not opposites and any attempt at trying to think of them as an essential dichotomy is a failiure.

So that’s the ludologist and narratologist views accommodated. But how about the interactive fiction camp? Konzack writes further: “… [N]arrative is not the same as fiction. Fiction is often based upon a narrative structure. But fiction might likewise be based on a ludic structure as we find in many strategy games and lots of war games.”

Find somewhere to jot down down two or three points each to characterise the ludologist, narratologist and interactive fiction stances towards the storytelling structure of an interactive computer game. To what extent do you agree with Konzack’s conclusion that “[a]ny game has a ludic structure and some game has a narrative structure as well. Fiction may be based upon a narrative and/or ludic structure.”

Phew… that’s enough academic debate for now, real or imagined… but not the end of the story about stories in games. In future posts, we’ll consider how stories can be told, and what the role of the game writer is in designing games that tell stories howsoever they do…

[If you're someone who does Game Studies "for real", please feel free to pick up on, take issue with and correct any of the above... :-)]

Getting Philosophical About Games

I intend to make this the last post on the question of what is a game, at least for a little while, so I thought I’d bring another book to your attention: Jesper Juul‘s “Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds”, 2003, ISBN 0262101106 (“official” book website, read the first chapter, or via Amazon or Google books).

Juul defines a game as follows:

A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.

Compare this to the definition I gave in Thoughts on the ‘Understanding Games Tutorial, Episode 1′: A game is a directed activity played for entertainment that consists of an aim or set of objectives, which are achieved using specific components by means of a set of rules.

The major difference between the two lies in the notion of components, which I didn’t really justify when I originally gave the definition. At their most obvious level, components might correspond to playing pieces in a board game – or even the board itself. In a computer game, the components might correspond to the instances of objects that are defined by the game rules.

Of more significance is a six point model that elaborates in more – and graphical – detail the attributes that characterise a game. The model was originally described in “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness“, which is well worth a read if you have half an hour to spare.

Before you read on any further, can you spot six characteristics of a game in Juul’s definition?

Using the new ‘create a form‘ feature on Google spreadsheets, I created a form for you to record your answers (or you can post a comment): Juul: “Six characteristics of a game” definition quiz. I’ll make the (anonymised) results (if any!) public in a day or two…

As well as reviewing several classic definitions of a game (see also Salen and Zimmerman’s definition comparison chart referred to in a comment to an earlier post; if you have your own blog, you may like to write a post about these definitions, and how they differ…) Juul offers this diagram that captures in raw form the model he develops more completely in his book:


Appears in: Juul, J., “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness”

The six defining characteristic features of a game, that provide the basis for his definition of a game, are shown in the inner wheel of the diagram.

Several examples of “not games” are given in the outer wheel of the circle. Can you think of any further examples of “not games” that feature different subsets of Juul’s six defining characteristics of a game?

Using graphical techniques like this is one powerful way of clarifying a definition. If you did come up with a definition of a game of your own, can you describe it in a graphical way?

(If you want to try drawing your definition, gliffy.com is an online drawing package that allows you to easily share your drawings with other people – as well as collaborating with them on the production of the image…)

If you’d like to hear from the man himself, here’s a video recording of a lecture Juul gave at MIT in December, 2006: Half-Real: A Video Game in the Hands of a Player.

Inside the Magic Circle

To wrap up this topic (for now!), I like to briefly return to the notion of “play”, the psychological stance we often (always?) take towards a game…

Yin/yang symbol on a go board
“Yin and Yang on the Go board”, by Kakadu (click through the image for full attribution).

The act of play itself has been the focus of much serious philosophical study. Johann Huizinga, author of Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, likened the act of playing to ritual (Formally speaking…).

Drawing on Huizinga’s original idea of a “play-ground”, a hallowed area “within which special rules obtain” and within which “an absolute and peculiar order obtains”, Salen and Zimmerman popularised the phrase “magic circle” to describe “the boundary that defines the game in time and space”. (See the quote in context here: What is going on in these examples…)

The idea of the “magic circle” holds popular sway for many people, and is often thought of as a bubble of ‘altered reality’ within which the game world exists. The “magic circle” is experienced by the game player when they are immersed in a game. This may be a purely psychological space, or it may extend into the real world, as for example in a board game, or a sports pitch.

When inside the magic circle, the game becomes, to a large extent, ‘reality’, although it is possible to step outside the circle, pause the game, and pop the kettle on…

…which is exactly what I’m going to do now :-)

Here’s something I’ll be pondering as I do so: what is the relationship between “games” and “play”? Can I do anything with a game other than play it? (except make it, of course! ;-)


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