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Simulated Worlds and the “Magic Circle”​

Simulated Worlds and the “Magic Circle”​

 

– By Mark Jarman, Designer

The Physical and Mental Simulated World

When a guest walks into a themed space like the iconic Main Street USA in Disneyland, the moment they pass through the portal and gaze at the mid-19th century architecture, they enter a simulated world. Main Street USA is a world that is artfully and carefully designed and crafted to provoke a particular kind of experience. This world is neither infinite nor boundless, but rather spatially constrained within a well-defined precinct. Existing side-by-side with this physical space is another less visible, but nonetheless real place. This other, unseen realm exists in the mind and imagination of the park-goer; and while more ephemeral, it is still a bounded place that has well-defined extents.

Main Street U.S.A. is therefore a place of coincident duality. It’s at once a real physical space comprised of steel and wood and concrete and at the same time a non-physical space that dwells in the mind of each guest. This mental space, though non-material, is just as real as the physical park; and just like its physical counterpart, is also characterized by defined extents.

 

The Magic Circle

The dimensions of this mental space aren’t defined in inches and feet but rather in emotional and experiential “height, depth, and width.”   This defined emotional and mental space can be conceived of as a “magic circle.” The influential 20th century Dutch historian and ethnographer Johan Huizinga conceived of and described the magic circle in his seminal work on human play “Homo Lundens” as:

All play moves and has its being within a play-ground 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 play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, 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.

It’s likely that most designers when putting pencil to paper to design themed spaces, aren’t thinking about “magic circles” or “consecrated spots.” Nevertheless, when we design these rather rarified locales we are, in point-of-fact, and in a rather explicit way, creating places where people intentionally come to play. Frankly, it’s really not much of a stretch to describe these locations as places where guests do experience some kind of legitimate “magic.”

Immediately upon entering a themed location, the guest is confronted with a number of things that impact their senses. There are buildings and vehicles, characters, cast members, sounds, smells, as well as merchandise and a million other sensory delights. At this moment the guest is offered an implied invitation to participate; and unless you’re the reluctant parent that was dragged along by the family, almost everybody that passes through that entry portal wants to participate in some way. Said differently, almost all guests who arrive at the park are willing participants in the magic circle.

 

Life is Described by Rules

Now that I’ve got you thinking in terms of rules and magic circles, let me suggest that the entire human experience is one long continuum of moving in and out of one rule-defined space to another.

Every setting we find ourselves as humans is defined and circumscribed by rules. Here’s an exercise that illustrates what I mean; try to remember when you were perhaps sitting in church, or standing in line at the checkout stand, or sitting in a waiting room, or boarding an airplane. Now ask yourself “what were the rules by which everyone in that space had willingly accepted and were playing by?”

Here’s an example to help clarify what I’m talking about. Next time you’re sitting through another tedious high school play and your mind is desperately casting about for some kind of meaningful stimuli, notice where people are situated within the space: people are usually sitting in chairs, and the chairs are placed in successive concentric rows. Then note which direction people are oriented. Once the performance has begun, notice how people behave. In the audience, almost everybody has likely adopted a quiet, attentive demeanor, sitting still in their seats, with their heads and eyes more-or-less focused on what is going on upon the stage. What you are witnessing in this setting is the literal expression of the rules that everybody in this space is holding in their heads and are subsequently enacting in the physical world. Now imagine what would happen if you changed the rules, even a little bit.

Now that you have discovered the power of rules, let’s say you decide that in your own new personal rule book there is a requirement that every time an actor on the stage lifts their left hand past their waist, you must yell loudly, “hip-hip hooray!” If you were to change the rules of “High School Play” in this way, what do you think would happen? Since nobody else in this setting has adopted your unique variation of the rule set, as soon as you shouted “hip-hip hooray,” you would get all kinds of puzzled looks and glaring stares. If you continued to enact your unique version of the rules for long enough, you would likely get kicked out of the theater.

Not only are rules important, they are ubiquitous and constitute a vital and indispensable part of every human experience.

This example describes how we as humans organically construct unspoken rule sets and rigorously abide by those rules. Most of the rule sets we encounter emerge and are basically constructed organically and somewhat spontaneously. Even though these areas of human activity are defined and constrained by a set of rules, these instantiations of rule sets aren’t necessarily magic circles. Doing your grocery shopping or attending your daughter’s high school band concert does involve entering a rule-defined space, however these places are not magic circles in a strict sense because these activities don’t involve play or are not created for the express purpose of enacting play.

On the other hand, the realms that thematic designers create are, in point-of-fact, rule-bounded magic circles proper, in the strict Huzingian sense.

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