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.


The Essential Role of Rules in Defining the Places Where We Play

As I discussed in my previous article, the world runs on rules. And like the real world, simulated worlds also run on rules; however, the simulated worlds of themed spaces, unlike the real world, are rarified and unusual places that are purpose built to entertain, delight, and inspire. In other words, themed-space designers are conceiving of much different and distinct places, locations that are explicitly designed as places for people to come and play, and thus are some of the best examples of what Huzinga described as “the magic circle.”

Rules are vital to both creating and defining the magic circle, as well as dictating what takes place within it. Essentially rules of play tell us where we play and how we play; and absent a set of rules whether implied or specific, there is no magic circle or play.

A really helpful way to conceive of this is to take a look at the world of tabletop games, commonly referred to as “board games.”

Tabletop games constitute a popular, commonly experienced, and historically important instantiation of a kind of Magic Circle.

Most of us have found ourselves held hostage at some family event when someone cracks open a game of Monopoly or perhaps worse, Risk, and promptly opens up the rule book and begins to read. As tedious and annoying as this ritual is, understanding what the rules of the game are, as preparation for game play, is frankly indispensable to the act of engaging in game play.

When this perhaps less-than welcomed scenario occurs, what is really going on is the magic circle is being constructed, first in the minds of the participants, and then later acted out during the playing of the game.

I would often tell my game design students that, when they purchase a tabletop game, what they were mostly buying wasn’t so much the game board and all the little plastic pieces, as beautiful looking and fun to use as those components might be. The real value they were getting for the purchase price of the game was frankly the rules contained and explicated in the rule book.

Components are a necessary thing, don’t get me wrong, but the actual form that the components take is somewhat tangential to the rules themselves. Often a lot of money is spent on the design and production of tabletop components, and beautifully realized components add a lot to the aesthetic of the play experience, but artfully designed components aren’t essential. Many games, prior to release, are prototyped and tested using rather mundane components like 3×5 cards, paperclips, wooden cubes, and hand-drawn boards. None of these components look good, at all, but they are more than adequate in acting as a vehicle for performing the rules, and thus playing the game.

To really underscore this idea that the magic circle is largely a function of the interplay between rules and the imaginations of the players, it’s helpful to look at the looong time favorite role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. I began playing D&D in the early 80’s when I was 12. I’m currently in a long-standing campaign with a bunch of my friends and I’m now 52. I’ve played a metric ton of D&D over the years, as have a lot of other gamers. I love minis too, I love painting them and have wasted more hours than I care to admit painting minis. I think painting mini-figs is frankly better than therapy. Nevertheless, and not withstanding my odd love of small plastic sculptures and how much I enjoy playing D&D with minis, marching them thru miniature dungeons hacking and slashing miniature monsters, if I’m honest, I’m not sure the campaigns I’ve played without minis were any less fun. In fact, some of the most fun campaigns I’ve participated in were played with just a bunch of stats written on “character sheets” and the D&D library of books; Players Handbook, Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. To play a super satisfying and terribly fun game of Dungeons and Dragons, all you really need is some books, some stats written on a few sheets of copy paper, and a healthy imagination.

Its these items, the books and the character sheets that contain the rules and thus are vital to constructing the Magic Circle that is a game of Dungeon and Dragons.


Rules Implied and Explicit – An Introduction to Theme Parks as Magic Circles

Since board games and theme parks are both magic circles, it’s really important to understand that in creating a themed place where people come to play, as designers, we are creating this space via a set of both implied and explicit rules.

In their article “Rules, Play and Culture: Towards and Aesthetic of Games,” Frank Lantz and Eric Zimmerman observe this connection between rules and human play, “Play is the experience of a rule-system set into motion by the players’ choices and actions. Within the strictly demarcated confines of the rules, play emerges and ripples outwards, bubbling up through the fixed and rigid rule-structure in unexpected patterns.”

For me and my family, whenever we enter a theme park, the first thing I do is grab a park map. The traditional paper kind, the kind that is notoriously impossible to refold properly once it’s been unfolded. However, anymore, that traditional paper park map is being replaced by a digital analog, typically in the form of an app on your phone.

Illustrated by Mark Jarman, with help from 123RF

The proximate reason I grab a map first is to make sure my family and I don’t get lost. But the map serves another function: it helps my family and I figure out what we want to do in the park for the day. We use it as a tool to figure out how we want to play in the park. The map, when used in this way, functions as a means to communicate the park’s “rules,” and thus helps to bring into focus some of the extents of the magic circle we are about to enter. Some of the rules we might derive from a typical theme park map are:

  1. The various realms we can play in;
  2. The themes and narrative feel of those realms;
  3. The activities we are allowed to participate in while in each realm;
  4. The spatial relationship between these different areas of the park.

All this information is vital for two reasons. First, it helps describe the actual physical extents of the play space; and second, it helps us figure out how to “play” well within this particular magic circle.

The park map is one example of an explicit way that the rules of the theme park are communicated to the guest. There are other methods of rule communication as well, like program guides, way-finding signs, and even ride restriction placards.

There are also many non-explicit or implied ways in which rules are communicated, and these ways are just as important as, say, the park map. Some of the implied rules are communicated by how traffic flows occur throughout the day, which is largely determined by the master plan of the park. Guests understand rules via the theming of the zone in which they find themselves. Often zone theming is used by guests to understand which role they should inhabit while participating in that zone. Cast interactions, especially those cast members who play explicit narrative roles, do a lot to communicate rules in an insinuated way.

Of course, these “rules” and the way they are communicated is largely unintended. The examples I’ve just mentioned do function as legitimate rules; but when designers create and plan a particular park, most, if any, aren’t thinking explicitly in terms of rules, rule sets, and creating magic circles where emergent play happens. Nevertheless, in a very organic way, this is what is going on, and it works and has been working pretty well for many years now. However, for a moment, consider what kind of experience could be crafted for the guest if themed space designers did, with real intention, design in terms of rules in order to create rule-bounded magic circles?

Share Button