In 1938, Johann Huizinga published a seminal work on play, Homo Ludens. In this text he theorizes what he calls the “magic circle” that surrounds play. This circle is bound spatially, socially, and temporally. Spatial edges of the circle are easy enough to see. Sports, for example, are played on demarcated fields and include rules that punish players for moving themselves or a ball “out of bounds.” In his important work, Huizinga invokes repeatedly the game of marbles, defining the game as the quintessence of the “magic circle.” Quite concretely, children playing marbles must draw on the ground a circle in chalk. Each time they start up a game, they must re-inscribe this circle and recreate the spatial boundaries of the game.
Temporally, games have boundaries as well. Again, sports are the easy example, and most games have set time limits in place to determine how long the game will last. Although most do not have time limits per se, board games and card games have beginnings and endings that mark when the game is in session and when it is not.
Socially, there are players and non-players of any game, and the “magic circle” extends to encircle all those who are playing into a play space. These people are now something not themselves. Something more. They are playing a game, and so their actions are judged according to the rules of the game, not the rules of everyday life. Players in the game of Twister, for example, can get away with physical contact that would be deemed illicit if it happened outside the bounds of the game.
Many have noted the connection between Huizinga’s “magic circle” and the anthropology of ritual. Ritual, like games, inscribe what could be called a “magic circle” for people, objects, and events. This special status apart from everyday life is marked in the word sacred itself, which literally means “set apart.”
Marcus Montola et al. (2009) cover how more recent games, particularly the pervasive games that run off smartphones, expand the “magic circle” of Huizinga, extending play beyond traditional spaces. Games such as Words With Friends, Farmville, Travian, etc. Even if you leave your computer or turn off your phone, the game is always going on behind you… in the ether. Temporally and spatially it is extended in dramatic ways Huizinga never could have imagined. At various times you can be more active or passive playing Farmville on Facebook, but the game does not stop when you sign off and go about your day. Temporally it never stops! Spatially the game is happening everywhere you go!
The social extension, however, again becomes the most interesting. We mentioned that the game of Twister creates a space wherein certain forms of physical interaction are allowed that, without the “magic circle” of the play space, would be awkward or illicit. How do smartphone apps and browser-based games explode the social circle as much as they do the spatial and temporal?