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"Play, Games and the Magic Circle" by Sherry Jones (July 22, 2014)


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I am the Game Studies Facilitator for the #Metagame Book Club ( This is my Week 1 Lecture on "Play, Games, and the Magic Circle," with discussion emphasis on Johan Huizinga's "Homo Ludens."

Live Video Lecture - The live recorded youtube video of this lecture is included toward the end of this presentation.

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"Play, Games and the Magic Circle" by Sherry Jones (July 22, 2014)

  1. 1. #Metagame Book Club Track 1: Game Studies Week 1: “Play, Games & The Magic Circle” Sherry Jones Game Studies Facilitator @autnes Access Slides:
  2. 2. Guiding Questions 1 1. What are the functions of play according to Johan Huizinga? What is the relationship between play and expression? What examples did Huizinga offer that demonstrate the presence of play in human expressions? 2. How do Johan Huizinga and Eric Zimmerman define the “Magic Circle”? Did your first Magic Circle moment occur during your childhood or adolescent years? What rules were involved/created for that Magic Circle? What made the experience magical or wondrous (or not) for you? 3. What are Roger Caillois’ critiques of Huizinga’s definition of play? 4. What does Roger Caillois mean by this statement?: “A game which one is forced to play would at once cease to be play” (p. 6).
  3. 3. Guiding Questions 2 5. In terms of games, what does Roger Caillois mean by “rules themselves create fictions” (p. 8)? 6. Jesper Juul argues that games can be defined by its common characteristics. According to Juul, what are some of the characteristics that define a game? Do you agree with his definition? 7. According to Miguel Sicart, what is the relationship between play, game, and computation? Why are games important to the formation of the age of computing machinery?
  4. 4. 5 Game Studies Texts on Definitions What is Play? ● Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Johan Huizinga (p. 1-20) ● Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois (p. 3-10) What is a Game? ● Ludology - Episode 79 - The Magic Circle (Interview with Eric Zimmerman) ● "The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness" by Jesper Juul ● “Playing in the Age of Computing Machinery” by Miguel Sicart
  5. 5. Homo Ludens - A Background (Pt. 1) ● Homo Ludens (or, “Man the Player”) is highly influential on play and game scholars, and is regarded as one of the fundamental texts in the field of Game Studies. ● Johan Huizinga (1872-1945), a Dutch Professor of History at the University of Leyden, wrote the profound book, Homo Ludens (1938), late in his life. He is also regarded as a significant Cultural Theorist due to his insights about the relationship between play and culture.
  6. 6. Homo Ludens - A Background (Pt. 2) ● In the book, Huizinga does not discuss a taxonomy of games, since for him, all games are pure spaces with parameters to contain the free activity of “pure play.” Games are spatial “boxes” that impose rules to confine the non-material force of play. ● Huizinga attempts to define “pure play” by identifying the characteristic of play, and to demonstrate how play contributes to the formation of cultures and societies.
  7. 7. A Close Reading of Homo Ludens (p. 1-20)
  8. 8. Introduction “PLAY is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing” (Huizinga 1). Huizinga explores play as a primordial activity that contributes to the formation of human culture. He uses the latin word ludus (which can mean play, game, or sport) to refer to the activity of play. Although the term, play, can be translated to either the latin term fabula (stories and fables) or lascivio (rioting and wantonness), neither terms can encompass Huizinga’s concept of “pure play,” an element of human culture that is not a part of any object and cannot be logically analyzed as such. Huizinga uses ludus as a more accurate term to refer to the entire field of play.
  9. 9. Play Is Immaterial Prior to Huizinga, theorists have attributed the ends of play to psychological and biological functions (needs, desires, goals). Huizinga argues that theorists have not addressed the heart of the issue, which is what is play itself? He proposes that play is an act that lacks a material quality: “In play there is something "at play" which transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action. All play means something. . . . the very fact that play has a meaning implies a non­ materialistic quality in the nature of the thing itself” (Huizinga 1).
  10. 10. Play Has Aesthetic Value + Meaning Huizinga argues that play does not just serve a biological function. Rather, play has an aesthetic quality that has its own meaning value: “All these hypotheses have one thing in common: they all start from the assumption that play must serve something which is not play, that it must have some kind of biological purpose. They all enquire into the why and the wherefore of play” (2). “They attack play direct with the quantitative methods of experimental science without first paying attention to its profoundly aesthetic quality” (2).
  11. 11. The Essence Of Play Is Fun The essence of play is fun, a term that cannot be logically interpreted: “Now this last-named element, the fun of playing, resists all analysis, all logical interpretation. As a concept, it cannot be reduced to any other mental category. No other modern language known to me has the exact equivalent of the English ‘fun’” (3). “The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation. Animals play, so they must be more than merely mechanical things. We play and know that we play, so we must be more than merely rational beings, for play is irrational” (3).
  12. 12. Play Is The Root Of Expressions Play is an activity that helps construct human expressions, such as language, speech, and myths; Play is inherent in metaphors, which are inherent in abstract expressions: “Behind every abstract ex­pression there lie the boldest of metaphors, and every metaphor is a play upon words. Thus in giving expression to life man creates a second, poetic world alongside the world of nature” (4). “Now in myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primaeval soil of play” (5).
  13. 13. Cultures Are Sub Species Ludi Huizinga uses the latin word, Ludus (game, play, sport), to refer to play. He argues that cultures are Sub Species Ludi (i.e. culture are subordinates to the species of play/games): “The object of the present essay is to demonstrate that it is more than a rhetorical comparison to view culture sub specie ludi” (5). “The fact that play and culture are actually interwoven with one another was neither observed nor expressed, whereas for us the whole point is to show that genuine, pure play is one of the main bases of civilisation” (5).
  14. 14. Play Is A Primordial Activity Play, as a primordial activity that precedes the formation of culture, is not subordinate or category of any form of human thought (such as expressing the moral dichotomies of seriousness or non-seriousness): “Play lies outside the antithesis of wisdom and folly, and equally outside those of truth and falsehood, good and evil. Although it is a non-material activity it has no moral function. The valuations of vice and virtue do not apply here” (5). “All the terms in this loosely connected group of ideas -- play, laughter, folly, wit, jest, joke, the comic, etc. -- share the characteristic which we had to attribute to play, namely, that of resisting any attempt to reduce it to other terms. Their rationale and their mutual relationships must lie in a very deep layer of our mental being” (6).
  15. 15. Play Element And Its Characteristics Play-concept is independent of logical, biological, or aesthetic definitions. To find play’s presence in culture, we can identify its characteristics: “The play-concept must always remain distinct from all the other forms of thought in which we express the structure of mental and social life. Hence we shall have to confine ourselves to describing the main characteristics of play” (6). “Play is a function of the living, but is not suscept­ible of exact definition either logically, biologically, or aesthetically. The play-concept must always remain distinct from all the other forms of thought in which we express the structure of mental and social life“ (7).
  16. 16. First Characteristic of Play - Freedom Play is a free activity, or an act of freedom: “All play is a voluntary activity. Play to order is no longer play: it could at best be but a forcible imitation of it. By this quality of freedom alone, play marks itself off from the course of the natural process” (7).
  17. 17. Second Characteristic of Play - Irreality/Pretend Play does not belong to the real, but is an activity that transcends ordinary life (has the quality of pretend): “[Play] is rather a stepping out of "real" life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own” (8). “The consciousness of play being "only a pretend" does not by any means prevent it from proceeding with the utmost seriousness, with an absorption, a devotion that passes into rapture and, temporarily at least, completely abolishes that troublesome "only" feeling” (8).
  18. 18. Third Characteristic of Play - Secludedness/Limitedness Play is disinterested, secluded, and limited: “Not being "ordinary" life [play] stands outside the immediate satisfaction of wants and appetites indeed it interrupts the appetitive process. . . . “Such at least is the way in which play presents itself to us in the first instance: as an intermezzo, an interlude in our daily lives” (9). “Play is distinct from "ordinary" life both as to locality and duration. This is the third main characteristic of play: its secludedness, its limitedness. It is "played out" within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and meaning” (9).
  19. 19. Play Exists in Spatiotemporal Worlds Play is also limited/confined to space, such as a temporal playground or magic circle. (i.e. a game): “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” (10).
  20. 20. Play Creates Temporary Order Play demands order and perfection. “Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme.” (p. 10) “The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play, as we noted in passing, seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics.” (p. 10)
  21. 21. Play Creates Tension Play creates tension, as it requires the player to be competitive within the rules of the game: “Play is ‘tense’, as we say. It is this element of tension and solution that governs all solitary games of skill and application such as puzzles, jig-saws, mosaic-making, patience, target-shooting, and the more play bears the character of competition the more fervent it will be. In gambling and athletics it is at its height. Though play as such is outside the range of good and bad, the element of tension imparts to it a certain ethical value in so far as it means a testing of the player's prowess: his courage, tenacity, resources and, last but not least, his spiritual powers-his "fairness"; because, despite his ardent desire to win, he must still stick to the rules of the game” (11).
  22. 22. Play Imposes Rules Play has rules, and they cannot be broken (or the game falls apart): “All play has its rules. They determine what ‘holds’ in the temporary world circumscribed by play. The rules of a game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt. . . . Indeed, as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses. The game is over. The umpire's whistle breaks the spell and sets "real" life going again” (11).
  23. 23. Spoil-Sports - Rule Breakers Spoil-sport, those who break play rules, can refer to anyone who withdraws from the play-worlds (magic circles): “[The spoil-sport] reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others. He robs play of its illusion -- a pregnant word which means literally "in-play' (from inlusio, illudere or inludere) . Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community” (11).
  24. 24. Spoil-Sports Can Form Their Own Play-Communities Spoil-sports also exist in the world of high-seriousness: “The spoil-sport breaks the magic world, therefore he is a coward and must be ejected. In the world of high seriousness, too, the cheat and the hypocrite have always had an easier time of it than the spoil-sports, here called apostates, heretics, innovators, prophets, conscientious objectors, etc. It sometimes happens, however, that the spoil-sports in their turn make a new community with rules of its own. The outlaw, the revolutionary, the cabbalist or member of a secret society, indeed heretics of all kinds are of a highly associative if not sociable disposition, certain element of play is prominent in all their doings” (11).
  25. 25. The Magic Circle Huizinga offers the term, “magic circle,” to explain the characteristics and functions of play in the communities of players. “Magic circle,” as implied by its closed shape, is maintained in secrecy by all those within the circle. “The exceptional and special position of play is most tellingly illustrated by the fact that it loves to surround itself with an air of secrecy. Even in early childhood the charm of play is enhanced by making a "secret" out of it. This is for us, not for the "others". What the "others" do "outside" is no concern of ours at the moment. Inside the circle of the game the laws and customs of ordinary life no longer count.” (p. 12)
  26. 26. Ritual Is Serious Play Huizinga argues that play can be serious, such as play-acts performed in rituals of the sacred: “We are hovering over spheres of thought barely accessible either to psychology or to philosophy. Such questions as these plumb the depths of our consciousness. Ritual is seriousness at its highest and holiest. Can it nevertheless be play? We began by saying that all play, both of children and of grown-ups, can be performed in the most perfect seriousness. Does this go so far as to imply that play is still bound up with the sacred emotion of the sacramental act?” (18). “Can we now extend the line to ritual and say that the priest performing the rites of sacrifice is only playing?” (18).
  27. 27. Watch Live Webinar To This Lecture
  28. 28. Lecture By: Sherry Jones Game Studies Facilitator Philosophy, Rhetoric, Game Studies @autnes Writings & Webinars Access Slides: