The Magic Circle

Studying Game Design at university has some interesting side effects, one of these being all the manner of ideas, frameworks and methodologies you get pushed into your head in an attempt to define and quantify what makes a game and what seperates good games from bad ones.

Now, I don’t think games can just be summarized into simple logical factors because it is, quite frankly, not that simple, but some of these ideas are quite interesting.

The in topic mentioned Magic Circle being one of these.

The Magic Circle is a construct – a series of rules and context that we automatically assume and accept the moment we enter a game and then shed once we leave it. To step into the circle means accepting the game but once you step out you’re safe, the game doesn’t exist outside of it. For World of Warcraft (for example), this Magic Circle is manifest whenever we log into the game with a character and dispelled the moment we log out again – no matter how much we might hang on forums and divulge in arguments or forum drama, these are not part of the game; your forum avatar cannot fight a raid boss or conduct player versus player combat. You speak of the game, but you’re not in it.

Thinking of this brought me to an interesting random conclusion about roleplaying in World of Warcraft – in roleplaying we essentially form a second Magic Circle, to some degree overlapping but also utterly independent of the first, within which we create our roleplaying rules and context. This is much of why roleplaying realms can be very rife with internal conflict – there are no directly set rules within roleplaying, nor any way to enforce them. We can, thus, not prevent someone else from outright breaking our Magic Circle, dispelling our entire game experience, either out of ignorance or sheer spite.

A whole lot of people don’t understand this, I find – they don’t see the existance of these circle nor the effects of breaking it; to suddenly have the mindset and perceptions you’ve built up all but shatter around you in a most violent manner, leaving you with little but peices of broken glass.

Convenient for the fairly commonly resulting desire to stab someone when it happens, I’d assume.

It doesn’t help that roleplaying by default exists on a very different plane from regular World of Warcraft. Consider the triangle above, it’s part of a game design analysis framework called Ludic Space (no relation to Ludicrous) where most games can be placed somewhere in the space of this triangle, depending on how close it is to the extremes Simulation (pure-breed simulations), Game (completely abstract mechanics, like, say, Tetris) and Narrative (think movies). The model simplifies things significantly and hardly has space for every nuance, but it suits our present purposes.

World of Warcraft in itself lies very much towards the Game category, stretching a bit towards Narrative since the story is there and is important, but only really matters once. The first time you kill, say, Edwin VanCleef, you might be out to save Westfall, a Narrative prospect. The thirtieth time you’re probably there either for loot or experience for a new character – wholely abstract Game concepts.

In opposition to this, Roleplaying goes closer to Simulation and Narrative – we tell continously flowing stories as we experience things and rather than just abstracting the world around us to simple mechanical systems, we try to live the world – transcending beyond being a flat game character in a game world and becoming well-rounded individuals in a living, breathing world full of other people simularily alive – be it players or NPCs. Now there’s obviously a huge sliding scale how far people go from Game towards Simulation when going from playing to roleplaying, but the distinction is there.

From this it’s pretty obvious that people who play the game and people who roleplay it will be on vastly different ground, and that even roleplayers themselves can be very diverse and not necessarily be working at all under the same rules or context. With that in mind, I’m rather suprised some people can’t see why the roleplaying community is so full of internal strife – it’s in its very nature to be.

The Magic Circle is ultimately consentual – if you don’t like how things are, you have the option to step out. While doing this might leave you annoyed and frustrated, once outside it your game – and your character – cannot be affected without your consent. Your personal experience and narrative is for you and you alone. Which is a great thing when there’s a myriad of people out there who know no greater pleasure than to ruin it for others they meet. It’s something we tend to do innately when we run across people being grossly out of character, when people throw up emotes that goes against our personal rules or don’t work in our potential context. This is the very nature of the game and it’s great that the distinction is there.

Not that it saves you from someone who decides his or her next 30 minutes is best spent jumping up and down in front of you mocking your every move and action, but hey.

This provides an interesting contrast to the myriad of arguments I’ve seen about wether being permanently flagged for PvP is a personal choice, an appropriate choice or even a mandatory choice for roleplaying. Personally I’ve always argued for the former, and the above pretty much states why: I want the option to exclude those that don’t operate by my rules from my magic circle – it’s a native thing.

Sure, people can wave arguments like blueshield (from the name colour of those not flagged for PvP) all they like, but ultimately everyone steps out of their circle, or exclude certain people or actions, from it out of choice. Since that’s really no different from a roleplaying perspective, I find the complaint somewhat silly.

Of course, I am happy there are Player versus Player roleplaying realms – I wouldn’t actually play on one myself, mind you. But I do approve that the choice is there. I have to say I’m quite mystified there’s still an argument about having the PvP flag on or off when such realms are present, however.


1 Response to “The Magic Circle”

  1. 1 Thromgar
    September 13, 2008 at 20:17

    ‘Kay 😀

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