The Magic Circle and the Modern Gamer


 The magic circle has been described as a sacred space that separates play from the seriousness of ordinary life (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004; Huizinga, 1955). The concept has been used by early and contemporary games scholars as a way of explaining the allure, uncommon pleasure and immersion experienced by players of analog, digital and pervasive games. Salen and Zimmerman (2004) have extrapolated from the Huizinga (1955) conception of a game’s “ritual space”, and evolved the idea of the magic circle as a “protective frame which stands between the player and the ‘real’ world and its problems” (p. 94). Games create spaces for players to “separate from ordinary life” and experience problem-solving outside of the constraints of reality (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p. 94). Drawing specifically on the research of Consalvo (2009), Juul (2010), Montola, Stenros and Waern (2009), and Keogh (2018), I will examine the concept of the magic circle in game studies. I will demonstrate this “hallowed ground” as defined by Huizinga (1955), and purportedly afforded by game play, is an oversimplification (p. 10). Instead, it is the intersectionalities of the game players themselves that determine their level of immersive and free play. A player’s membership in an in- or outgroup, their relative level of games literacy, their race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status will determine their level of access gaming and its many affordances. I will argue that the interests, desires, complications and consequences of the real world always creep into the game space, whether the player is a hardcore or casual gamer. As such, I will argue that the magic circle is a luxury that many, particularly marginalized people, simply can not afford. There is, however, a splicing of the game space and real life, a complex hybridization of games and reality. I will demonstrate, the uncomplicated, pure space of the magic circle is a reductive conceit. While the magic circle provided an important analytical abstraction and jumping off point for scholars, game scholarship has matured in its understanding of the affordances and allure of games in contemporary life.

Research Context

For Zimmerman (2009), the magic circle is separate from the ordinary world, a game allows players to view a “miniature artificial system” to allow players to escape, for even a short time, reality’s serious consequences (p. 26). Within the magic circle, players engage in safe, consequence-free, no-strings-attached, unproductive conflict, problem-solving, resource collection and/or co-operation (Zimmerman, 2009, p. 26). Caillois (2001) suggests that the game space can be understood as a “restricted, closed, protected universe: a pure space.” (p. 7). The magic circle is a state where the player can experiment, try and fail without penalty, and becomes “an enchanted zone in which, in the end, you are confident that no harm can come” (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 94). The meanings and consequences of the game are limited to the game, and this gives the players space and time to experiment and enjoy (Zimmerman, 2009). Another essential element of the magic circle is a sta“formalized interactions” from its participants (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 97).

As the definition of games is often intertwined with the notion of the magic circle, I must first look to the definition of games themselves. Huizinga (1955) notes that play “is the direct opposite of seriousness”; offering no neat, strict divide, noting, “seriousness proves to be neither conclusive nor fixed. We can say: play is non-seriousness” (p. 5). Play is a mood, a recognizable attitude, as Huizinga (1955) explains, something that can be recognized even by young dogs. Even with their teeth bared, snarling, dogs recognize the essential unseriousness of their play. Abt (1970) splits the idea of ‘what is a game’ into two essential aspects. On the one side, there is the formal, procedural component of games that is comprised of rules, objectives and the game system. Then there is the other aspect of games, that which is made up of emotions. Games are also about feelings, based on “optimistic beliefs… a kind of spiritual conquest” achieved by miniaturizing conflict or complex problems, and then vanquishing them through a combination of skill and luck (Abt, 1970, p. 6). Games then are “an activity among two or more independent decision makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context (Abt, 1970, p. 6).

Caillois (2001) critiques Huizinga (1955) for ignoring the “diversified forms of play and the many needs served by play activity in the various cultural contexts” (p. ix). Caillois (2001) seeks to expand upon the understanding of the multi-faceted nature of games with a continuum and definitional quadrant of game types. On one side of the Caillois (2001) continuum is paidia which is chaotic play, which is “active, tumultuous, exuberant, spontaneous” (Caillois, 2001, p. xi). The opposite side is ludus, a rules-based order based on “calculation, contrivance and subordination to rules” (Caillois, 2001, p. xi). Games are classified as agōn or competitive games, alea or games of chance, mimicry or simulations, role playing or play acting, and ilinx or games involving vertigo (Caillois, 2001). Even in a cut-throat game of poker, where perhaps money changes hands, it can be said that a game is essentially unproductive (Caillois, 2001). A game is essentially a free activity unmoored from the consequences of reality. “Nothing has been harvested or manufactured, no masterpiece has been created …(p)lay is an occasion of a pure waste of time and energy” (Caillois, 2001, p. 5). On the other hand, someone being forced to play a game as a job would cease to be freely engaged in play; the game would become “constraint, drudgery.” (Caillois, 2001, p. 6). Games, therefore, must be free, separate from the ordinary world, operate within a fixed time, be governed by rules that “suspend ordinary laws”, offer a chance to make believe which is “accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality” and ensure that the outcome is not fixed nor the game rigged toward achieving a certain outcome (Caillois, 2001, p. 9).

Consalvo (2009) turns to the concept of the magic circle in her study of cheating in games. Consalvo (2009) looked at the behaviours of some players in Massively Multi-player Online (MMO) communities engaging in Real Money Trade (RMT), or so-called gold mining whereby the players receive real money for leveling up player characters and/or selling in-game items for cash. This level of real-world calculation, the dabbling in cheats and exploits for money, does not seem very magical nor separate from the real-world. Players who use cheat codes, play games for requirements such as money, fame or clicks on their streaming channel might be considered, definitionally, to fall outside of the magic circle. To explain this disconnect, Consalvo (2009) invokes the Turner (1969) concept of liminality, the crossing over between spaces. Consalvo (2009) disputes the idea that the boundaries between games and everyday life are strictly separated. Citing Goffman (1974), Consalvo (2009) embraces the idea of daily living happening in a series of shifting frames, suggesting that gamers, particularly in MMOs, are moving between frames constantly. Digital multiplayers shift between the liminal play space and ordinary life, in fleeting, interrupted moments, and can engage in the immersion of a game “if only (for) minutes at a time” (p. 414). Rejecting the notion of a strict dividing line between the frame of ordinary life and the game world, Consalvo (2009) argues that the magic circle seems “static and overly formalist” (p. 415). In MMOs analyses in research conducted by Consalvo (2009) and Jenson and de Castell (2011), there is little evidence of pat, strict divisions between the game and real life. Consalvo (2009) concludes: “We cannot say that games are magic circles. …We fail to do justice to the complexity and richness of MMOs and digital games” (p. 416). 

The idea that the boundaries of the liminal game space and the ordinary world are porous and permeable is similarly taken up by Keogh (2018). Keogh (2018) suggests that the digital game player flickers between their embodied ordinary existence and the virtual world which their avatar inhabits. Like Consalvo (2009), Keough (2018) argues the situation is “much more complicated than simply stepping out of one world and skin and into others” (p. 3). Drawing on the concept of hybridity and intertwining of realities, technologies and bodies suggested by Haraway (1991), Keogh (2018) argues that the real answer is “located in the splice, in the hybrid all-at-once … (i)t is this flickering play of bodies that is the meaningful sensorial, situated experience of video game play” (p. 17). It is the splice or hybridity of worlds, and virtual and real bodies colliding, the complex intermixed, multi-tasking consciousness of the game player that Keogh (2018) refines his phenomenology for analyzing and defining the experience of video games. Keogh (2018) defines this as “embodied engagements” or as “eyes-on-screens, ears-at-speakers and muscles-at-input-devices” (p. 197). In Keough (2018), there’s no walled community for game players called the magic circle. Rather, the experience of games is filtered through many lenses and processed by bodies, resulting in a “messy, fleshy engagement” (p. 136). 

Montola et al. (2009) examines at how pervasive games or alternate reality games, often a mixture of digital, analog and live-action role playing, press against the boundaries of the magic circle, and challenge the traditional understanding of this sacred game space. Montola et al. (2009) define pervasive games as “(p)layfulness …seeping into the ordinary” or how “(e)veryday life is becoming interlaced with games” (p. xix). Pervasive games take place on mundane city streets, parks, classrooms, abandoned warehouse and workplaces. One alternate reality game example, Vem Gråter, Swedish for ‘Who is Crying?’, was staged at Gotland University in 2005. The game took place in an ordinary space, in this case, a classroom which was littered with splashes of red paint and cryptic writings in charcoal on the wall. The game was meant to entice puzzle-loving students and faculty into a hunt to solve a paranormal mystery. Instead the game sparked a police investigation and required counselling for terror-struck students. The cleaning staff, the first to be called on scene, did not enter the magic circle of the game space nor did they recognize the unseriousness of the clues. What was missing for these people not ‘in on’ the game was the contract or the “implicit agreement” of the playfulness promised by the activity (Montola et al., 2009, p. 10). Games “are not entirely free” of consequences and real-world implications (Montola et al., 2009, p. 10).

Montola et al. (2009) identifies that Huizinga (1955) wrote about games during a time when classic games were often multiplayer (sports) or the indulgent, esoteric and exclusive pursuits of gentleman of leisure. At the time when Huizinga (1955) wrote his book Homo Ludens, games were played mostly by men, and specifically, men of social and economic privilege (Montola et al., 2009). Those in Huizinga’s era would be mostly unfamiliar with the notion of a hardcore gamer (Montola et al., 2009). Today, professional e-sports players perform their gaming for 100s of 1000s of viewers; there are Magic the Gathering, collectible card players engaging in the ‘chase’ for the unbeatable 60-card card deck to use to win large cash prizes at tournaments. Hardcore, professional gamers can experience no boundaries between the ordinary and the game space whatsoever; as gaming had become part of a daily routine and play could be paused at any time without concern as these players joylessly grind through a game (Montola, et al., 2009). Habitual gamers found games to be “a routine and mundane activity that often contains little or no magic at all” (Pargman & Jakobsson, 2008, p. 239). In his study of the rise of low-barrier-to-entry casual games in contemporary culture, Juul (2010) identifies that the demography of gaming has shifted and so too have the games themselves. While today’s self-reported non-gamers suggest the lack of time as the biggest barrier to playing digital games, the rise of casual games have stretched the boundaries of how games fit into modern life (Juul, 2010). The allure or siren call of games does not require the magic circle to draw gamers in. With this casual revolution, so coined by Juul (2010), he and other theorists identify a core challenge with the magic circle concept. The engagement with the game can be fleeting, momentary, complex and casual, rather than sacred and deep. Juul (2010) and Montola et al. (2009) demonstrate how games are played and who plays them becomes key factors as we look to the question of the magic circle.

Zimmerman (2009), Squire (2011) and Gee (2007) call for a new games literacy, allowing learners to better engage in the richness of gameplay by training them to read the unique semiotics and mechanics of games. Gee (2005) notes that games are often designed and played by an affinity group. Playing and reading a game often requires a layered social, cultural, economic and political understanding of games. An affinity group of gamers share a visual and “multimodal literacy” that requires deep knowledge of games and game play behaviours, as well as the semiotic and linguistic signifiers that might be meaningless to the uninitiated (Gee, 2005, p. 14). Mäyrä (2008) observes that same linkage between social contexts, values, identities and an individual’s access to the freedom of the magic circle. How you understand games is highly subjective and your access to the liberation of the pleasurable, free game space might be determined by your acceptance into an affinity group (Gee, 2005; Mäyrä, 2008).

A game designer can also prevent a would-be gamer’s entrance into the semiotic lifeworld domain of the game and gaming. The noob, the newbie or the non-gamer might be barred entrance from playful inclusion into an affinity group. Those in the dominant affinity group might be only ones who have been made ‘literate’ in this semiotic domain which is complete with in-jokes, deep knowledge of in-game mechanics and the lore of games that came before. Another vicious cycle of exclusion is perpetuated by the derivative nature of the games industry, Anthropy (2012) argues, most games are made by white males making “copies of existing, successful games” (Anthropy, 2012, p. 5). Risk aversion among digital games publishers can create a situation where the barrier to entry into games and gaming can be simply too steep for some would-be gamers to climb because games are often created on a template of the hardcore, first-person shooter, for example, based on past market successes of such games. 

In this broader context, marginalized gamers, women, people of colour and members of the LGBTQ2S community, it can be argued, can’t always afford to step into the ritual space of the game unencumbered by the cares of ordinary life as they might be barred access to the games space by a dominant affinity group. Shaw (2014) conducted an exhaustive qualitative study of game players from marginalized groups that uncovered the issue of representation in gaming is understood in a complex and highly nuanced way by players. Shaw (2014) argues, games spaces are still “not inherently welcoming to all bodies” (Shaw, 2014, p. 187). The real-world and its consequences are present in the game space, as virtual worlds of play often mimic and replicate the hegemonic power structures of the society in which the game was created and experienced. There is real-world discrimination, symbolic and actual violence experienced by marginalized out-groups in the so-called consecrated space of the playground and game world.


It has been suggested that the game space is a hallowed place, a consequence-free zone of free and unfettered play. No (real) harm will come to you. Defeats and attacks will be symbolic in nature and leave no lasting scars. You’ll know you’ve entered this rarified magic circle when your mind opens to the unreality of the game world. You recognize you are in a protected space with rules you understand, and playfulness you embrace. These rules hem you in but also liberate you from the cares of the ordinary world. You release the stress of the real-world by puzzling over the miniaturized systems of the game space. You are not bound by social constraints and the cares of the real-world. That’s the promise of the magic circle. 

Consalvo (2009), Keogh (2018), and Montola et al. (2009) present an analytical teardown of the idea of the magic circle as a separate, static and stable state removed from the ordinary. At the same time, these theorists offer highly optimistic view of the creative capacity of the human mind. These game theorists provide a complex understanding of the porous, fleeting experience of the game space and the realities of modern life. (Montola, Stenros & Waern, 2009; Juul, 2010; Consalvo, 2009). One can engage in game play as a job or as an integrated, routine part of daily life that can stop and be restarted on a proverbial dime.

The reality is the magic circle or that ritualistic separation of the games world and the ordinary world is a luxury that many in modern technologically advanced and developing countries simply can’t afford. The ordinary world is full of imperatives to work, eat, sleep and to pay the bills. The grind of daily life is the space that the game player departs to enter the sacred game space. In this conception of the magic circle, a game player has the luxury time and space for this separation. This level of privileged leisure, the ability to separate from real-life concerns such as multiple jobs, childcare, food preparation and housekeeping, is not something that today’s would-be gamer is necessarily always able to enjoy. Gamer experiences as catalogued by Shaw (2014) and Anthropy (2012) illuminate that there are many systemic social and economic reasons preventing some would-be gamers from experiencing this liberation from ordinary life promised by the classical understanding of the magic circle. As Shaw (2014) identifies in her qualitative research of marginalized gamers, symbolic violence in game spaces, negative representations of certain gender, racial identities or sexual orientation can, at times, prevent the joyful immersive, consequence-free entry into the games space. 

Some people, like the terrorized, unwitting participants of the Vem Gråter pervasive game, are not able to read the game. Still others will be alienated by impenetrable game mechanisms and visual symbology of games. Others will be excluded from the semiotic domain because of their exclusion from a dominant affinity in-group who has designed and runs the game. At its core, in its very kernel, game designs represent a worldview, an idea. Agōn or competitive games can be zero-sum and scorched-earth. Games can be cooperative with non-zero sum or positive sum, where profits are shared and the win conditions are mutual success. Game designers or dungeon/game masters dictate the tone of the action and drive the agenda within the game. How a game is skinned, its art design and the choices around representation and diversity, the narrative and mechanics within the game, these elements can bear exclusionary or inclusionary messages that issue forth from the real world. Zimmerman (2009), Gee (2007), Squire (2011) and Anthropy (2012) discuss their respective road maps to a new game literacy that could give rise to new equitable play spaces for more people to engage in playful problem-solving and communication. 

The liminality of the games space and reality is porous and easily breached. Keogh (2018) gives games scholars an evolved phenomenology of the experience of games, arguing that the experience is complicated, tangled, and viewed through the constantly shifting lenses of game players, who are, in themselves, constantly in a state of constantly-evolving flux. Players are capable of multi-threaded, complex, shifting states of being, presentation and performance of identity, and imaginative meaning making. In this, gamers can rapid cycle between the game and reality, calling into question once again the classical understanding of the magic circle (Juul, 2010; Keogh, 2018; Montola, Stenros & Waern, 2009). Casual players start and stop games within split-seconds, allowing them to exit public transit, or pause mid-play to make sure their dinner isn’t burning. Hardcore gamers can, often joylessly, work to to find exploits within the system as a means to ‘break’ the game to gain some advantage in the real world.

Players of all stripes, commitment levels or the time to spend, might experience weak boundaries or weak attachment to the game experiences. Gamers always have a foot (hand, eye, finger, thumb) in two worlds. Players experience flow, pleasure and the immersion of games, even while fleeting and momentary. The magic circle as a separate, hallowed and consequence-free domain is simply not a reality for all of those who engage with games. As stated at the beginning of this paper, the real world has a habit of seeping into the games space in myriad ways, through the game design, the actions of the players themselves and the intersectional realities of the player. The consecrated game space or magic circle as conceived of by Huizinga (1955) and refined by Salen and Zimmerman (2004) is a structuralist, formalist tool that, while helpful in the early days of developing games scholarship, is a concept that no longer sufficiently describes the complex, creative, nuanced and dynamic relationship people have with games and gaming.


I embrace the arguments mounted by Consalvo (2009), Montola et al. (2009) and Keogh (2018) which suggest the border between the game and ordinary worlds are porous, permeable and ever-shifting. Originating from the 1930s scholarship of Huizinga, the magic circle provided an important analytical abstraction and jumping off point for scholars. However, our understanding of the affordances and allure of games in ordinary life has matured. The promise of the magic circle is an impossible mirage for those who lack the literacy to enjoy the game or who fall outside of an affinity group in which the game is designed and played. The magic circle is a concept situated in a classical understanding of games. Today, as when the magic circle was first conceived, space, literacy and privilege affords only some entry in this rarefied space. Even now, for only a privileged few, games are becoming increasingly co-mingled with reality and woven into the fabric of daily lives. Games, I’ve argued, are neither separate from the realities of our ordinary lives, nor are games sacred or even safe. However, if the Zimmerman (2009), Gee (2007), Squire (2011) and Anthropy (2012) vision for a new games literacy is realized, the number of people who are able to integrate gaming into their everyday lives will hopefully increase. 


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