David Myers

David Myers is Professor of Mass Communication at Loyola University New Orleans and the author of The nature of computer games (2003) and Play redux (2010).

Circles tend to return

by David Myers

What’s wrong with Huizinga’s magic circle?

Commonly, two things are said to be wrong with it:  1. Stuff (mostly social and cultural stuff) comes from outside into that magic circle – so the magic is permeable and not so magical after all; 2. Stuff (mostly learned stuff vitally important to the games-in-education crowd) goes from inside out of that magic circle – so, again, the magic is permeable and not so magical after all.

If you believe such things, then a treatise on games and play entitled The magic circle: Principles of gaming & simulation might seem provocative.  However, in this treatise, Jan Klabbers argues that stuff does indeed come and go from the outside into and from the inside out of Huizinga’s magic circle, and, in that process, fails to diminish either the significance of the concept or the appropriateness of its elevation to book-cover status.

In his book (3rd and revised edition), Klabbers assigns a great deal of importance to Huizinga’s notions of play, referencing the Dutch historian’s perspective – particularly regarding the relationship between play and culture (i. e., play being primary) – early and often.  However, while Huizinga gets special referencing treatment (second only to Klabbers referencing his own work), Klabbers’s other, non-Huizinga referencings do not simultaneously suffer.  These other referencings remain extensive and voluminous, ranging from Fodor to Heidegger to Hume to Nash to Pinker to von Neumann to Vygotsky to Wittgenstein to the next in line.  Packing this referencing so tightly occasionally results in Klabbers’s text falling into a staccato-like scholarly jingoism – as, for instance, in this passage of terse, sentence-length riffs on gaming ideas as “meta-artifacts”:

Cole (1996) asserted that no word exists apart from its material instantiation. Vygotsky (1986) has pointed out that the sense of a word is aroused via the sum of all psychological events connected to it.  Wittgenstein (1961) argued that meanings arise only within the rules of the language game. McVee, Dunsmore, and Gavalek (op. cit.) stated that... (p. 70)

Nevertheless, regardless of any quibbles with Klabbers’s style and rhythm of presentation (some have called it ‘dense’ (Garcia-Carbonell & Rising, 2009); I would judge it more rightfully ‘studied’), the substance and reason of this presentation are clearly rich enough to consider in depth.

The major theme of The magic circle – and of magic circle arguments more generally (and play arguments more broadly) – is how to conceptualize, interpret, and understand the self-reflexive nature of games and play.  Klabbers’s approach is couched and clouded – sometimes overwhelmingly so – within the language, style, and assumptions of systems theory and organizational management.  But this conceptual wardrobe might be as easily discarded as adorned without altering the heart of the matter: How do games structure the sort of play that structures games?

Klabbers addresses this matter early while turning a critical eye towards those analyzing games and play from an “observer” perspective (e. g., Aarseth (1997) and Sutton-Smith (2001), among others).

...for the study of games and simulations, we need to be aware of, and accept a dual position.  We should study games both from the position of the insiders, who play the game, and of the outsiders, who observe the game being played, and comment on it. (p. 43)

Klabbers’s analytical inclination is always, whether answering questions of insiders or outsiders, to answer questions with encyclopedic specificity, augmented by solid line drawings and dotted line drawings and bulleted definitions and well defined categories of this and that and the other.  The mechanics and craft of this approach may, from time to time, impress, but it is the view from a distance that ultimately defines his text’s value.  And this view is unerringly pointed towards the formal precipice of self-reflexivity.

I was first introduced (and attracted) to the heart of Klabbers’s matter – I remember this well – through his emphasis of “rigid-rule” and “free-form” games (circa Klabbers (1996)).

“Rigid-rule” games, I learned, are those games with fixed structures and rules, imposed upon their players from outside game play.  “Free-form” games are those in which players, as members of a social system (Klabbers defines all games as social systems – and simulations as a subset of games), construct their own rules during play.  These latter players, bootstrapping themselves and their games into existence, are then more self-reflexive than the former.

Prior to my introduction to these paired concepts, of course, Klabbers had already done and written much as a long-time and very active participant in the web of simulation and gaming scholarly enterprises and organizations (i. e., the SAGAs) that then and now hold Simulation & Gaming (Sage) as their flagship journal.  Much of this early activity took place prior to World of Warcraft and the rest of what has now become largely (for better or worse) a digital game studies field.  Nevertheless, in The magic circle, Klabbers finds digitally enhanced games and play – he mentions World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto, among others, as buttressing examples – wholly relevant to his ongoing analysis.  And, indeed, if that analysis can be applied as smoothly and equally to a discussion of quarks and dark matter as to a discussion of games and simulations (Klabbers attempts this in his Chapter 3: Interactive Learning), then stretching that analysis to include digital games and simulations seems not so much a stretch at all.

Creating and emphasizing play-related dichotomies similar to that of rigid-rule and free-form games is the prevailing leitmotif and primary insight of Klabbers’s work.  Klabbers creates these dichotomies repeatedly.  In addition to rigid-rule and free-form games, he holds forth on player and observer perspectives; open and closed systems; design-in-the-large and design-in-the-small; macro-cycles and micro-cycles; explicit and tacit knowledge; local and enculturated knowledge; nominalist and realist science; analytical and design science; organizational and organized complexity; and on and on.

Even such a seemingly simple declarative as “games are social systems” has its own dichotomous caveat, for, according to Klabbers, games are simultaneously social systems and “images or models of social systems” (p.100).

The essence of a social system as an open system is the necessity to invoke an outside, or an environment, in order to understand what takes place in the inside of the system. (p. 109)

“To invoke ...in order to understand” is both to model and, more tellingly, to represent. Somehow, what is outside games and play must be represented by what is inside, while, simultaneously and paradoxically, in order to retain the magic circle notion, what is inside games and play must be isolated and protected and encircled from what is outside.  This mysterious circumstance of the outside being referenced by the inside (that only becomes the inside by being different from the outside) is acknowledged often, explained seldom.

Many current play theorists, for instance, simply throw up their arms.  The magic circle cannot do such a mysterious and illogical thing, they say; therefore, the magic circle does not do it.  The inside and the outside of this magic circle are artificial constructs; that circle is permeable and not so magical after all.

Others – a minority nowadays – say that this mysterious circumstance is explicable only insofar as we acknowledge and accept the inexplicability of play.  This paradoxical inexplicability is then most valuable – and, importantly, most functional – precisely because what is inside is similar to what is outside without reference to what is outside.  It is therein similar, but different:  topsy-turvy.  And, in this topsy-turviness lies the magic.

Klabbers takes a position somewhere between these two – not illogical, he believes, but “dialogical” (p. 106). The magic circle is not permeable but “more or less semi-permeable, depending on who are in charge of boundary control” (p. 346). Some might call this wishy-washy (I might – unless it turns out to be true), but, for Klabbers, games and play and magic circles retain some portion of their magical and mysterious ability to be different from those things they are not.  And, for Klabbers, this magical portion can be made explicable, as he would demonstrate in meticulous fashion, through dissection and analysis and diagram and the generous application of meta-concepts:  meta-artifacts, meta-games, and meta-disciplines, collected and displayed inside a new game science.

...interdisciplinary research is too limited to capture the broad scope of game science. Game design and use implies dealing with multiple realities. They can only be fruitfully addressed from a meta-scientific perspective. (p. 180)

In his proposal for this new game science, Klabbers work is reminiscent of thematically similar, equally admirable, and also play-related (if only distantly) attempts by others – e. g., Mihail Czikszentmihalyi’s pursuit of flow experiences, Peter Bøgh Andersen’s study of computer semiotics – to construct a formal and objective description of human subjective experience.

However, once engaged, Klabbers’s stab at a meta-science seems, like the camel and its nose, incapable of taking just a sniff.  If a meta-approach is necessary to grok game science, then is not a meta-meta-approach equally necessary to grok the meta-approach?  And so on.  An infinitely receding meta-ness effectively and rightfully focuses our attention on the self-reflexiveness of game play.  But there is then little room left for anything other than the meta-camel under the meta-tent.

Inspected closely, Klabbers’s argument offers two alternatives to the meta-deluge.  The first alternative is pragmatics:  Game science is a practical affair, says Klabbers, involving clients and policy-makers and “target audiences,” wherein “usability is the key” (p. 201).  To successfully complete the game design project with positive evaluations from all concerned is then at least partially sufficient – and necessary – to justify whatever theoretical meta-ness has had to be applied.  Klabbers, in fact, devotes the final third of his book (a significant portion) to “system dynamics” and detailed case-studies of the implementation of “multi-actor simulations” modeling health and human resource management contexts (e. g., DENTIST and PERFORM).  However, these case-studies, as examples of Klabbers’s game science put to practical use, seem largely apart from his earlier and more enlightening theoretical discussions and, significantly, also largely apart from his earlier references to more contemporary digital games and game studies.

The second alternative is found in Klabbers’s sporadic reference to “rules of nature” (p. 62) or, sometimes, “laws of nature” (p. 52), or, elsewhere, “meta-rules” (p. 129):  invariant rules that function during the otherwise local and social construction of game rules (e. g., in free-form games) to enforce a sort of autopoietic meta-quality control.  Unlike his usability comments and detailed case-studies, this offering seems much more integral and relevant to current criticism of the magical part of Huizinga’s magic circle: perhaps the magic is built into the game player.

At the end of Klabbers’s work, I am left less intrigued by his humanitarian appeal to ethical game play than by his still dangling, tantalizingly suggestive comments regarding these invariant rules of the meta – particularly insofar as these invariants might be conceived as laws of biology and laws of cognition and laws of referencing (and, therein, laws of meta-referencing).  But, while this latter alternative to meta-obfuscation is conceptually noted, it is – in contrast to Klabbers prioritizing the pragmatics of game design – left languishing.

Klabbers rather seems to wish to meta-beat us into the meta-ground, to convince us that his cascading waves of dichotomies are resolved best by introducing still another, the next in line, until finally, somewhere deep within the recursive self-reflections of the mysterious and magical, we stumble upon an understanding of all. Unfortunately, insofar as each of Klabbers’s dichotomies carries within it the same meta-inexplicabilities as those before and after, being unable to explain any one is being equally unable to explain all, regardless of the technical elegance and pragmatic usefulness of their carefully arranged multiplicities.


Aarseth, E. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on ergodic literature. London: John Hopkins University Press.

Garcia-Carbonell, A. & Rising, B. (2009).  Book review of The magic circle: Principles of Gaming and Simulation.  Simulation & Gaming, 40(1), 147-149.

Klabbers, J. H. G. (2009). The magic circle:  Principles of gaming and simulation (3rd edition). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Klabbers, J. H. G. (1996). Problem framing through gaming: Learning to manage complexity, uncertainty, and value adjustment. Simulation & Gaming, 27(1), 74-92.

Sutton-Smith, B. (2001). The ambiguity of play. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

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