What is the Magic Circle?

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This article was originally published at UniversityXP and is re-published in Ludogogy by permission of the author.

We may play games for various reasons. One of the reasons why we play games is often to escape. We escape to a faraway place that is as different and distinct from the place that we call reality. That type of escape is into the “magic circle” of games.  The magic circle is a place where different rules that govern our existence, actions, and consequences apply.

But what is this “magic circle?” Where does it exist? Are players always in the magic circle? What do they do within the circle? How do players create meaning inside the magic circle? Most importantly: how can we use the magic circle in games-based learning?

This article will answer the question “What is the magic circle?” In addition, it’ll address the magic circle as the “separate and special place” in gaming. Characteristics and locations of the magic circle will be discussed as well as how players cross into the magic circle. Players’ rules and roles within the circle as well as their return to “reality” are covered in this article. Finally, this article closes on using the magic circle in games-based learning as well as some criticisms around its use.

What is the Magic Circle?

So what is the “magic circle” really? The idea and concept of the magic circle is a relatively straight forward and simple idea. The “Magic Circle” is when and where games are being played and new meaning is generated.

The magic circle is the place that we enter when we begin playing games. It’s a unique space. Sometimes it’s cooperative, competitive, or both. Sometimes there are “correct” ways to play in the magic circle. Other times the magic circle exists only to provide a boundary between the real and imagined worlds.

The most important thing to consider with games in the magic circle is that actions within the circle create a different kind of meaning for players. Game actions taken in the magic circle have a different meaning and impact inside the game. In games our health become quantified into “hit points” (HP). In games, our characters progress up skill trees. In games, we represent battles via avatars on a game board.

These new meanings are created. They are created by players, with players, and within the game. They are created because game rules dictate what we can and cannot do as well as what is supported and endorsed by other players.

This means that playing within the magic circle creates a temporary and provisional dimension. We create a time and place where the “world’s rules” are now the “game’s rules.”

The Magic Circle of Play visualised as a henge

“A separate and special place”

When we enter the magic circle we undoubtedly enter a separate, special, and magical place. For gamers this could be gathering around a table with friends; online with their guild; or even on the baseball diamond or football field.

That’s because the magic circle represents this boundary. It’s the idea that this location becomes a dimension in space and time where the imagined becomes real and where new rules apply for new circumstances. Magic circles have rules. Interestingly, these rules are also not limited to only games. The magic circle can be observed in court houses, religious spaces, and even special events like weddings. In these places we’re called to act and perform differently according to a new set of rules.

In games we see the magic circle as a structure of formalized rules, norms, and excepted behaviors. We accept the magic circle of games as being completely separate from real life. In the magic circle we can also see the clear differences between what is a part of the game and what is not part of it. Sports fields have boundaries. Tables have edges. Our computer screens and VR headsets only extend so far.

Inside the magic circle we become a different person, acting a different role, with others in the same context. In the magic circle real-world expectations and consequences may no longer have meaning. The magic circle IS magic. Like dreams, games are often a place where we can actualize our fantasies.

Characteristics of the Magic Circle

The magic circle is sometimes seen as a “physical space.” It’s a place where it’s supposed to be easy to tell if someone is playing a game and when they aren’t. However, it’s often not that simple. That’s because the magic circle can be elastic. It can stretch to encompass players within in its borders. Most importantly: the magic circle is transformative. Entering it turns players into… something else.

Players are changed and augmented due to the magic circle’s transformative nature. Players bring meaning and experience with them whenever they leave. That experience is something transformative and unique to each player because they’ve all experienced the same game environment from their own personal perspective.  Playing and being in the magic circle means that players are in the here and now.

That makes the magic circle transformative and immediate. We only “play” games when we’ve made the decision to enter the circle.  As such, we need to be present. We need to be “there” in order to really be playing. This sense of innate game connection and infatuation is often referred to as the flow state.

Games can be incredibly complicated. But, when we understand them; when we play with the; and when we fulfilled by them; they become infinitely more simple than the world around us. In order for us to reach this level of enlightenment we need also need to suspend our own level of disbelief. The magic circle requires us to think differently about how the game operates and what we accept as self-evident. This means that  game worlds can be as expansive as any movie, film, comic, or television show.

However, what creates great immersion for players is the level of fidelity, abstraction, and meaning that we gain from games by being entranced by its magic circle. That level of narrative connection makes the game so enchanting to us.

But there is a disconnect whenever that narrative connection is broken. Whenever something doesn’t make sense – it pushes us a little bit further outside of the magic circle. The reality of the world created around us begins to crumble. As a result, we begin to lift our suspension of disbelief.

Locations of the Magic Circle

The magic circle is something that most easily understood when its location based. When we think about modern sports as games we think about the playing surface. We think about the court, the field, the baseball diamond, and the pitch. We think about the place where the game is “played.” That location represents a conceptual boundary where there is a “game” and where there isn’t.

However, we can extend that boundary and definition a little further.  Can we also include the arena where the sport is being played? How about the card table where we play poker against friends? Following this, we could assume that there are other locations that include “playful activity” where other social norms, rules, and expectations are suspended. A common location where this happens is the public playground.

Going further we can view the magic circle as something that transcends a physical space and one that occupies more of a player mindset. The professional athlete on the basketball court is in a magic circle. The same can be said for a kid jumping in puddles on a rainy street. Both are playing. But the professional player has a physical space that defines the boundaries of the circle. Whereas the kid only has their imagination to separate the actual world from the world of play.

We can go even one step further with digital games, augmented reality, and virtual reality. In these domains we only need our devices and our attention to enter the magic circle. Our screen become the windows from which we can view far away and imaginary worlds. Our headsets become glasses which we can observe something spectacular and unimaginable. Similarly, augmented reality combines and blurs the boundaries between what we see, feel, and perceive in the physical world from what we can create in the digital one.

Crossing the Boundary

It’s definitely easier to think about the magic circle as a physical boundary. It’s faster and more convenient to think “when I pick up my device I am playing.” Or when I step onto the field I become the quarterback. But the magic circle doesn’t even need that level of cognition to cross it.

Player enter the magic circle when they make the conscious decision to play. Other players can choose to join them and enter the magic circle as well. But they also need to make the same conscious and active choice.

It’s difficult to think that we can enter the magic circle so easily. Especially when we examine games as a composite of formal game structures with rules, loops, objectives, and goals. However, crossing the boundary still requires the same active and conscious choice to each player: to play.

This quick decision making makes it so that the boundary between those not playing and those who are playing very porous and transferrable. Players can easily slip into and out of character during role-playing games. Though, care needs to be taken as players need consistent support within the circle. Especially if they are engaging in simulations, role-plays, or other applications of games-based learning.

This is evident in learning games where traversing the boundary inside and outside of the circle can compromise learning goals and outcomes for students and players alike. Simulations exist in order to re-create the scenarios that students will encounter outside the circle. Compromising the simulation doesn’t help students achieve learning outcomes the instructor has created for them.

Rules in the Magic Circle

The magic circle includes this boundary that players cross over when they decide to play. But what are the rules of the magic circle? How do players know what they are and how do they adhere to them?

The rules of the magic circle vary from game to game and from activity to activity. But these rules are specific by ordering players into different roles; the different steps to take; and a timetable when those steps should be taken.  They can be as generic as a physical boundary like a soccer pitch or they can be more social based such as staying in character for a role-playing game.

Different types of games also have different types of rules for players in the magic circle. More defined games like sports have clear rules, boundaries, and structures for dictating what players can do and where and when they can do it. Whereas other, idiomatic games can be more subjective with their rules. Role-playing games often require players to define their own relationships and connections with other players.  Because of this, players often create their own societal norms and expectations within the game and rules within their own specific and unique magic circle.

Of course, these rules are often one of the most defining characteristics of games. The rules are in place in order to structure the activity so that play can occur between players and the environment. In some sense, the rules make up the experience of the game. However, players can also look at the rules and make the first conscious choice of game play: deciding to play. By deciding to enter the magic circle, players have made that instinctual choice. They have indicated their interest and their adherence to the rule set. They have decided to play.

These rules are only one form of the formal structures that make up games. But players, designers, and instructors alike view them as one of the founding characteristics’ that create the game experience. So much so, that rules that are not completely precise and comprehensive are often thought of as “broken games.”

Whereas a complete rule set is often necessary for the most ardent and dedicated gamer; sometimes a simple rule set that allow for interpretation and adaptation provide some malleability with the player experience. We see this most frequently in “house rules” for games that take into account our own preferences and experiences.

A fanciful illustration of the Magic Circle

Roles in the Magic Circle

Rules create the structure for which players may choose to enter and adhered to in their decision to play the game. However, their roles within the game affect what they do and how they act within the circle.

Role-playing games make this evident because the decision to play and adhere to the rules within the game indicate that participants are willing to suspend disbelief. They are willing to become characters other than themselves. Other games don’t require as much dedication or connection to the game. Outside the game your are just… you. But inside the game you can be a warrior, mage, bard, or space marine.

Often these roles provide their own sets of rules and expectations for players to fulfill in relation to their peers. Players can inform other players of this; but sometimes the roles themselves provide enough contextual information for others to determine the actions they should take to interact with the game world.

Those actions could include competition against one another; cooperation with the group; or even actions against the game environment itself.  No matter what roles players take on within the game – and within the circle – they must know that the rules that previously bound them outside the circle no longer apply. Once players choose a role they are further embedded within the game.

Players in the Magic Circle

Players are the main entities in the magic circle. The game doesn’t exist for them until they’ve decided to play it. Meaning that players who enter the magic circle have agreed to the special rules and conventions of being present in it.  They understand that they are held to different social standards for playing the game.

This social understanding requires players to evaluate what it takes to keep playing the game with other players in the circle. This could make it challenging for some players to be introduced to and join the game. Perhaps players on the outside don’t exactly look like the players in the game. Perhaps they don’t look interested. Perhaps they don’t even look like players.

These pre-conceived notions can affect players’ abilities and desires to invite others outside of the game to join them inside the game. Likewise it also affects players on the outside who want to play – but may not believe that they can uphold or support the necessary expectations of play.

Because of this, games can be considered open forms of invitation for others to play; but closed system of operation. Once players cross the boundary of the magic circle in game play, they have made the conscious choice to adhere and follow the rules of the game.

Transition into the Magic Circle

Crossing into the magic circle as a player is a transition more than a journey. As a player makes the transition into the game and into the circle they agree to the rules of the game. The player agrees to follow the social conventions, expectations, and structures given and supported by the game.

That transition into the circle indicates that “play” has begun for that player. It’s a boundary that doesn’t always have a very defining line. It’s a space where players can determine that they want to play by simply joining.

This could include stepping out onto the baseball diamond; walking onto stage; or taking a seat at the table.  The magic circle becomes a boundary that is crossed once that player takes that decisive action.

However, this is skewed with digital games. How do players playing on their consoles, computers, laptops, and handheld devices agree to play? How do we know as designers once they’ve made the decision to transition into the magic circle? Some of it could be physical: once we pickup the device or start the game. Some of it could be aesthetic. Once players dim the lights or close the door. Designers try to make the game as experiential as possible by clearly setting boundaries for when you are in the game and when you are not. Designers try to make beginning in the game as appealing as possible.

From a player perspective that includes seeing the experience that other people are having.  It’s part of the reason why streaming sites such as Twitch.tv make it so appealing to watch other people play. We can see what they’re doing. We can see that they’re having fun. We want to have fun with them.

However, sometimes we are not in a position to cross that boundary. So, instead we watch and observe. That boundary might be frightening and challenging for us to negotiate. We might feel self-conscious; nervous; or anxious about playing. So by watching someone else stream we have one foot in the world of the game and one foot on the outside. Instead of becoming willing participants; we become observers and voyeurs. We don’t have to play the role of ourselves, and we don’t have to play the role of the gamer.

But by choosing to jump into the magic circle and by choosing to fully embrace play we can become more. We become psychologically more part of the game and the world that it’s created.  We become active participants of the lived experience of playing the game as designed with others who have also agreed to step inside with us.

We create a rhythm when we make the full transition into the magic circle and then out again.  That rhythm creates expectations for other player behaviors, interactions, focus, and strategies. It’s here on the boundary where the meta-game emerges and players begin to take real world actions that have an in-game impact (and vice versa).

This can come from the poker player who goes on tilt against someone who’s wronged them outside the casino. This could be the player who rage quits after being talked down to. This could also be amateur chess players who live with and compete against each other taking actions not based on strategy – but based on experiences of the opponents themselves. This meta-game that emerges becomes a doorway for how the game has stretched beyond the bounds of the magic circle and defined a way that the game interacts with our real lives.

Magic Circle for Learning

The magic circle has been discussed as the boundary where the players make the explicit choice to “play” and become part of the game. Role-playing games have a distinct magic circle where players take on different characters and play different roles throughout the game. This makes RPG’s an excellent platform and implementation of games-based learning for experiential learning.

An instructor using RPG’s for games-based learning could have students assigned to different roles within a specific class, course, or program. Here, students “play the part” and the different roles and responsibilities and characters of their choice. They can use this approach as an opportunity to learn within the circle – and a way for them to comfortably make mistakes within the learning environment.

This application of the magic circle for games-based learning has been problematic in the past as it can sometimes be difficult to apply learning achieved in games to applications outside of them. Role-playing games have mitigated this by allowing the instructor to more closely define the roles and responsibilities of players within the game.

In addition, the instructor should take time to review, discuss, and debrief the activities within the game; the role-play; and the world built within it as an opportunity to develop and refine the experiences of players. Such activities aid in the comprehension and meaning making of players throughout the game.

Additional intricacies of the games’ world, expectations, mechanics, and dynamics can further be discussed in the debrief as ways to emphasize collective understanding of the framework of the world. Through this format, the instructor can help students achieve both understanding and application of skills and competencies learned in the game to applications outside of the magic circle.

Criticisms of the Magic Circle

There have been some criticisms of the magic circle despite the meaning that players can create by crossing it. Digital games make it easier than ever for players to enter the magic circle and play a game. It’s often as easy as picking up your phone. We can enter and exit the circle at will; quickly; and without any specific or measurable change

Others have indicated that the magic circle has more to do with the formal elements and rules of games rather than the sociological  rules and agreements we make when playing. This means that rules dictate more than anything else when we are in the circle and when we’re not. If the rules of a game closely mimic the rules of everyday life then is there really a need to recognize the magic circle as a specific and separate place?

Most infamously, the magic circle has been included in debates about violent games and the effects on real world participants. However, the creation of the magic circle is one where players are insulated and separated from the actions and impact of their everyday world. As such, the magic circle forms this buffer that seperates what is part of the game for the player and what is not.


This article provided an answer to the question “What is the magic circle?” In addition, it addressed the magic circle as a “separate and special place” in gaming. Characteristics and locations of the magic circle were discussed as well as how players cross into the magic circle. Players’ rules and roles within the circle as well as their return to “reality” were covered in this article. Finally, the article closed on using the magic circle in games-based learning as well as some criticisms around its use.

This article was about the magic circle in games-based learning.  To learn more about gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

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References and further reading:

Craymond. (2017, March 05). The Golden Rule and the Magic Circle. Retrieved July 08, 2020, from https://activelearningps.com/2017/02/15/the-golden-rule-and-the-magic-circle/

Crichton, J. A. (2019). The Magic Circle: Gaming and Postmodernity. Jung Journal, 13(4), 35-52. https://sci-hub.st/https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19342039.2019.1676143

dos Santos Petry, A. (2013). The concept of magic circle: a critical reading. Obra digital: revista de comunicación, (5), 36-57. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/39144777.pdf

Eng, D. (2017) GAME ON! An interpretative phenomenological analysis of games-based learning in an undergraduate liberal arts environment. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest. (10264891) https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED576258

Eng, D. (2019, April 30). Gamified Learning Outcomes. Retrieved July 6, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/4/30/gamified-learning-outcomes

Eng, D. (2019, August 06). Meaningful Choices. Retrieved July 6, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/8/6/meaningful-choices

Eng, D. (2019, August 13). Narratives, Toys, Puzzles, Games. Retrieved July 6, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/8/13/narratives-toys-puzzles-games

Eng, D. (2019, December 03). Core Loops. Retrieved July 6, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/12/3/core-loops

Eng, D. (2019, October 01). Flow State. Retrieved July 6, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/10/1/flow-state

Eng, D. (2019, October 08). Game Dynamics. Retrieved July 7, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/10/8/game-dynamics

Eng, D. (2019, October 15). Make More Mistakes. Retrieved July 6, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/10/15/make-more-mistakes

Eng, D. (2019, September 10). The Player Experience. Retrieved July 6, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/9/10/the-player-experience

Eng, D. (2019, September 26). Game Theme. Retrieved July 6, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/9/26/game-theme

Eng, D. (2020, February 06). Game Mechanics. Retrieved July 7, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/2/6/game-mechanics

Eng, D. (2020, January 24). Decisions for Us. Retrieved July 6, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/1/24/decisions-for-us

Eng, D. (2020, June 18). What is player behavior? Retrieved July 6, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/6/18/what-is-player-behavior

Eng, D. (2020, March 26). What is Games-Based Learning? Retrieved July 6, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/3/26/what-is-games-based-learning

Eng, D. (2020, May 14). What is a simulation? Retrieved July 7, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/5/14/what-is-a-simulation

Juul, J. (2008). The magic circle and the puzzle piece. https://www.jesperjuul.net/text/magiccirclepuzzlepiece.pdf

Klabbers, J. H. (2020). The Magic Circle: Principles of Gaming and Simulation: KMPC Management & Policy Consultancy. Retrieved July 08, 2020, from http://www.kmpc.nl/publications/

Level I: The Magic Circle – Gamification PD. (n.d.). Retrieved July 08, 2020, from https://sites.google.com/a/g.horrycountyschools.net/gamification-pd/home/world-2-game-inspired-design/the-magic-circle

Linser, R., Lindstad, N. R., & Vold, T. (2008, June). The magic circle-game design principles and online role-play simulations. In EdMedia+ Innovate Learning (pp. 5290-5297). Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). http://www.simplay.net/papers/MagicCircle-Linser-Lindstad-Vold08.pdf

Magic Circle. (n.d.). Retrieved July 08, 2020, from https://game-studies.fandom.com/wiki/Magic_Circle

Stenros, J. (2014). In Defence of a Magic Circle: The Social, Mental and Cultural Boundaries of Play. Retrieved July 08, 2020, from http://todigra.org/index.php/todigra/article/view/10/26

Vader, V. (2012, October 23). Huizinga’s magic circle. Retrieved July 08, 2020, from http://gamingconceptz.blogspot.com/2012/10/huizingas-magic-circle.html

Zimmerman, E. (2012, February 7). Jerked Around by the Magic Circle – Clearing the Air Ten Years Later. Retrieved July 08, 2020, from https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/135063/jerked_around_by_the_magic_circle_.php

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Educator / Designer / Researcher at Dave Eng Design
Dr. Dave Eng is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who focuses on games, theory, and technology.

Dave studies applied games and teaches others how to use games for education and learning. Dave serves as a faculty member at New York University’s School of Professional Studies (https://www.sps.nyu.edu/professional-pathways/faculty/20495-dave-eng.html).

Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points (https://www.buzzsprout.com/855127) and consults at University XP (https://www.universityxp.com/community) on games-based learning. He also leads the Games-Based Learning Alliance: a community of individuals who use games for teaching, training, learning, and development.

Dave is a founder of Banditos Gaming (https://www.banditosgaming.com/): a registered 501(c)(3) social and educational non-profit organization that promotes play, community development, and learning through games. His interests include learning theory, technology, and games.

Find out more at www.davengdesign.com

Fun Fact: He has been seasick in every time zone.
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