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Xdv.NoWorkAllPlayr1.1 - 04 Sep 2007 - 12:16 - TWikiGuesttopic end

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No Work, all Play: Social Values and the ‘Magic Circle’

Lauteren, Georg

full paper as .pdf


In today’s western society, play and games are commonly seen in antagonism to work and the seriousness of daily life - they are widely regarded as to be free of purpose, productivity and material interest. In social sciences this perception manifests itself most clearly in Huizinga’s notion of games taking place in a ‘magic circle’, a social construct setting games apart from real life through clear and unambiguous spatial and temporal borders.

The concept has been elaborated on by classic authors of the field - among them Roger Caillois, who stresses that the magic circle’s importance in protecting players from real-life consequences of a playing a game. It has been further adapted to the field of digital games in numerous papers, stressing its usefulness for our particular subject of investigation – the computer game.

Recent phenomena have however lead reasearchers to cautiously question the hermetic nature of the magic circle’s boundaries: Pervasive and Alternate-Reality Games reach out across channels of our real life communication, MMOGs are often closely tied to real world economies and the fields of sports and gambling have turned into multi-billion-dollar industries over the past decades.

By using historical sources and methods of cultural sociology this paper examines the border regions of the ‘magic circle’: How games are and have been linked to the daily life of gamers through practical use and through structural similarities to the social reality they are supposed to be separated from. Consulting sources such as ‘gaming almanacs’ from the 18th and 19th century we can trace the impact of industrial society and the corresponding shifts of social values on prevailing gaming practices, thereby disciplining and structuring the use of games, transforming their rules and leading to the disappearance of certain games alltogether.

By investigating these shifts in cultural values and their strategies towards games – prohibiting, functionalising, didacticising and aestheticising their practices - it becomes evident that Huizinga’s understanding of games itself can be contextualised and seen as a child of its time: Not only by distancing games from daily life through the proclamation of a ‘magic circle’, but also by excluding certain gaming practices such as gambling from his study does Huizinga’s perspective on games coincide with the cultural values of his period.

Observing these shifts in gaming practices over time bears immediate relevance to the field of computer game studies: It leads us to asume that the localisation of games in social reality is not predetermined by a perpetual and inherent nature of games themselves, but rather in constant flux, strongly connected to the reality of social norms and the enforcement of cultural values. The immense popularity of gaming phenomena on the fringe of classical game definitions – e.g. The Sims, World of Warcraft, Second Life, online gambling or even the mimikry aspect of myspace - can be seen not as exceptions to the hermetic nature of games but as symptoms of the changing role of games in an increasingly ludic society.

presented at the Game in' Action Conference, June 13, 2007, Göteborg University, Sweden

and apologies for my typo in the initial wittgenstein quote - but wittgenstein spoke lousy english anyway...

-- GlOw - 04 Sep 2007
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