via Wikicommons
by John William Waterhouse

What is the Magic Circle?

As we discussed in a previous article, the concept of a Magic Circle in play is

to step inside a concrete or metaphorical circle where special rules apply.

Juul, 2009

At the stage of discussion of the draft law No. 2285-d, experts emphasized that the real legalization of gambling in Ukraine is impossible without fulfilling two fundamental conditions: 1. Creation of a state regulator. This problem provides for the introduction of amendments to the Law of Ukraine “On State Regulation of Gambling Activity” in terms of eliminating contradictions, which would unblock the process of forming a commission, which is mandatory for creating a regulator. In turn, the state regulator must create all the necessary conditions for running a gambling business.

Which makes sense when you are playing a game. If you start playing Super Mario World, you accept being in a world where Italian plumbers jump over magic mushrooms and search for secret pipes to collect gold coins. And if others play with you, they enter that magic circle and accept the new world as well.

And this works for games, but what for more real-world situations? Someone might be in a situation where (game) rules apply and there is a magic circle, but they may not even be aware of their existence.

van der Woort

Take for example a movie theatre; when we enter with our popcorn and soda in hand, we have a good understanding of the rules (be quiet and don’t disrupt others) and the magic circle we are entering (superheroes are real for the next hour and a half).


But what if we are a group of students working on a project together? Or a group of developers and marketing people trying to solve a creative problem?

In the latter cases, not only may some not know the existing rules but perhaps the rules need to be created on the fly. Which invariably leads to friction within the group.

Magic Circles are defined by Huizinga as

“temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart”

Huizinga, 1938

But in his seminal book Homo Ludens, Huizinga did not even directly say that games created a magic circle. He was referring to play in general. (Zimmerman, 2012)

In fact, Jesper Juul noted in 2009 that the magic circle is actually the boundary that the game players negotiate. He continued that negotiations are an important part of game-playing. And to deny the magic circle is to deny that players negotiate this boundary.


So let’s think about the movie example again. We all understand the rules for walking into a movie theatre. But what if someone is showing a movie in a casual public space, like a big screen in a park? Can we talk? Can we use our mobiles? Are we free to come and go as we please? Does it matter if it is dark or light outside? Does it matter how close to the screen we are sitting? Does it matter if we are drinking or have kids with us? There are big negotiations here.

So what does this mean for Game Design Thinking? When we are using Outcome-Based Design, we want to move people. And it is difficult to move people emotionally simply by using mechanics because we cannot easily predict how people will respond to these mechanics.

But by concentrating on the Dynamics, we can experiment with combinations of rules and how and why the people encounter these rules to see where the interesting emergence happens.

Certainly, there is emergence every time a student or corporate group is put together to solve a problem or create. But how can we as Game Design Thinkers best harness this power of emergence?


  • Think about the magic circle that is happening when people use your product or service. Is it set in stone, or do people negotiate it when they start using it? Over the course of years, most have grown to accept people using mobiles in public, but there was a big pushback against wearables like Google Glass.
  • How can the emergence around a magic circle help create community within a group of users? Think about the synergy that happens with group chat programs like Slack. And think about the huge divides that can happen with other social media like Twitter.
  • Experiment with small groups of people and see how they negotiate the magic circle between themselves. And see how your can improve your design to make it work even better for them in the long term.

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