You might have heard the expression before that we all wear many masks. Across our lifetimes, we represent the same body, but the person we are tends to change. It’s common enough for us to change across a period of ten years, but it isn’t too extraordinary for us to be several different people across the course of a single day even.
I, for one, am hardly the same person with my parents that I am with my friends. Certain jokes of mine wouldn’t go over well with my more socially conservative parents, and it isn’t likely they would understand the context of my actions. Of course, even among my friends I am split. My behavior varies greatly depending on the friends I am with, as well as depending on the situation we find ourselves in. A big social occasion brings out a different side of me than a Friday night spent playing Overwatch.
This kind of duality might sound like a form of psychosis at best, or, at worst, a kind of deliberate deception of those closest to me. But none of this means that I’m a liar or that I’m mentally unstable. In fact, I would assert that it’s all very normal, and that each of us takes on different identities constantly. And I would argue that games themselves are a great example of this.
Playing a game requires a certain mindset. We often speak of games as separate from the outside world; the “real world”. The events of any game and our actions taken in the play of it are typically understood as having little to no effect outside of the game; play exists in its own sphere of reality.
Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman describe this separate sphere as a sort of “magic circle” that games create. Within the boundaries of this circle, the game finds meaning and existence. Outside, it’s all relatively meaningless. (Let me just say that I am very thankful that my Overwatch stats do not determine my career path.)
But the magic circle doesn’t just outline the boundaries of the game. Consider the following example of how the magic circle works from Salen and Zimmerman:
“Consider a group of kids in a suburban front yard, casually talking and hanging out. They decide to play a game of Hide-and-Seek. One of the kids takes a rock and plants it in the middle of [the] yard to represent home base. The group huddles around it, playing ‘eenie-meenie-miney-moe’ to pick the first person to be ‘it’; then they scatter and hide as ‘it’ covers his eyes and starts to count to twenty.” (Salen and Zimmerman 96)
The game of “Hide-and-Seek” is a great example of a game that has meaning exclusively within its own sphere of play. Yet this example also demonstrates another important quality of the magic circle that games exist in; how the magic circle changes the meaning of “real world” objects within it. In the case of our example, think of the rock. In the real world, the rock is just a rock; it’s a hardened clump of stone and mineral that makes up a small bit of the earth, and it’s something that we think very little of. In the context of this game of Hide-and-Seek however, the rock represents home base. It becomes one of the most important features of the game, and even though this rock means very little in reality, it will be the center of attention for the players of the game.
These aspects of the magic circle are very important for understanding how games interact with the real world and how we interact with them in regards to this relationship. But we haven’t addressed everything. Salen and Zimmerman bring up another important detail to consider about the game reality. That is, “what the magic circle represents from the player’s point of view.” (97)
In approaching a game, there are certain allowances we make in the playing of it. I’ll play poker constrained by these 52 cards. This rock can represent home base. Whatever the intention or goal of the game, we submit to particular rules in the playing of it; rules that sometimes might even seem to run contrary that game’s goal or intention.
In this particular chapter of Rules of Play, Salen and Zimmerman make reference to an idea of Bernard Suits, taken from his book Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia. They reference Suits in order to reference a part from his definition of games.
“One of the unique components of Suits’ definition is that he sees games as inherently ineffecient. He uses the example of a boxer to explain this concept. If the goal of a boxing match is to make the other fighter stay down for a count of 10, the easiest way to accomplish this would be to take a gun and shoot the other boxer in the head. This, of course, is not the way that the game of boxing is played.” (97)
The example of boxing is a good one, but I might phrase it a little differently. For one, one of the main reasons for not simply shooting the other boxer is that it’s illegal, game or no. So let’s try to change this example; after all, there are ways to put someone down that aren’t illegal. For example, why not choke them out? Or throw elbows and kicks? Any of these things might help greatly in knocking your opponent out and they can be used without fear of illegal activity. So why not use them?
It would seem that the only reason for not doing so is that the game of boxing says not to. The rules strictly forbid these things, and they tell us to use certain punches instead, all while wearing regulated equipment and within the context of a standardized arena. And the player is generally OK with these things. And this is all because of something called the lusory attitude.
A definition, as quoted by Salen and Zimmerman:
“Suits calls this state of mind the lusory attitude, a term we introduced under his definition of a game. The lusory attitude allows players to ‘adopt rules which require one to employ worse rather than better means for reaching an end.'” (Suits as qtd. in 97)
The lusory attitude is perhaps one of the more important concepts to grasp when seeking to understand how we approach games. It defines a crucial component of how we create the game environment and how the game even gets players to participate in the first place. Salen and Zimmerman further build upon the idea by saying that the lusory attitude includes the understanding that, to play a game, “a group of players accepts the limitations of the rules because of the pleasure a game can afford.” (99) A heavily regulated sport like boxing is accepted despite the hassle of these regulations, mainly because of the entertainment it offers its players and spectators.
The reasons for why we subject ourselves to the specific rules of each game likely vary depending on the example. The reasoning behind the rules of boxing, after all, is much different from something like Dungeons and Dragons. One’s a highly competitive sport and the other is an extremely in-depth fantasy world simulator. What’s important to recognize, however, is that this compromise is something inherent to all games.
In approaching a game, there are certain allowances we make in regards to reality and fiction. For the sake of fun or a challenge, we’re willing to sit aside the ways of the real world for a bit. Within the context of the game, real-world objects take on new identities and we subject ourselves to the rules of fictional objects and systems. All of this is simply a part of playing a game, of entering the magic circle that constitutes the boundaries of its imaginary realm.
Of course, not all games are equal on this front. A successful game sets up a strong contract with its players; it establishes a certain level of trust in its action, presenting clear rules and a system that players can willing subject themselves to. There a number of reasons for why this might be so. I, for one, do not play Monopoly because I can’t subject myself to the time commitment it requires and because I don’t find its proposed method of contest entertaining. A lot of it is dependent on personal preference, but good games typically share the qualities of being easily understood, presenting a challenging (but winnable) system, and allowing for the engaging of a player’s imagination or wit.
In the future, we’ll try to work this perspective into how we discuss games. A major part of videogame discourse is how it relates back to the real world, and it is at this intersection that games find much of their meaning. Without the real world to relate back to, what would a game even mean after all?
That concludes our discussion for now, but expect more of this in the future. As always, thanks reading, and we’ll talk again soon!