On Permadeath & the Magic Circle

by tommy.rousse

UPDATE: The link to the full-text article was originally incorrect.  You can download the paper here.

In the twilight of last year, I re-read Caillois and Huizinga. I concluded that people had been too hard on Huizinga and largely ignored what’s interesting about Caillois, but I also can’t shake the feeling that neither writer has been treated to a first-rate English translation. I went in a Caillois-lover and a Huizinga-skeptic; I left disappointed in Caillois, having originally learned about him in a class devoted to the ultraleft avant-garde art/political fringe and subsequently hoping for a Marxism that wasn’t present. But I have a new faith in Huizinga, whose thought has an imagination and complexity given short shrift by dismissive game studies scholars who endlessly retread the same hoary quotes from the first twenty pages of the book again and again while other passages wait like precious ore as yet unearthed from shallow ground.

When I set about writing my final paper for Foundations of Play & Games, H. & C. were still sharp in my mind. In truth, their recent treatment by many games scholars left a bad taste in my mouth. My first experience with the assault against the Magic Circle came at the last State of Play Conference, which was my first glimpse of games academia. I had just read Huizinga, and while I don’t remember the specifics of  “Beyond the Magic Circle,” I recall multiple panelists admitted to never having read Huizinga. At the time, I was too untutored to have known anything about Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play.

Eric Zimmerman has finally had enough of being the whipping boy of junior game studies academics. In one of the most hilarious ripostes to ever ring through the ivory tower, dare I say the Internet, Zimmerman beats off his numerous assailants with a quiver full of zingers and base punnery. Railing against the “magic circle jerk,”1 Zimmerman lays to rest the boogie man of the strict absolutist adherent to the magic circle. The list of scholars chided includes a list that reads not unlike the faculty roster at ITU’s Center for Computer Games Research. The practice of bashing a straw man magic circle argument has become so commonplace that Zimmerman identifies it as a game studies rite of passage. In my Foundations paper, I pass through that particular stage, although I turn out to be a rare defender of the magic circle. I think my thought lines up pretty well with Zimmerman’s. That excerpt follows John William Waterhouse’s The Magic Circle, below.

I’ve uploaded the entirety of the essay, On Permadeath: the State of Death in the Age of Electronic Resurrection, to SSRN as a working paper. It was docked points by the course’s censor for not being “scientific” enough, from what I understand. So be it. I set out to write an essay: exploratory, speculative, informed by personal experience, and (I thought appropriately) foundational. I thought it was well within the methodology and spirit of the reading list. In lieu of a unified thesis, it provides original scholarship on the magic circle and Benjamin’s aura, an analytical definition of permadeath, and an application of Caillois beyond a simple description of the four play-elements. Please forgive a little vanity and defensiveness—such are the perils of an affective method, where one might feel that not only his intellectual progeny has been spurned, but the self intimately involved in its construction.

I plan to convert the essay into a paper for an academic audience; there’s very little written on permadeath & I am still convinced it is a peculiar phenomena with astounding critical leverage into player investment and emotion. If anyone would be interested in revising this paper or offering feedback, I’d be more than happy to return the favor on another paper.

John William Waterhouse - Magic Circle

The Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse (1886), colors modified

Unavoidably, our inquiry turns to Huizinga’s idea of play as a “magic circle,” a conception of play and games that put them at an admittedly nebulous if not numinous remove from ordinary life. The magic circle has certainly been problematized, and many cogent criticisms have been made of it. From that host of criticisms, however, I roundly reject any conception of the magic circle as an absolutist divide between play and everyday life. In short, pointing out that the magic circle is not inviolable is simply not sufficient grounds to reject it. Certainly, Caillois builds upon the notion of play as separate from everyday life while also documenting its “corruption” by contact with the everyday. The central thesis of Homo Ludens—that play suffuses all of culture and serves as its origin—is in obvious conflict with any conception of the magic circle too feeble to account for this bold claim. Consider Huizinga: “The great archetypal activities of human society are all permeated with play from the start.”  The view of a completely separate magic circle is untenable. One is tempted to resolve the inconsistency by declaring all spheres of human activity as variants of a central play-theme, a claim that Huizinga himself flirts with. But as meaning is created by difference, changing our definition of play to be wholly universal would render it meaningless. Resolving this contradiction is beyond the scope of this paper. We must instead heed Huizinga’s words: “The attempt to assess the play-content in the confusion of modern life is bound to lead us to contradictory conclusions.”

Rather than fret over the metaphysical nature of the magic circle, we might more productively think of it as an imaginative stance undertaken by the player, or even as an ideal type of engagement frequently sullied by the intrusion of reality. From a sociological point of view, we may follow the lead of Gary Alan Fine’s Shared Fantasy and think of play experiences as one of many frames, as identified by Goffman. This conception is particularly useful insofar as it posits a differentiation of the self in the form of the “face” or social presentation in different frames. To accept this usage, we do not need to resort to essentialist conceptions of the magic circle. If we can accept that many players do perceive gameplay as being distinct and separate from practical life, we can still put the magic circle to analytical use.

On Permadeath, pgs. 7-8, citations omitted.

  1. N.B. game studies sees what will forever be known as the magic circle jerk as one of the foremost debates in the field without scratching the term’s disambiguation page on Wikipedia.