The Magic Circle

When it comes to playing board games with me there is a rule.   The people at the weekly game night attend follow this rule, my wife follows this rule, and I think most of the youth groups I have worked with follow this rule.   The rule is “Don’t trust Sean.”   My confession, is that I have probably earned that being a rule.   Some of my favorite types of games to play are social deduction games such as The Resistance, Secret Hitler, or One Night Ultimate Werewolf.  In these games one or more people are a hidden traitor who is secretly playing so that the majority lose the game and that they win.   By necessity these games require deception, misdirection, and the occasional bold-faced lie.   My win-loss record at these games show that I have some level of competence at these dubious skills, and I have rightfully earned my fair share of raised eyebrows at how well I lie for a pastor.

Perhaps it is because I serve in vocational ministry that I enjoy these games so much.  As a Christian minister, I take seriously the virtues of honesty, dependability, and authenticity.   I truly seek to follow the command of Jesus to let my yes be yes and my no be no.   Yet, when I play a game like the Resistance I step into a magic circle the game creates.   Within the realms of this magic circle all of the players agree to the allow the rules of the game to be a shared reality.  Within the play space of a game like the Resistance lying and deception is not only allowed it is encouraged.  

I was first introduced to the concept of the magic circle  from the board game design podcast Ludology.   The magic circle is an actual academic concept that is fundamental to game design theory.   The magic circle is a space for play that is set apart.  It is a material or conceptual world where the players can participate  outside of the bounds of the real world.    The magic circle gives players the permission to interact in a way they normally would not, and those interactions are left in the magic circle.  Thus my gaming friends (hopefully) know that I am true to my word in our everyday interactions, but as soon as we enter the magic circle of a social deduction game they also know I am going to stab them in the back.   

This concept of the magic circle exists in video games.  In video games the magic circle is the invitation into the digital world.   It is an invitation to step out of one’s normal context and experience a completely new and different reality.   The magic circle is perhaps most prevalent in tabletop roleplaying.  Games like Dungeons and Dragons almost serve as a magic circle covenant as all of the players agree to not only share a different reality for a few hours but they actively and cooperatively create it with their imaginations.   I really resonate with the concept of the magic circle.  It gives a strong philosophical and cognitive basis to why I enjoy playing games so much.   Within the magic circle I get to explore a different way of interacting with reality.  I get to be a person who deeply values honesty, but thanks to the magic circle I can get  the thrill of pulling off the perfect con in a fifteen minute board game experience.  

The concept of the magic circle did not come about in an academic sense until the 20th century.   However, in Christianity the concept of the magic circle has existed from the beginning we just tend to call it sacramental theology.    The sacraments are a means of grace.   They are unique acts through which believers tangibly experience God’s love and grace.   When it comes to the details there are some sharp and profound differences in the understanding of the sacraments that really divide Christian denominations.  However, from a big picture view in all Christian denominations  the sacraments function a bit like the magic circle.   In board games the rules create the framework of the magic circle.  In video games it is the graphical interface that invites people into the magic circle.   In the sacraments, it is the sacramental ritual that  brings the worshippers into the sacred, sacramental space.    In the magic circle of the sacraments God’s presence is more real, divine grace is easier to experience, and blessed assurance seems like a more real thing.   

The difference between the magic circle as a game development concept and the magic circle created by the sacraments, is that the sacraments have real magic to them.  In the United Methodist communion liturgy there is a prayer that states, “We give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us.”   There is a mystery around the sacraments, because through the elements and ritual it does not just seem God’s is more present, God truly is more present.   The sacraments are a means of grace through which the love, grace, and presence of God is literally experienced.  

One of the reason it is a mystery because explaining what it is like to experience grace through the sacraments is a bit hard.   It is an experience that defies logical explanation.   This is why for me the concept of the magic circle helps me better understand the sacraments.  I have tried to teach games to non-gamers who have little to no interest in the game.  They refuse to step in the game’s magic circle and they never experience the game as I have.  In the same way it is possible for someone to observe the sacraments and possibly participate in them and not get it.    

In the Methodist tradition, we believe that the sacraments are a means of grace.  This means that through the holy mystery God is present in the sacrament, and that anyone can experience God’s love, mercy, and grace.    This is one of the reasons why I appreciate my particular Christian tradition so much.   The communion table, much like my gaming table, is always open and everyone is invited to come into the magic circle and experience reality in a whole new way.     

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