Play is magical

Play is an interesting word. When it is used as a verb, it refers to an action that focusing on enjoyment and recreation. For example, playing games and playing sports. We can also use it as a noun, which refers to drama.

The two uses of the word, Play, may cause confusions when people ask you the following question:

What is play?

Which play are you referring to? The drama play or the action play?

In fact, there is a reason why the word play is used to represent two seemly different concepts. Play as an action and play as a form of performing arts isn’t that far away from each other. You have to trust me that both “play” is about walking into a magic circle that overrides the reality.

Play is a magic circle

The idea of magic circle was mentioned both in the fields of game concepts and in the world of theater.

Playing games is like jumping into a magic circle. Johan Huizinga in his book, Homo Ludens, presented the idea of the “magic circle”, the physical space where the action of play happens. In the later years, Adams and Rollings in Fundamentals of Game Design extended the idea of “magic circle” and suggested that it could be a virtual space where real-world events obtain special meanings. Playing games, such as “The Floor is Lava” brings all player into the magic circle where the floor is now flooded with lava.

The Floor is Lava

We can also find similar thoughts in theater arts.

“The stage is a magic circle where only the most real things happen … a truer and more real place does not exist in all the universe.” 
― P.S. Baber, Cassie Draws the Universe

In traditional Chinese Opera, a scene can be constructed using only one table and two chairs. Audience and actors will join the same magic circle and use their imagination to fill the empty space.

Traditional Chinese Opera settings

Undoubtedly, both “play” brings us into a magic circle where things beyond the reality happen.

Don’t break the magic

The presence of real life events and stimulus is so strong that they can easily break our magic circle. A phone ring during an ongoing play or an unexpected playground visit by your mom can bring you back to the reality.

You may feel frustrated when following advertisements pop-up on your screen during the middle of a level.

Most likely, you will then realize that you need to get back to work. It takes the effort to bring players into the magic circle, but it is easy to lose them.

The great magicians know how to keep the circle magical. In theater, the audience is often reminded to turn off their cell phones right before the show. Games can’t force people to turn off their phones. However, they can make the circle everywhere.

Ingress, a location-based mobile game, made a planet-scale magic circle. A typical ingress player often switches between their virtual roles and real life roles multiple times a day. Every landmark in real life maps to an Ingress Portal, which triggers player to get into the magic circle. The designers of the Ingress did not spend the effort to maintain a magic circle, but create multiple circles around the player.

Magic Circle is everywhere in Ingress

There were also different ways to maintain or extend the circle. Virtual Reality headset is one of the best ways to keep players in the circle and shield them from external distractions.

Virtual Reality headset is one of the best ways to keep players in the circle

So far, we have talked about the similarities between playing games and watching a play. The word, play, carries two different meanings that were rooted from the same concept. Play is about the magic circle, it is also about freeing our imagination.

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