The Power of Magic Circles

Molly Sonsteng
Oct 13, 2017 · 3 min read

I’ve long followed Ida Benedetto and her work on Patterns of Transformation. I’m particularly taken with what she calls magic circles in regard to transformational experiences:

The magic circle, a term I have borrowed directly from game studies, is the invisible perimeter between everyday life and an experience where different rules of engagement are at play. (Anthropologist call it the ritual frame and contemporary mystical practices call it the container.) The magic circle describes the limits of both the formal rules of an experience and the informal norms that an experience allows for. It can literally feel like magic to be inside one thanks to the seemingly inexplicable shift in logic for how things happen and what is meaningful.

Ida and I met recently and got to chatting about the value of these magic circles. I explained an unexpected transformational experience I went through years ago that left me temporarily floating without gravity. I’d initially signed up for the event because it sounded incredibly fun. I did not, however, expect to have my life impacted so dramatically. While I can now wholeheartedly say the experience was 100% worth it, I wonder what would have been different had I signed up knowing transformation was around the corner.

The Magic Circle

I asked her a question I’ve been reflecting on for a while: When it comes to transformational experiences, is it the responsibility of the experience designer to provide support for transformation integration (meaning aftercare)? Rather than explicitly stating it’s the designer’s responsibility to provide meaningful aftercare, she explained it’s all in the design of the magic circle. The notion of magic circles wasn’t something I was familiar with until Ida. I asked her to be more specific.

Here’s what I came away with… at least as it relates to my own work.

A designer should first ask themselves if, in what they’re designing, transformation is possible. Is it possible a participant could experience some level of transformation be it big or small? If no, great. No problem. Carry on. If yes, then it’s magic circle time.

In designing a magic circle, creating a clear opening and closing is crucial. A participant must have the ability to step into and out of the magic circle. Rules are different inside a magic circle and, as Ida claims, it can literally feel like magic happens inside of one. So if explicit openings and closings aren’t made crystal clear, then a participant is bound to have a hard time with integration. And likewise, if a designer makes the mistake of determining transformation isn’t possible and a magic circle isn’t established, the designer runs the risk of participants struggling with reentry to the outside world (as I did).

Moments before the start of my transformational experience

Where my thinking differs from Ida’s, however, is that aftercare support must absolutely be built in to the design of a transformational experience. While yes, carefully creating the magic circle is vitally important, the designer must also be ready for a participant’s difficulty with integration. What that support looks like can vary depending on the type of experience and doesn’t necessarily need to be handled by the designer. But including some version of aftercare or community support, to me, is essential.

I’m excited to make these considerations in everything I design moving forward. I continue to remind myself that transformational experiences don’t need to be multi-day events nor ones with huge budgets. Some level of transformation is possible if, for example, you’re performing for an audience for the first time, or playing a unique game with your colleagues that challenges group dynamics, or diving deep into a full day of work without constant distractions. 😉

As an experience designer, it’s not only my responsibility to create the perimeters of a magic circle, but to provide genuine support for meaningful and lasting integration.

Molly Sonsteng

Written by

Madcap Factory

Madcap Factory is an amusingly eccentric production house that designs, builds, launches, and manages live event series and playful experiences to help brands to engage their communities.

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