Tag Archives: Jaakko Stenros

Playing With the Past, Part Two: Magic Circles and Interaction Alibis

The previous post tried to posit a set of characteristics of good cultural experiences. It’s a personal, idiosyncratic, and obviously incomplete list, but I meant it to serve as the beginning of the answer to the question of what gaming can teach us about making better cultural heritage experiences. Given what we know about play, games, and learning, what can we pull out of the mass of research? For me, the two biggest tools I’ve come across are the concepts of the magic circle and the interaction alibi. These (and so much more) were introduced to me at the Alibis for Interaction masterclass and subsequent conversations with Johanna Koljonen. I wrote about this previously, and still consider it the best one day professional development event I’ve been to in years. It’s mind-expanding and genre-crossing in so many good ways. For me, it connected ideas that I’d associated only with game design to a larger realm of practice. These ideas have caused me to reframe a lot of what I thought I knew about museum experience design, and their potential in the heritage sector is vast, and as yet largely untapped methinks. So, what are they and who uses them well?

Magic Circles

I’ve referred to the magic circle a few times, but I’ve held off defining it until now.  The term goes back to Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens where he uses the words “magic circle” in a list of special places where play occurs.

“All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the “consecrated spot” cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. Forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.”

– Huizinga 1938

It owes its current vogue though to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, who wrote “To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins.” In their 2003 book, Rules of Play: Fundamentals of Game Design. Since then, it’s become a foundational concept of game design, and has its own sub-literature devoted to critiquing or defending the idea. What Salen and Zimmerman meant by “magic circle” was the idea that it is a boundary. On the outside is the world, and on the inside is the game. And when players cross that threshold, the rules change, norms change, and people’s roles and behaviors change. What is verboten or discouraged in the world can become acceptable inside the magic circle. The stereotypical quiet, meek person who turns into a cutthroat poker player is just one example of how play redefines the rules, or at least establishes a different set while the play is occurring.

What Koljonen and others showed me at Alibis was that the Magic Circle could be useful to heritage professionals as a way to see the visitor experience holistically. In the diagram below, even though the magic circle is in the center, the visitor’s journey starts long before they get to the magic circle of the thing you’re designing for them. Their journey is rooted in the larger cultural context of wherever they are and their particular personal experience. Along the way, they’ve picked up expectations about what is going to happen when they enter that magic circle. It is very easy to spend all of one’s time deciding what to do with visitors when they arrive at the entrance to your thing, but by then, they are already a long way into their journey, and you’ve lost opportunities to influence them.

Breaking Out-final

Johanna Koljonen’s diagram of the user experience of the magic circle.

When a person enters the magic circle, they change, and become “a player”. This role play involves explicit and implicit acceptance of new norms, rules, and relationships. The participants have agency that allows the experience to transform them. There are social affordances designed into the experience through rules, suggestions, and the physical environment. And most importantly, the thing that happens inside the magic circle is well defined. Have you ever accidentally played a game? Me neither. Have you ever wandered from one part of a museum to another and realized belatedly that you’ve entered another exhibition? Me too.

After they leave the circle, the person begins to reflect on it, and build their story about what happened, and turning it into a memory of the event. While I’ve been part of my share of projects that attempted to expand or deepen visitors pre- and post-visit engagement, the magic circle makes the whole journey seem more amenable to design than I ever thought it was. And it’s as applicable to the security line at the airport as it is to a game, or a cultural heritage site.

What might this look like at a museum? I am reminded of a conversation I had with Ben Gammon back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth (or maybe it was the mid ’90s). Anyway, the Science Museum, London’s leadership commissioned a study to explore how visitors navigated to get from one gallery to another. Their interest was in the galleries, but what they found was that of the two hours the average visitor spent “in the museum”, 60% of that time was spent just getting around, getting lost, going to eat or pee, visiting the shop. And the part the staff had focused tremendous effort into creating was the remaining 40%. They realized that they needed to expand the scope of what the visitor experience was and devote the same kind of effort to the 60% that had been going into the 40%.

Interaction Alibis


The classic example of an interaction alibi: Twister. By Flickr user oks20i CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Interaction Alibi: A rule, object, or change of state that allows a human to interact. This idea is central to designing for participation.  An alibi might be a role, a rule, a narrative, a game, a mask, an instruction, an introduction. An interaction alibi helps you understand what you’re expected to do, feel safe trying something new, and trust that the outcome will be worth your time.

An alibi is an excuse to perform an act and an action of some kind without fear of the consequences without fear of social punishment. If you as a experience designer want somebody to try something new, or do something scary like interacting with people don’t know, giving them an alibi is an explicit way of giving them permission to be someone else. Getting tangled up in knots with other people is usually frowned on, but if you’re playing Twister, then it’s expected and the transgression of invading someone else’s personal space is forgiven because it’s part of the game. Interaction alibis are a way of overcoming the embarrassment that keeps adult humans from acting in ways that might draw unwanted attention to them. Screaming is generally frowned upon public behavior, but if you’re at a music festival or sporting event, it’s understood to be OK and you can scream til you’re hoarse. Demonstrating how bad a singer you are? Not OK, unless you’re at a karaoke bar where everybody is doing it. Thank goodness…


Greg and me, leaving it all on the floor at karaoke. CC BY 4.0

So alibis are an important tool to provoke playfulness – especially among adults who have been socialized out of playing. Sebastian Deterding explains in “Alibis for Adult Play,” “…the most obvious motivation for play—autotelic enjoyment— also sits in most direct tension with adult identity. To account for their play, adults therefore regularly resort to alibis, motivational accounts that deflect negative inference from their play behavior to their character. Adults account for play as serving their adult responsibilities”. I’ve seen this countless times, particularly at science centers, where adults will excuse their playing with the exhibits as something they did to help the children they were with. Or at Sleep No More, where the masks they give guests anonymize them and make the audience seem (and feel) like ghosts. With all the freedom that entails, for good or ill.


Souvenirs of Sleep No More. CC-BY 4.0

And to bring this back to playing, the interaction alibi can be playing. By adopting a playful or gameful mindset and experience design approach, we can create that alibi that gives people permission to do something they mightn’t do otherwise. And it’s I think an important distinction here that you enable people to do something theywant. This is not about manipulating people to do something they don’t want. There’s enough of that in the world, thank you very much, and we don’t need to play along (pun intended).

To sum up, play helps perceive things from alternative angles and in different light. It helps us engage with our surroundings in a new way as we perceive and break norms and routines. In a playful state of mind, we can not only see the adventures that surround us, but we feel safe, possibly even too safe, to take that plunge. Play and games serve as an alibi: as they are perceived as being somehow less, we can get away with more. And finally, playing together we can create new and surprising social worlds that, as long as we all keep playing along, are as real as any other world.

– Stenros 2015

So in the context of an art museum, let’s say, what kind of alibis could you make to help create the kind of space where people feel that their presence is welcomed and they feel confident that if they look at something they don’t understand, they can approach it with curiosity and openness, instead of “the art museum pose”. The best example I know of is still the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania. I visited MONA several years ago when it first opened, but I’ve yet to see it’s equal since. The alibi that the museum’s creator provides is a complete lack of wall text, and a mobile content delivery device to every visitor that asks you whether you love, hate, or feel nothing about any object you inquire about.

Magic circles and alibis in practice – immersive theatre and Nordic larp

The final posts in this series will look at challenges and opportunities around cultural heritage organizations working with game designers. First, though, I want to expand the idea of “game designer” to include add two very different new kinds of “play” that really excel at creating magic circles and providing clear alibis for interaction: immersive theatre and the Nordic variety of live action role play, or larp.

Immersive Theatre

As opposed to traditional theatre, with players on stage and an audience in their seats, immersive theater is a performance form that emphasizes the importance of a specific designed space that both the cast and audience inhabit. Stephen Eckert’s piece in Contemporary Performanceis a great starting place to learn more about it. Immersive theatre creates lush, tactile sensual environments that become both the setting for group experience and diverse individual audience experiences. No longer confined to seat, the audience is free to explore the space of the performance, players and audience mingling and often interacting. Immersive theatre creates a story world where the performance of the actors, though central, is not the only means of conveying the narrative. Sets contain hints and clues, bits of backstory, and additional information that can profoundly influence a given audience member’s understanding of the performance. It is both social and deeply intimate. Punchdrunk UK’s Sleep No More is the poster child for the form, but is only one example of a growing trend. In a world where so much of what we do is mediated through flat pieces of clear glass, immersive theatre offers an opportunity for audiences to exist in their bodies in actual locations and encounter expansive, multi sensory, and visceral stimuli.

Nordic Larp

Live action role playing, or larping, like so much else that use the words “role playing”, traces its origins back to creation of the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game in 1974 and its successors like Vampire: The Masquerade. In the Nordic regions, with their long tradition of community-supported self-programming youth groups, a new kind of role play grew and expanded, taking the idea of players taking on roles and collaboratively creating a fiction together, and fusing it with the social, community-based experience of summer camp. In Nordic larp there is no audience, only players. As Stenros and Montola explain, “Larps are created for a first person audience, for players relating to the fictional world from the first person perspective of a fictional character. As such, they are almost impossible to truly comprehend from the outside, looking in.” Their massive 2010 book Nordic Larp presents highlights from the first fifteen years of Nordic Larp, and tries to impose some kind of order on what is at best a loose coalition of mostly like-minded communities of players.

One of the many features of Nordic that interest me is the way the form has developed to tackle incredibly diverse and delicate subjects, which Stenros and Montola directly attribute to the power of the alibi, “the playful nature of humour, theatre and games lends a social alibi for pushing the boundaries of what is tolerated.” Recreate a Norwegian fishing village in 1942 to play out life under the German occupation? Sure. Use a decommissioned submarine as the setting for a Battlestar Galactica-esque science fiction larp? Already done.  Larp designers have explored what it would be like live through the events in Hamlet, the aftermath of a nuclear attack in a shelter, the early days of the AIDS crisis, and the plight of refugees. There is a fearlessness to Nordic larp that I find appealing. It’s lack of commercial viability is an asset, as Stenros and Montola point out, “this commitment to expert amateurism allows authors to realize their visions without compromises, freely tackling mature themes and adult content… without concerns of offending the mainstream, and themes such as political apathy, heteronormativity and immigration policy can be addressed without watering them down.”

Immersive theatre and larp both ask a lot more of participants than the traditional heritage tour, and may seem like media that have little to offer cultural heritage, but I think they both offer unusual ways to bring together interested people to interact with a narrative in powerful ways. And added to the rich stew of thinking, design, and products coming out of the gaming industry, there’s a lot to look at with a critical but hopeful eye.

To wrap up, we’ll look at some of the challenges and opportunities of collaboration between cultural heritage and gaming.

12 March 2018 UPDATE: Mea culpa time. I neglected to properly credit Johanna Koljonen for her crucial work on magic circles and interaction alibis. I’ve gone back and pointed out that debt. I’ll also take this opportunity to formally thank Lizzie Stark for recommending the Alibis event in the first place. So much reading and learning has happened as a result of one pretty casual conversation. 

Peeling the Onion, Part Three: Play


LEGO Minecraft by Flickr user Lego Photo mureut. CC BY-ND 2.0

“Play” is a very big idea.

Game playing is a very engaging activity, one that evokes a level of commitment and concentration in players that is not seen in most visitors to museums. So a lot of attention has been given to looking at ways to make heritage experiences more gemlike or gamified. I’ve already talked about gamification and the characteristics of games, [link] and now want to get underneath the surface of both to talk about what people do in games; namely they play. There is an important distinction between playing and gaming as activities and then toys and games as objects that support these activities.

So what is play? Coincidentally, it’s question we’ve been asking at PEM for the past couple of years, as we’ve developed the PlayTime exhibition.

Playing is an activity and a mindset that for it’s own reasons experiments with recombinations of actions, meanings, and objects in ways that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls autotelic. Autotelic people are intrinsically motivated, and exhibit a sense of purpose and curiosity. Autotelic is the opposite of being extrinsically motivated, by things like money, power, fame, etc… When we try out new combinations of thoughts or words, or new combinations of Lego bricks, we are playing. Done properly, play can be a powerful affective teacher, and an integral part of that are what Csikszentmihályi calls “flow experiences”; a feeling of complete absorption in the task at hand, when one loses all sense of time and place, and feels that their ability and the challenge in front of them are well-matched. Flow can be a result of play or gameplay, though Csikszentmihalyi later warns that “Playfulness, or flow, is not limited by the form of the activity, although it is affected by it.“

Playing does not require games


“Playing” by Flickr user mejuan. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

For game designers like Eric Zimmerman, games are a more formalized subset of play. If two people are throwing a ball back and forth to each other, they’re playing with it; interacting with each other, and with the ball, and with their bodies, and gravity, hand-eye coordination. But, if one of them says, let’s make this a contest – who can throw the ball farther, or how many times can we throw it back and forth before we drop it?” they have formalized that play activity into a game.  Salen and Zimmerman write about this disconnect between games and play in their seminal book “The Rules of Play” “The goal of successful game design is meaningful play, but play is something that emerges from the functioning of the rules. As a game designer, you can never directly design play. You can only design the rules that give rise to it. Game designers create experience, but only indirectly.” To me, this sounds very much like constructivist experience design. You can make the place and the space in which visitors can experience culture, but always at a distance, because the learning and appreciation and interaction happens only when people are there.

Games can involve play


Playing a game of bowling by Flickr user Oscar D Salazar V. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But games ≠ play


Not playing. Developers at work testing Team Fortress 2 Goldrush by Flickr user Tim Dorr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Play has larger meanings, too. There’s the idea of playing a musical instrument. You can play a part or a role.  There’s the play of a set of gears, or the play in a steering wheel. All these have in common the feature that within a system there’s some give, some sloppiness that doesn’t break the system. These interstitial moments of freedom within the system when you’re not doing what the system is meant to do in a utilitarian sense, is the essence of play. It’s not productive, it’s completely autotelic to wiggle the steering wheel for the heck of it and enjoy it.  This is the kind of play that opens up new spaces for creativity and innovation. This play can describe everything from stylistic innovation to political protest. As Trevor Smith, the curator of the PlayTime exhibition writes in his manifesto for the project:

PLAY spurs productivity.
PLAY is a catalyst for creativity.
PLAY is an escape from conformity.
PLAY reinvents the rules.
PLAY empowers the players.
PLAY stimulates innovation.
PLAY enables exploration.
PLAY is a response to uncertainty.
PLAY rewards misbehavior.
PLAY negotiates conflict.
PLAY resists productivity.

Perhaps the best exploration of play, playfulness, games and gamification I’ve come across is Jaakko Stenros’ 2015 PhD dissertation “Playfulness, Play, and Games: A Constructionist Ludology Approach”.  If you’ve any interest in any of these subjects, I recommend this work wholeheartedly. It’s masterful and complete. In his chapter on Play, he concludes that,

“The core of play, the part that most conceptualisations agree upon, can be called playful play. It is voluntary and positive for all participants, and there is a relative uniform understanding amongst participants as to what they are doing together. It does not overly challenge contextual social or cultural norms, at least not in a way that makes anyone uncomfortable. Such play is engaged in by children and particularly playful adults (like artists).”

– Stenros 2015

What we know about play, fun, and learning

So the voluntary and positive experience of play is what underlies the commitment and passion we see players brings to games, and those elements of game mechanics that might foster that experience are what get offered up as gamification. The activity people in engage in; play, is enjoyable, positive, fulfilling. But “fun” in cultural heritage is the great unspoken term, not unlike the way Karl Marx’s work was foundational to so much of 20th century Western social science, yet rarely cited during any research published during the Cold War.

Behind all the talk of engagement, positive experience, enjoyment, and a host of other serious sounding terms is the idea of fun. And that’s really what we’re after, isn’t it? We want to create experiences that people will enjoy, that will grab their attention and hold it, while challenging them sufficiently to allow them to feel a sense of accomplishment when they’re done, and to have exercised and improved an ability of theirs. The essence of informal learning for me is this intersection between play, fun, and learning. It draws on all the things we’ve looked at in gaming and gamification. It requires the attention of the persons involved in a way that can promote flow, though Csikszentmihalyi distinguishes between flow and playfulness.

“Flow describes a process of involvement in a given reality, while playfulness refers to one’s attitude towards the reality in which one is involved. One can experience flow in a routine activity whose goals and rules are consistent with the paramount reality; in such a case there would be flow without playfulness. Or one could shift one’s perspective on what goals and rules applied in a situation, without experiencing the intense involvement that characterizes flow.”

It is not too easy. Mitch Resnick from MIT further stresses the requirement that fun needs to be challenging in his essay “Computer as Paintbrush: Technology, play, and the creative society.

“…Too often, designers and educators try to make things “easy” for learners, thinking that people are attracted to things that are easy to do. But that is not the case. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi has found that people become most deeply engaged in activities that are challenging, but not overwhelming.  Similarly, Seymour Papert has found that learners become deeply engaged by “hard fun”—in other words, learners don’t mind activities that are hard as long as the activities connect deeply with their interests and passions.”

This is most fully developed in Papert’s notion of “hard fun”. Seymour Papert is one of those polymaths who make me feel like the human race might actually evolve into something better. After two PhDs in Mathematics, studying education under Piaget, and directing the study of artificial intelligence at MIT with Marvin Minsky, he became one of the great scholars of education. The way his interests combined and recombined over and over throughout his life is supremely inspirational. The impact Papert and his students like Resnick have had on education is hard to overstate. As Papert wrote in a newspaper article called “Hard Fun”,

“…everyone likes hard challenging things to do. But they have to be the right things matched to the individual and to the culture of the times. These rapidly changing times challenge educators to find areas of work that are hard in the right way: they must connect with the kids and also with the areas of knowledge, skills and (don’t let us forget) ethic adults will need for the future world.”

And just because I can’t help it, I’ll point out that all ideas relate very closely to Nietzsche’s definition of happiness as, “The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.” This idea of hard fun is well understood by the game industry, and one of the keys behind all great games is hard fun, or what Nicole Lazarro defines with the Italian word “Fiero”, the feeling of personal triumph over adversity.  Her “4 Keys 2 Fun diagram shows how deeply one can try to disambiguate the elements of fun.


Lazzaro’s “4Keys2Fun” from XEODesign, Inc.

Next, we’ll look at what, if anything, this can mean for designers of cultural heritage experiences.