Tag Archives: Johan Huizinga

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.

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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

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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…

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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.

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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 Two: Games

What is a game?

A theme of this current research has been the continuing revelation that things I thought were simple, like “game” and “play” are really not. So, if gamification is not the way to successfully engage audiences, then what is it about games that makes us interested in them? I would argue that the appeal for the cultural heritage sector is the way that games capture the attention of their players; the effort that game players invest in playing.

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Players concentrating by Flickr user sharyn morrow. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Latin word for game is ludus, which means two things, as readers of Ready Player One will have already discovered. It can mean “game” and it can also mean “school.” So this notion of playing games and learning being somehow connected is an old one.

Looking at the definitions scholars have tried to wrap around games is instructive. Here are four of my favorites;

“… a free activity standing quite consciously outside ”ordinary” life as being ”not serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.”

– Johan Huizinga 1950

“… an activity which is essentially: Free (voluntary), separate [in time and space], uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, make-believe.”

– Roger Caillois 1961

“A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.”

– Jesper Juul 2003

“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”

– Katie Salen & Eric Zimmerman 2004

Juul’s six characteristics of games

Jesper Juul is one of the most influential game theorists active today. His latest work, The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games is pretty wild stuff. In his 2003 essay, The Game, The Player, The World, he took all the definitions of games out there and tried to distill their common elements. What he came up was the following six characteristics of games.

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Rulebooks by Flickr user Ben Ward CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

  1. Rules: Games are rule-based.
    There is a set of guidelines that tell you when you’re doing it right, and there’s an external way of adjudicating disputes.
  2. There are variable, quantifiable outcomes:
    It’s not a sure thing and there is not only one way to play.
  3. There are values assigned to possible outcomes:
    You can win, lose, or come somewhere in the middle, and it’s clear which one you’re striving to achieve.
  4. Player effort is required:
    Games that aren’t challenging, aren’t fun. Try Progress Wars or Universal Paperclip for examples. Games that are challenging can be very powerful. Iyadurai et al’s 2017 study of emergency room patients who’d recently suffered trauma found that playing Tetris in the emergency room significantly reduced the occurrence of disturbing flashbacks of their recent trauma, because of the demands the game placed on the player.
  5. Player is attached to the outcome:
    It’s no fun to play a game with someone who doesn’t care whether they win or lose. We decide as players to value some outcomes over others.
  6. There are negotiable consequences:
    After the game is over, the players go back to their previous states without any repercussions for their performance during the game.

To this list, I’d add a seventh:

7. There are positive and/or negative feedback systems built into the rules

One big difference between American style board games like Monopoly, and the newer German style games like Settlers of Catan, is their feedback systems. Monopoly has a very positive feedback system; make money, and it gets easier to make even more money. In Settlers, features like the robber serve to inhibit the power of the leading player and level the playing field. Positive feedback systems increase instability, where negative feedback systems increase stability.

Do the rules apply to heritage?

So let’s play a game. If we change the word “player” to visitor and “game to “heritage experience”, what do we get?

1) Rules: Games Heritage experiences are rule-based.

There is a set of guidelines that tell you when you’re doing it right, and there’s an external way of adjudicating disputes.

Aside from telling you what not to do, certainly most museum experiences give you very little guidance about whether you’re doing it right. Maybe there’s a map with names of spaces on it. Maybe there’s a tour you can follow. But by and large there’s nothing to tell you how to “do” it right. The Tenement Museum is a noteworthy exception. For museums that display contemporary art, this is a perennial concern, where there is abundant research to show that visitors feel ill-equipped to experience the art, and are certain “they’re doing it wrong.” When you’re having trouble in a game, you can look at the rules. What can you do if you feel lost in the middle of a visit?

What would the “rules” for your museum or heritage site look like?

2) There are variable, quantifiable outcomes:

It’s not a sure thing and there is not only one way to play.

One of the hardest things to get across to non-museum creatives is how different the expectations aer for a “successful” visit, than for other kinds of experiences. If you opened a book in the middle, read a few pages, flipped around to look at all the pictures, read the title, and then the final paragraph, that probably wouldn’t count as having “read the book” for most people. But two people can enter a museum exhibition, follow completely non-intersecting paths, look at different objects, and still come out the back end feeling like they “saw the show”.

3) There are values assigned to possible outcomes:

You can win, lose, or come somewhere in the middle, and it’s clear which one you’re striving to achieve.

Frank Oppenheimer’s quote that “Nobody ever flunked a science museum.” is relevant here. If nobody ever flunks, though, does that mean nobody ever gets an “A” at museum?

Are there multiple ways to visit your site? If so, is one better than the others?

4) Player Visitor effort is required:

Games Experiences that aren’t challenging, aren’t fun.

Papert’s idea of “hard fun”, which corresponds neatly to Lazarro’s definition of “fiero” in game theory, is a linchpin of informal education. Making experiences challenging enough without being too hard is the holy grail of exhibition development.

5) Player Visitor is attached to the outcome:

It’s no fun to play a game heritage experience with someone who doesn’t care whether they win or lose. We decide as players visitors to value some outcomes over others.

Now there’s an interesting one. Do you attach value to a particular outcome, or go hoping to experience something meaningful?

6) There are negotiable consequences:

After the game heritage experience is over, the players go back to their previous states without any repercussions for their performance during the game.

In my experience in museums, “transformation” was the desired outcome, that visitors leave change by the experience.

7) There are positive and/or negative feedback systems built into the rules

Positive feedback systems increase instability, where negative feedback systems increase stability.

Are there feedback systems that attempt to regulate the heritage experience? I’ve certainly encountered exhibitions and websites that attempt to provide positive feedback systems like “You’re interested in _______? Here are more examples of ________!”

What does this mean for heritage professionals?

A lot of these characteristics can be applied to cultural heritage experiences. For most cultural heritage professionals who look at games and gamification for help, I think the thing they covet most are Rules 4 and 5; Players who want to play and win, and who will devote remarkable amounts of time, energy, and effort to the game.

As an example, here are the stats on the costliest war in computer game history. The Massively Multiplayer Online Game EVE Online, boasts around 500,000 players who populate a science fiction galaxy called New Eden. In New Eden, players can explore, build, and come together in communities for mutual aid and protection. This had led to factions fighting over control of swaths of space, sometimes at huge scales. In the 2014 Battle of B-R5RB, two alliances with ~7,000 players fought for control of a strategic system in a battle that lasted 22 hours. At the end of the battle, more than 20 million soldiers had been killed and over 600 warships worth a combined USD$300,000 had been destroyed. January 2018’s Battle of 9-4RP2 was predicted to be three times as costly, but server issues intervened, causing the battle to never escalate to the level predicted.

But why is it enjoyable? The fact is that the game itself is not; it is the act of playing the game that is. So our search has to go deeper and look into playing.