Tag Archives: magic circle

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. 

Playing with the Past, Part One: How Play Relates to Cultural Heritage

So, in trying to peel the onion of gamification, I’ve rattled on at great length about research on gamesgamification, games, play, and fun. But how is this applicable to the work of cultural heritage interpretation?  Firstly, I’d say that, if nothing else, laying to rest the idea that gamification is, in and of itself, worthwhile strategy is doing us all a favor. Gameful design, game theory, and game development processes? All worthwhile to explore and learn from. And, I think, an as-yet-untapped avenue for really fruitful collaboration. But in order to be fruitful, it has to start for an acknowledgement and honoring of the intrinsic motivation that visitors and players share. As Edward Deci wrote in “Why We Do What We Do”, “Self-motivation, rather than external motivation, is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, healthy behavior, and lasting change.” Intrinsic motivation drives the vast majority of our visitors, not external rewards. There’s a reason it’s called “free choice” learning. This point is lost on many in the field who seem determined to turn a visit into a competition, a frequent flyer program, or FarmVille.

Before we go further into what those avenues of collaboration might look like, I want to spend a little time looking at some of the qualities of heritage experiences that I have experienced to be particularly germane to this discussion.

A good cultural heritage experience is rooted in its physicality

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The Roman fort at Vindolanda by Flickr user Edmund Gall. CC BY-SA 2.0

I’m going to go out on a limb and state that the vast majority of cultural heritage sites are physical spaces in a built environment. Everything we do, even digital projects around heritage, are rooted in that physicality, whether we acknowledge it or not.  As I’ve said before, our physical spaces themselves are powerful affective tools.  Just the fact that there is a huge building dedicated to (art, history, science and technology, etc…) makes a powerful statement. And for heritage sites, that specific connection between past and present; “Something happened HERE” is paramount. Even the absence of something is a presence in heritage sites “Once, this empty field was a Roman fortress!”

A good cultural heritage experience is rooted in its physicality (but not entirely contained within it)

Often, this physicality can be overplayed to the point that the objects become the focus, and not how they can be tools for people to better themselves.

Let’s play another game.

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Priceless historic artifact! by Flickr user Vincenzo De Geronimo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Let’s pretend this unmarked, Viking sword is the prize object of an Icelandic museum because it is the sword that Erik the Red used to kill Thorgest’s sons, setting into motion the train of events that led to his banishment from Iceland and the discovery of Greenland. Having been passed down through generations and centuries, it is a concrete link to the sagas, to the story of both Iceland and Greenland and so much more. What kind of experiences could you design to “bring the object to life”?

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Just another object. by Flickr user Vincenzo De Geronimo. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Now let’s imagine I’m a comic book super villain (Mwahahaha!) of the Lex Luthor type, prone to incredibly devious and over-the-top plots. I take it into my head to rob this object of it’s value for reasons known only to me. In great secrecy, I destroy every record of this sword and its story. I kill every person who knew the story of the sword until it is completely robbed of it’s metadata/provenance/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. It is still the exact same sword. Without ever touching it, or even seeing it, I can transform it from a powerful, meaning-laden object, to a thing. Granted, it is a thing that would be amenable to physical study. It could be dated both stylistically and absolutely, it’s composition could provide hints as to where it was forged. The fact that it is in Iceland could also hint at its history. But it’s power to be a focus for storytelling and emotion would largely be gone. Because the narrative and all the facts and associations around the object, do not in fact have any physical connection to the object. They exist in another dimension, and focusing too much on the object can make it hard to see them.

A good cultural heritage experience is visitor-focused

Hopefully this isn’t news to anybody. The museum field certainly still has a long way to go to live up to this statement, but I think we at least all give the idea name service at the very least. My all time favorite story of the power of this involved a trip long ago to Plimoth Plantation with a group of Soviet rocket scientists. Trying to explain the whole concept of first person historical interpretation was an uphill battle, but we gamely trudged around the village, talking to the English settlers through their interpreter. The whole idea that the interpreters were living in 1627 and wouldn’t break character was completely foreign to our guests, and the field trip was starting to feel like a forced march, until we ran into one of the more educated colonists. When he asked where the Soviets came from (after failing to comprehend what they meant when they said they were from the Soviet Union) someone said they were from Moscow. “Ah, Muscovy! You are far from home!” he exclaimed, and then proceeded to grill them on the political situation in early-seventeenth century Russia, whether the False Demetrius was still tsar (he wasn’t), and how the war against the Poles was going. Watching a bunch of college-educated Soviet scientists and engineers trying to dredge up their Russian history from grade school was a sight. But once they connected the dots and jointly remembered who False Dmitry was, their interest level went way up. This interpreter had managed to engage the seemingly unengagable and transformed their visit into something they could relate to. It’s what cultural heritage professionals do all the time.

More recently, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia has ditched their audioguides in favor of highly-trained human facilitators armed with iPads. Their Art Team aims to deepen visitors’ interaction with the art. Human guides, who can read body language and tone, atre much better at tailoring their interpretation to their audience than any device. Says, Shelley Bernstein, the Barnes’ CXO,

“You begin with the most meaningful thing first,” Bernstein said, alluding to engagement efforts. “So this is what we call the human-interaction layer. It’s not about technology. It’s not about providing people with a thing or device. It’s thinking about what human interaction should be in the galleries and what we want that to be and trying to get that right before layering in other things.”

A good cultural heritage experience is emotional

I am a great fan of the word “visitor”, because it acknowledges that people who come to heritage sites are on a journey and they will enter our sphere of influence and leave it again. Since beginning this exploration of games and play and heritage, I’ve come to recognize how analogous the heritage visit is the idea of entering the magic circle of a game. People come, and they take on a new role; they become “visitors” (or whatever you call them) while they are there, and they leave, hopefully changed by the experience. My experience is that the role of “visitor” often entails an increased openness to emotion. Visitors might not know what they’re going to feel during their visit, but the hope that they’ll feel something is there in the background. Awe, wonder, delight, surprise, sorrow, pride are potential outcomes of a successful heritage that are no less valuable than increased knowledge.

When I think back on museum experiences that have really stayed with me, their common thread was emotion; they made me feel something I didn’t feel when I entered. Informal education is a great forum for affective learning; formal education can do a much better job at cognitive learning. If you want “just the facts”, then go to Wikipedia, or a textbook. Nobody ever got a degree from going to a museum or cultural heritage site, nor should they.  A visit to a heritage site will never cover as much history as even an intro history textbook, but that book will never provide a visceral, affective experience with the past to a broad audience.

A good cultural heritage experience is scaffolded

I’ve previously mentioned the Tenement Museum’s “How to visit the Museum” guide. The fact that they are only open for tours, and not the kind of drop visiting that the name “museum” implies, makes them a good example of how to address head on a common headache for visitors; namely how to make use of the site in an appropriate manner, and know they’re doing it. For most museums and sites, this begins and ends with a map that will describe spaces in some level of detail. The good people at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Have been wrestling with orientation and accessibility issues and blogging about their investigations in a particularly fearless way that I hope others will adopt. I would also add the Cooper Hewitt’s primer on how to parse a tombstone label.

Since coming to work in an art museum, I have been struck with how passionate people can be about how to do it “correctly.” I’ve written about my own evolution as a viewer of art objects, and it’s been transformative to learn that “visiting” is a skill that can be exercised and improved. Providing that same kind of scaffold for visitors who haven’t had twenty-plus years of museum work to help them is something I long to explore more. I have dreamed of making an orientation space that would explicitly instruct visitors how to approach works of art, what is encouraged and what isn’t, and what the staff do when they interact with the stuff they steward.

A good cultural heritage experience is playful

The other answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this post “How is this applicable to the work of cultural heritage interpretation?” is that I believe our efforts are best focused on be better better at letting visitors play with our creations. Games get a lot of attention in the media, and have become a gigantic industry, but the part of “game playing” that is most relevant to us is the “playing” not the “game”. Play is an important entry point for folks of all ages into any subject matter. It is a crucial element to engage the interest of the non-specialist public in heritage (and most other subjects).  While we may know this intellectually, it’s still hard to get past the received understanding that play is non-productive and unserious. But we are getting there, and pursuing that further will be really interesting work!

Useful Dialectics, Part Two – Design vs. Tradition

“The opposite of design is tradition.”

– Johanna Koljonen

Jean Le Tavernier, "Portrait of Jean Miélot." Public domain image from Wikimedia user Leinad-Z~commonswiki

Doing it the old fashioned way.

In the last post, I talked about the distinction between change and transformation, and how the former feels more finite and time-bound while the latter is bigger in scope and more ongoing. In this post, I want to explore and refine the dialectical relationship between design and tradition. What I mean by that is that design and tradition can be seen as the distinctions between reflective and non-reflective practice, as Donald Schön and his ilk would say.

Tradition

I would argue that one of the greatest challenges of working in an institution of any longevity is the burden of tradition, the things we do because “That’s how we do things here.” These usually unspoken ways of doing work get transmitted via a kind of social osmosis, and often at an an almost unconscious level. If you’ve ever started a job, you know what I’m talking about; those things you “just kinda pick up” as you go about learning the job. They make implementing real transformation a daunting task. The unwritten and the informal are hard to overcome precisely because of their lack of specificity and mutability.

Tradition is not exclusively the realm of the informal. Plenty of processes and workflows outlive the situations they were designed for. And even moreso than the informal, these can become pernicious because they have the weight of the institution explicitly behind them. “Our process was developed over a long period of time and has been used here for ____ years.” “We’ve used this process to develop big projects.” The difference between reflective and non-reflective practice, I think, is that the burden of designing your processes should be a never-ending one. Just because somebody else designed a process once, that doesn’t make it right for the current situation. If the only tools in the box are hammers, even though they might be high-quality, expensive ones, the temptation will be to treat every challenge like a nail.

Design

I took the quote at the top from a talk be the experience designer Johanna Koljonen. It was only one of many truth bombs she dropped that day, and in this context (reflective vs non-reflective practice) it really gets right to the heart of so much that is frustrating and broken about museum work processes. They often don’t respond to the current players and challenge. They were a response to a previous challenge that has been passed on and replicated. Obviously, not every process can be redesigned every time, but the amount of tradition we tolerate is impressive. Resisting this tendency motivates a slew of methodologies that aim to help us work smarter. That is the whole motivation behind Lean approaches; looking for places in processes where there are inefficiencies and removing or reworking them. It’s really a very formalized way of trying to encourage reflective practice.

For Johanna, challenging elements of traditions to solve a problem is a crucial part of thinking like an experience designer, which was an identity I never assumed until then. Innovation happens through making active choices, from looking at a situation and asking “What are the designable surfaces here?” and recognizing that answer is EVERYTHING. For me, this resonates strongly with Schön’s idea of reflection as knowing-in-action. 

The Magic Circle

The other part of her presentation that made a strong impact on me was her assertion that “the magic circle” idea that I previously thought of as something exclusive to game design, was in fact a broadly applicable tool to think about any kind of experience design.

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The magic circle of experience design. Do your meetings look like this?

For the deep divers, the term “magic circle” first appears in Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture”. It’s current vogue though, is due to Katie Salen’s and Eric Zimmerman’s influential 2003 book “Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals”. For them “the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place. To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins.”

The idea of the magic circle is straightforward enough. When people enter into a game, they take on a distinct role, different from their default identity; they become players. And while they are playing, they accept new rules and way of interacting with the other players and the game. In good games, that’s where the fun happens; the learning and mastery of rules, the meaningful wearing of the persona of “player”, and maybe even winning. That’s what happens inside the “magic circle” of a game. Once the game is over, the players cease being players and resume their old roles and life goes on.

Project teams and meetings can be magic circles, if you approach them as opportunities to design. Everyone comes to the table with all their expectations in tow. In the team, or meeting, they take on a role (like “You’re here because of your expertise in x, y, or z.”) and can (and should) be empowered to temporarily try on new roles and reflect in action.

“The opposite of design is tradition.” I think there’s great truth in that. For our needs, though, I’d turn it around and say, “The opposite of tradition is design” because design is the tool that is going to allow us to replace traditions with processes that serve the needs of the time.

Next up: Network vs. Hierarchy