TFD and the Magic Circle
The Paradox of Competition in Game Studies and Game Theory
By Liron Lerman – Professor Clara Fernandez-Vara
Game Studies II – 02/28/2014
The tension between the individual and social goals is inseparable human nature and was closely studied in the prisoner’s dilemma, a thought experiment that demonstrates how two players could gain from cooperating or suffer the consequences of defection. Likewise, in his book Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga, a cultural theorist, describes for the first time a magic circle that relates games to their cultural environment in which they were played. It is interesting to examine Liron Lerman’s The Fishermen’s Dilemma (TFD), thesis game through the paradox of the magic circle and the prisoner’s dilemma where in both cases players cooperate to form a social space in which the can compete.
Huizinga’s Magic Circle, as interpreted in Rules of Play by Salen and Zimmerman, acts as a “binary,” formal structure interface, between games and their cultural environment (quoted in Juul). This “binarity” is also the source of its criticism as it’s definition is not applied to all games, since games are often inseparable from the cultural and social context in which they are played. When viewed as a closed system with no interchange with its environment, the magic circle creates a paradox where “players cooperate to form the space of the game, in order to create competition for their own amusment” (Salen et al.) Meaning, that players, even when playing alone, submit themselves to the rules of the game by cooperating with it or with others, in order to create a goal-oriented game space.
In his essay, The Magic Circle and the Puzzle Piece, Jesper Juul solves the magic circle paradox by partitioning the circle into three layers: The core layer, is the game as “goal-oriented” interaction, this layer is circled by the “desire for an interesting game,” and a third, wrapping layer, is the “desire for management of social interaction.” Thus, by layering it, Juul solves the magic circle paradox: when the circle is partitioned to different layers of engagement where the external “social” layer is separated from the internal “goal-oriented” layer, the two layers may co-exist because instead of working against each other, the layers are complementing each other. Juul further states that the magic circle is not necessarily a “perfect” separation of the game from the world, since we as players can negotiate our level of interaction with games, both among other players and with ourselves.
Nevertheless, in their criticism of the magic circle Pargman and Jakobsson claim that in numerous games there is an apparent lack of “magic” and that the magic circle definition should be rethought (Pargman, 232). Moreover, they show that Huizinga, who originally coined the term, meant for the circle to be an “ascertain of how far a culture itself bears the character of play,” and that Huizinga was misinterpreted by Salen and Zimmerman (Pargman, 206). In other words, games are inseparable from the cultural context in which they were played. The question is how deep players negotiate their boundaries with the game, if at all. This leaves us with three key views on the magic circle: either it is a closed binary system as stated by Salen and Zimmerman, a layered circle as stated by Juul, or there is no circle at all, as pointed out by numerous magic circle critics.
The idea of TFD was conceived during the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street period, when citizens around the world were protesting against economic inequalities and the role of their government. The government, according to the prisoner’s dilemma, acts as an external punishing mechanism, that enforces cooperation. In its extremes,when the government has minimal intervention, people exploit the commons. On the contrary, over governing (like in dictatorships), corrupts absolutely. The Fishermen’s Dilemma game goal is to reassure whether players can govern themselves, and cooperate in order to create space for open (trade) competition without external punishment mechanism.
This bring us to the difference between the magic circle paradox and the prisoner’s dilemma: in real-life, citizens are forced to cooperate in social engagements, whereas at play, “play is freedom,” and one cannot be forced to play (Huizinga, 8). In real life, defection, will result in punishment, social ostracism, or imprisonment whereas in play, people may not want to play with each other again. For example, in real life when a fisherman cheats by fishing banned fish, they risk getting caught and imprisoned. In TFD, however, players are given the opportunity to self govern, through mutual trust that is gained through games iteration – once the trust is broken, people may not play again with that person. The game is an inexplicit cooperative game, meaning that when players engage with it first, they instinctively try to satisfy their “goal-oriented” intuition and maximize their gain by fishing and exploiting the commons. However, after repeated games, the players learn that in order to maximize their social gains, they need to learn to play together – or not at all.
TFD has an interesting relationship with the magic circle where all three views are applied: On one hand the game is a “binary” delimited system separated from external culture; the game can be viewed as “layered” circle; and last, completely symbiotic to its cultural context. For example, TFD is delineated with the magic circle in the sense that when playing the game for the first time, without the end-goal explained, the game works as a closed system, the fish and boats could easily be replaced by abstract tokens and the game core mechanic would still make sense. Every round, new tokens would be added to the board as a fraction of how many tokens exist on it. Since the core mechanic is a closed system, the paradox, as described by Salen and Zimmerman would apply since players are engaging in a cooperative activity, to confront each other. Likewise, when examining the game using Juul’s layering lens that strengthen Salen and Zimmerman view, the logical integrity holds as people negotiate their level of engagement with the game, since some players prefer meaningful social interaction over promoting their selfish goal-oriented needs without harming the integrity of the game system.
However, it seems that TFD is strongly not delineated with the magic circle because in its original form, with the fishermen’s metaphor and the cultural context in which it was conceived, it is inseparable from its cultural context. Moreover, the abstractness of the rules and players freedom allows for different form of play: either competitive goal-oriented, cooperative sustainable, or just for the recreation activity of it. It is expected that different games around the world will result in different outcomes. For example, in capitalistic states, it is expected that players will end the game faster than in socialistic states, likewise it is expected from fishermen’s village players to play differently than players in the city as well as players from different political orientation whether republicans or democrats.
Players in TFD can fight the rules because there aren’t many. The only rules are the coded constraints, of moving a boat in a circle, in one’s turn. The only decision the player takes is to fish or not to fish, how much to sell their catch for and what upgrades their boat requires. Players may also sit aside, play the game without participating in it and see how the fish reproduce indefinitely until they reach their carrying capacity. While doing so, they may enjoy the view of passing seasons, enjoy the sound of the waves and seagulls – by the end of the game, all players would still win because the end condition was met. Meaning, by not playing (and fishing), players actually win, because the fishery would be sustained by the end of the last round.
The smart-devices used in TFD act as a transitional object through which players view the game using Augmented Reality (AR). This means that when the players aim their devices to a common board, each player will see the same 3D environment model, with slight differences. The differences are the hidden information component that are determined by the relative position of the player to the board as well of a limited view of the fish surrounding the boat. Much like Harmonix’s Rock band physical guitar, and the Virtual Reality goggles Oculus-Rift, the device increases the feel of interaction with the game. The relatively new medium of AR, has little direct implication on the magic circle cultural openness since it brings people to play together in close proximity, which in return encourages coordinating strategies and potential cooperation. In addition, the idea of using AR as part of the game meant to emphasize the educational message of “Seeing a truth that is not directly visible.” The truth, that was long seen as a subjective cultural phenomena of unawareness of our impact as individuals on the entire ecological system, was in fact hidden and revealed itself as in a form of declining numbers of fish species and ecological damage to our shared environment.
To sum up, the paper lists the various interpretations of the magic circle and highlights its differences from the prisoner’s dilemma: in reality players are forced to cooperate by their governments, whereas at play, players have to engage with activity free willingly. By layering the magic circle we see that players may or may not want to cooperate on two levels – first level, to engage with the game, or second level, in its core “goal-oriented” mission to play together and sustain or to maximize one’s goal. It was demonstrated that the fishermen’s dilemma is not delineated with Salen and Zimmerman interpretation because the game is strongly influenced by recent real world events and comes to simulate a social and environmental dilemma that vary from one culture to another. The paper also discusses how players can fight the rules and not engage with the game, which would lead them to winning the game (but not gaining a lot of points). Lastly, the paper discusses how the use of Augmented Reality medium does not help break the magic circle through its illusion, but rather helps to emphasize the educational message of awareness to things we cannot see.
Juul, Jasper. “The Magic Circle and the Puzzle Piece.” In Conference Proceedings of
the Philosophy of Computer Games 2008, edited by Stephan Gunzel and Dieter
Mersch, 56-69. Potsdam: Potsdam University Press, 2008.
Pargman, Daniel and Peter Jakobsson. “Do you believe in magic? Computer games
in everyday life.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 11, no.2 (May 1,
Salen and Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. The MIT Press
(September 25, 2003)
Zimmerman, Eric. “Jerked Around by the Magic Circle – Clearing the Air Ten Years
Later.” Gamasutra, February 7,2012.