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I started designing games at an early age. “Designing” is really too kind a word here: the first ones I ever made are just primal-looking tracks or grids that I scrawled down on pieces of construction paper. I still have them, though, crammed way in the back of a plastic storage bin that contains the other stuff I made when I was a little kid: goofy monster comics, a handwritten manuscript about “demon hunters.” It’s fun to dig through this box, although the games are a little strange, as artefacts; it’s hard to look at them and know exactly what my intentions were in making them. They weren’t designed, I don’t think, with the intention that they would ever be played. For one thing, I didn’t have anyone to play them with.
And they weren’t designed for solo play, either. Oh, I guess I knew that it was humanly possible to play games by yourself—I know that I knew this, in fact, because I remember, as a youth, acquiring a copy of Gyles Brandreth’s Book of Solo Games. This seems almost laughably apt: what could be a better book for a lonely, interior youth to own? Fair enough: except I wasn’t able to get much enjoyment out of it. It mostly contained solitaire variants and puzzles of various sorts, and this wasn’t what I was looking for. I knew that games were supposed to be a social activity, and I had thought that the Brandreth would somehow teach me how to simulate sociality on my own, how to be my own opponent. Disappointed, I soldiered on, drawing game boards on pieces of poster paper, preparing elaborate circles but not quite daring to invite anyone into them.
I use the word circle to describe the space where a game happens because it feels symbolically right. In mystical thought, the symbol of the circle is traditionally associated with Heaven, and although I hesitate to draw a straight equivalence between the experience of sitting down to play a game with the experience of passing through the Pearly Gates, I do think that there is something psychologically apt about the comparison. There is something about the experience of gameplay that feels slightly otherworldly. Things matter in that space that cease to matter when you stop playing the game.
I don’t lay claim to having come up with this observation on my own. Specifically, I’m drawing from observations initially made developed by Johan Huizinga, an anthropologist and a historian of play. Huizinga is the guy who first identifies the notion of a bounded space that surrounds gameplay, and he’s the first person to describe it as a circle. He calls it the magic circle.
He does this way back in 1938, in a book called Homo Ludens, which translates as “man the player.” This book is subtitled A Study of the Play-element in Culture, which makes it sound, frankly, like it’s going to be a little dry. But Huizinga is actually one of those anthropologists who writes with enviable lyricism. By the time he gets to writing about the magic circle you could be forgiven for thinking that you might be reading some forgotten bit of writing by Borges or Calvino:
“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 the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.”
Arenas, temples, courts, stages: think about these types of spaces and you begin to remember that making a circle, the basic act of it, is one of the most primal techniques human beings have for making sense of reality. Draw a circle. Put some things inside it and other things outside of it, and you’ve performed a basic act of inclusion. It’s so simple children understand it.
In fact, once children understand it, they practice it, over and over again. And not always kindly. Making a circle is an act of inclusion, sure, but every act of inclusion is also, by necessity, an act of exclusion. And I don’t think there’s a single child who makes it even as far as adolescence, much less adulthood, without having felt the sting of being excluded from some group, without being the person kept outside of some charmed ring. We can imagine the most extreme examples of left-out children so readily that they have taken on an almost archetypal character: the one child not invited to the crucial birthday party, the one child who waits patiently but receives precisely zero Valentines during the classroom exchange. I wasn’t that exact kid in that exact scenario and I’m guessing that you weren’t either, but I’d be willing to bet that you, like me, can find some part of your psyche that feels exactly like those sad children, can trace back to some episode which forced you to play that role.
I played that role a bunch. I was an adolescent who was interested in games and fantasy and magic; it should come as no surprise to learn that I was not tremendously popular. But by the time I was fifteen I’d gotten a little bit better at talking to people and refined my awkwardness into a sense of humour. I also became fairly obsessed with the dynamics of clique formation. More so, maybe, than the average teenager. At the very least I was prone to expressing it with a particular intensity. So: I designed a little “user’s guide” to our group, taking our minor quirks and codifying them into repeatable rituals. I drafted an “encyclopaedia” which recorded and documented our in-jokes and nicknames and silly minutia. And I designed a board game which took the mundane qualia of our school experience (standardized tests, surprise quizzes, pizza, Jolt Cola, going to the movies) and formalized them into a rule-governed, goal-oriented, frame-bound, playable experience—into a magic circle.
The game was not sophisticated. You moved around the perimeter of the board, Monopoly-style, landing on squares and drawing cards that impacted one of four variables (your finances, your happiness, your romantic satisfaction, and your scholastic standing). There wasn’t much strategy, but I’m not really sure that that was the point. The point was to say to the players exactly what I most wanted someone to say to me: you get it. You belong. You’re in the circle! In a world within the world, where special rules obtain.
I was in the circle by default, of course; after all, I was the one who had conjured it in the first place.
By the time I was in college, I had doubled down on these strategies. I was an angry, art-damaged, atheistic kid who had incautiously elected to attend a conservative Catholic college, and I quickly paired up with a couple of other notorious campus weirdoes. We began to enthusiastically seek out those like us. We fancied ourselves as opposed to what we saw as the conformity of fraternal life, but in practice we were not so unlike the fraternities we mocked: we differed from them only in the way an image in a funhouse mirror differs from the thing it reflects. We circulated application questionnaires, featuring questions which ranged from “On a scale of one to ten, rate yourself” to “How many Japanese movie monsters can you name” to “Which is better: Michelangelo’s David or K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider?” We didn’t engage in abusive hazing, like we thought the fraternities were doing, but we did have our own strange initiation rite in which we incanted secret phrases and did weird handshakes and consumed the obscure “edible wax bottle” candy known as Nik-L-Nips.
We also had our own game. It was basically a version of my high school game with updated references: I replaced Jolt Cola with beer, No-Doz, pot, and LSD; I replaced the generic activity of “going to the movies” with the specific activity of checking out particular cultural mindfucks (watching 2001, reading Camus); I kept the tests and quizzes about the same. Instead of the Monopoly-style track we used the campus map as a board, divided into a grid; instead of trying to maximize the variables of life satisfaction you instead tried to manage to a gruelling slate of tasks: you had to run around the board hitting a specific set of destinations in an efficient order, sort of playing your way through the so-called traveling salesman problem. In a cruel touch, I opted, in this version, to give each player a character—they were randomly assigned the identity of a real-life member of the group—and I assigned each character a numerical value called “Messerschmidt,” which signified how central to the group you were. (Play as me or my roommate and you would be granted a Messerschmidt of 10, the highest score allowable by the game.) I’m not sure I can think of an artefact that better documents the arrogance and assholery that characterized me during that period, and I’m not sure if it’s made better or worse by the fact that I fully knew what I was doing: I gave the game the title Elitism.
Around this time, my games started to get better. I began to design a game called Inevitable which complicated the simplistic move-around-a-track-and-increase-your-stats mechanic of the high school game, adding elements that allowed players to engage with the game strategically rather than just submit themselves to the causalities of chance. Inevitable also stripped away the student-life trappings of the autobiographical games (for the most part: there’s still a card that allows you to read Camus) and replaced them with ripped-off tropes from science fiction, action movies, and cartoons. But despite its post-apocalyptic milieu, it’s ultimately autobiographical in a different way, and really it wants to tell its audience the same thing as those other games: you get it. You belong. You’re inside the circle. In a world within the world, where special rules obtain.
And as my games got better, the circles they made got stronger. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my group and I gathered to play Inevitable a hundred times, adorning its already diabolically complex rule set with our own home-grown house rules. When a player lands on square x, everybody shout phrase y; that sort of thing. I remember my girlfriend at the time bringing one of her old friends from high school to our dorm room and we tried to teach her how to play but after probably about twenty minutes she ran out of the room in tears.
During the writing of this essay someone I follow on Twitter posted a tweet that contained the phrase “nerds are the new bullies, right?” And Google the phrase “geek exceptionalism” or “geek triumphalism” and you’ll find some interesting pieces, well worth your time and consideration. One of them identified cultural bullies pretending to be misunderstood bookworms and I felt a stab of recognition. If you’d asked me at the time whether I bullied the young woman who ran out of our room crying, I probably would have denied it. I probably would have said that we were trying to draw her in, not force her out. But being inclusive means more than saying you can hang out with us as long as you’re willing to play by our rules.
Geek bullies, as I understand them, build themselves up by marking out some very specific area of knowledge, declaring themselves the expert at it, and determining that area to be the only thing that matters. And the more I think about it, the more I realize: I did this. I probably did it worse than most people in that the specific area of knowledge was not the Star Wars Expanded Universe (say) or Japanese manga but was simply the inner workings of the little group that I myself had set up.
They’re powerful things, the circles that games make. Huizinga is not wrong to describe them as magical. I think back to the circles that I made for myself, and even now, twenty years later, I am struck by the elegance and utility of their invention. In effect they were perfect. I’m not saying that they were perfect games—they weren’t. But they were perfect little rituals of inclusion and exclusion. They worked exactly as they were designed to: they took the people who were like me and drew them close, and they took the people who were less like me and kept them away.
I don’t want to close, though, by asking you to imagine the sad people on the outside of the magic circle, the crying women looking wistfully in—there’s something self-aggrandizing and false about that image. I want to look instead at the sad person on the inside, the clever person who, pursuing his own cleverness, ended up cutting himself off from the chance to learn from other people, from the chance to enrich his experience by being exposed to different ideas, values, ways of being. I want to say to him: you have to make a kinder ritual. You have to design a broader circle. Or maybe even more importantly, I want to say: you have to remember that the whole point of the magic circle is that it’s not the world. It’s a tiny heaven that you step into, yes, but if you want to see the world, as it really is, in all its richness and variety, you also have to remember to step back out.
Because a circle that you can’t escape is not a tiny heaven. It’s a hell of your own making. One day you are going to understand that, and when you do you will want to dig your way out, with both hands and all of your heart. So why not start now.
Thanks to Amy L Clark and Jessica Ferris for their useful feedback on an early draft of this essay.