Are Games Spatial?
In this reflection I do not attempt to answer the rather capacious question of what a game really is nor do I necessarily address the topic of what the role of games in human life is. These highly relevant questions are filleted and attempted to answer by others. My question for this reflection is about the territory of games with the core question whether games are spatial and if they are and what spatiality is in relation to games; can we altogether talk about a game space and to what extent is that space physical or tangible? This question arose during a recent discussion about the Magic Circle, say the playground of a game as coined originally by Johan Huizinga in his Homo Ludens (1938) and developed by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen in Rules of Play (2003) as a game design tool and ending up in a metaphor that has transcended the original connotation given by the mentioned authors to a multitude as manifested in everlasting comment threads in blogs by authors like Zimmerman.
According to the introductory words in Huizinga’s 1938 Homo Ludens, “All play moves and has its being within a playground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course” (Huizinga p. 10). By choosing these words to distinguish the boundaries of a game, Huizinga also chose for a rather sacral phrasing of his description of what game space is or could be according to him. He speaks for instance of the consecrated spot, the arena, the temple and the Magic Circle, a choice of words with a rather esoteric jot to them, if not taken from cleric worlds. Interpreting this type of discourse, Huizinga appears to be a devoted follower of a near religious belief in the divinity of the greatness of the Game. In the very same introduction to his book, Huizinga employs superlatives to underline this believe and that is, by no means, to be reproved. In fact, as one of the first chroniclers of the phenomenon of games, Huizinga treats us with an in-depth understanding of the role and importance of games and gaming as he attempts to construe its relevance in life.
Let us be aware of the time frame, the Zeitgeist, in which Huizinga developed his insights. It was the end of the Interbellum and it was The Netherlands. All through Huizinga’s book, there are signs of his socio-political and economic engagement although the author never mentions the ensnarer by name. Huizinga’s thoughts (as expressed in the 1955 edition of Homo Ludens) like war itself might be regarded as a form of divination and in the absence of the play-spirit civilization is impossible do shed a clear light on the underlying philosophy of the Dutch historian when addressing the issue of the purpose, say the role, of games in human life; it develops civilization. Perhaps that is why Huizinga chose the rather pompously phrased conception of the Magic Circle as the metaphor for the playground of games, a metaphor that became an object of discussion decades later.
In the first sentence of his Jerked Around by the Magic Circle – Clearing the Air Ten Years Later, Eric Zimmerman (with Katie Salen with whom he rote Rules of Play in 2003 in mind) laments a definition for the Magic Circle as “[it] is the idea that a boundary exists between a game and the world outside the game (Zimmerman, 2012). According to the incited gamed designer, the Magic Circle is a design principle, a core game concept rather, just as there are a half dozen more. Zimmerman acknowledges the fact that he and his co-author borrowed the word from Huizinga as they also borrowed the term Lusory Attitude from Bernard Suits’ Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia to connote the specific attitude a player must have to enter into the play of a game. Apparently both conceptions were regarded as master concepts in the philosophy of Games as they grew out to overly exceed their original connotations and Zimmerman never anticipated that such conceptions (Magic Circle and Lusory Attitude) could ever have aroused so much discussion and confusion, let alone that it had ever been his goal to create such babel.
Zimmerman does agree however, that a game takes place in a certain space thus assigning space an important role in the whole conception, recognition and acceptation of a game. In fact, it is by far more a pondered idea than Hector Rodriguez who defines the Magic Circle as a spatiotemporal frame “which isolates their [the gamers] game from the more serious tasks of daily living” (Rodriguez, 2006). Otherwise, he does mention, “that within the Magic Circle, the rules of a game hold absolutely” (Rodriguez, 2006), therefore attributing at least this Huizinga thesis to the conception of Game. But what does that say about the spatiality of games? Are games subject to the notion of space? And what then is space?
According to Chinese-Americans geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, “space and place are components of environment” (Tuan, p.v) and there is a distinct difference between Space and Place: “Place is security, space is freedom” (Tuan, p.3) and as we know from Huizinga, play is freedom as well as it is a voluntary decision to play or not. Should we then better look at Place, as it appears to be more concrete, perhaps even more physical, tangible, then Space?
Again Tuan may enlighten us on Babylon’s tower of disarray as he speaks of children’s perception of Place: “A child’s idea of place becomes more specific and geographical as he grows. To the question, where do you like to play? a two-year-old will probably say “home” or “outdoors.” An older child will answer “in my room” or “in the yard.” Locations become more precise” (Tuan, p.30) and may eventually boil down to that cardboard on the table or rendering on the computer screen.
The two conceptions of Place and Space remain cause for confusion although the question whether games are spatial has not been cleared to our satisfaction. Tuan distinguishes two important notions that relate to Space: the spatial ability and knowledge of people. “With the help of the mind, human spatial ability (though not agility) rises above that of all other species. Spatial ability becomes spatial knowledge when movements and changes of location can be envisaged” (Tuan, p.67).
If we would decide that games are spatial, our decision would imply that games are about movement and location. That, at its turn, would imply that games deal with certain dimensions: “Spatial dimensions such as vertical and horizontal, mass and volume are experiences known intimately to the body; they are also felt whenever one sticks a pole in the ground, builds a hut, smoothens a surface for threshing grain, or watches a mound of dirt pile up as one digs a deep well. But the meaning of these spatial dimensions gains immeasurably in power and clarity when they can be seen in monumental architecture and when people live in its shadow” (Tuan, p.108). The question now rises whether we can decide on games having spatial dimension.
Huizinga also suggested that play is limited, meaning that it always requires place and time” ‘both combine strict rules with genuine freedom” (Huizinga, p.22). Perhaps it is in this limitation that we find reason to commit to agreeing the spatiality of games.
A last element of spatiality of games I would like to contribute is that of what Huizinga calls “the sense of limited mobility or freedom of movement” (Huizinga p.38) and it is in this detail that we may consider the spatiality of games as a (depicted) place for play. Already dimensions were mentioned as prerequisites for spaciality and now, on the very same page Huizinga quotes the President of the Netherlands Bank that, in the cause of devaluation of the (pre-war) Guilder, “in so restricted an area as is now left for it [the devastating quality of the Dutch economy in the late thirties of last century], the Gold Standard cannot play” (id.). How staggering it is to find quotations like these about playing space, availability of space, locative space, still after more than seventy years. It raises the question whether space is limited (as Tuan places Space between two extremities).
We play the game. We do so voluntary, often in a preset amount of time. We expect a certain outcome – a winner and thus a looser, perhaps even a certain sensation. We do so by obeying negotiated rules and we do so by agreeing on boundaries; if we step out of the collateral lines; we are not in the game any more and the game will be (temporarily) stopped. We will only restart the game play after we have re-entered the within the boundaries, the playing field, the space of which we have agreed the game rules to be applicable; the Magic Circle. Every game has its own disposition, its own character, its own sphere; it always obeys to prerequisites that are agreed upon before the game is played. One of those prerequisites appears to be spatial; space, game space as it is within its boundaries from where a game play commences or not, leaving those out of the boundaries as spectators. Or, are they participants as well?
Huizinga, J. (1949) Homo Ludens. A study of the play-element in culture. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, Boston and Henley.
Rodriguez, H. (2006). The playful and the serious. An approximation to Huizinga’s homo ludens. Games Studies, 6(1), May 2013.
Salen K. and Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of play: Game design fundamentals. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Tuan, Y. (1977). Space and Place. The Perspective of Experience (6th ed. 2008). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Zimmerman, E. (2012, February 7). Jerked around by the magic circle – clearing the air ten years later. Retrieved May 14, 2013, 2013, from http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/6696/jerked_around_by_the_magic_circle_.php
 See for instance http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/6696/jerked_around_by_the_magic_circle_.php as an example.