The Magic Circle
What is it?
The magic circle, a term I have borrowed directly from game studies, is the invisible perimeter between everyday life and an experience where different rules of engagement are at play. (Anthropologists call it the “ritual frame” and contemporary mystical practices call it the “container”.) The magic circle describes the limits of both the formal rules of an experience, and the informal norms that an experience allows for. It can literally feel like magic to be inside one thanks to the seemingly inexplicable shift in logic for how things happen and what is meaningful.
For example, when you play a game of cards with friends, you might be able to verbally abuse them in ways that would be considered offensive outside the game. In fact, hurling insults at each other might enhance the experience of playing together. This is the magic circle in action.
Sometimes the magic circle has a physical demarcation, such as a door or a boundary line. The magic circle can also be bound by time. Physical and temporal limits aren’t enough on their own to conjure the magic circle’s power, though. It is the different set of shared behaviors and a shift in awareness by the participants that indicate the magic circle has been created successfully.
How others describe it:
“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.”
– Johan Huizinga, Play Theorist
“A ritual provides the frame. The marked off time or place alert a specific kind of expectancy, just as the often repeated ‘Once upon a time’ creates a mood receptive to fantastic tales… Framing and boxing limit experience, shut in desired themes or shut out intruding ones. How many times is it necessary to fill a weekend case to find out how to exclude successfully all tokens of unwanted office life? One office file, packed in a weak moment, can spoil the whole effect of the holiday.”
– Mary Douglas, Anthropologist
The design of the magic circle dictates which participants arrive for your experience and whether they are in the right condition to engage. Just because a participant is bodily present doesn’t mean they have stepped inside the magic circle. A well-created magic circle ensures that everyone at the experience is truly in the experience. How effectively the magic circle is created has a huge impact on whether the participants will be able to move through the experience structure successfully.
It is just as important to consider how people get back out of the magic circle as it is to consider how they get into it, especially in the case of powerfully challenging experiences where the participant might need a few opportunities to process and ground themselves before they return to day-to-day life. Otherwise, they may not return at all, remaining stuck between worlds.