What is it?
The experience structure dictates how participants move through the space inside the magic circle. Experience structures can be organized by rules that dictate what participants can and cannot do during an experience. Rules can be implicit or explicit. But rules don’t mean much without goals and possibilities. All of these components are part of the experience structure. A well-crafted experience structure frees participants to pursue goals and possibilities with focus and abandon. Anything that could be a wasted effort will have been managed by the risk mitigation efforts of the designer and the supportive scaffolding of the experience structure.
How others describe it:
“It is here that the individual releases himself to the passing moment, wagering his future state on what transpires precariously in the seconds to come.”
– Erving Goffman, Sociologist
“Rules are designed to be easy to learn, to work without requiring any ingenuity from the players, but they also provide challenges that require ingenuity to overcome.”
– Jesper Juul, Games Theorist
“All rules exclude wide ranges of possibilities so that we may concentrate fully on the selected set of options. Cicero once wrote that to be completely free one must become a slave to set laws. In other words, accepting limitations is liberating.”
– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Psychologist
“Though we seek to create order, we do not simply condemn disorder. We recognize that it is destructive to existing patterns; also that it has potential. It symbolizes both danger and power. Ritual recognizes the potency of disorder. In the disorder of the mind, in dreams, faints and frenzies, ritual expects to find power and truths which cannot be reached by conscious effort. Energy to command and special powers of healing come to those who abandon rational control for time.”
– Mary Douglas, Anthropologist
Deciding on an overall experience structure will make more granular decisions about the experience much easier to parse. While aspects of each of the structures may all be present in one experience, the design will be strongest if one underlying structure is used to lend the gathering coherence, stability, and momentum. Within that structure, nuances of the other structures can appear, but they only impact a portion of the experience rather than the overall logic.
Failure to commit to an experience structure can create a disorganized or contrived experience that relies too heavily on the facilitator to manage, robbing the participants of the pleasure of pursuing goals and possibilities for themselves.
Experience structures are a rich and deep topic. Of all the sections in the vocabulary, this one could be expanded greatly. For now, loosening up your view of possible experience structures and underscoring the importance of committing to one is a strong starting point. Too often, I find experience designers locked into one structure, not considering other possibilities.