DIGC310 Blogpost 3: The Magic Circle and Betrayal at House on the Hill

After the struggle last week to get a Let’s Play video up and running due to confusing rulebooks, I had a revelation; this utter confusion… This could totally be a thing. We could absolutely make a pretty alright video series on this with a watchable premise and everything! Something that is really valuable to know about a board game before purchasing it and introducing it to your friends or family is “how easy will this be to just pick up and play immediately?” Whether you have to spend some time on your own beforehand looking over the rulebook and trying to understand it well enough to explain it to your friends or can just work it out as you go along is a significant element of a games enjoyability on the first few runs, at least in my experience. Add to that the bonus that, in the world of online video, watching someone try to do something without having any previous knowledge on how to actually do it usually produces hilarious results, and you’ve got YouTube gold (or at least some fairly shiny copper)!

Add sharp objects like knives for a sense of danger, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success! Trust me — I know.

So I grabbed one of my favourite medium-difficulty board games and headed into class to pitch the idea that we should go ahead with the Let’s Play! But this time I would explain the premise and basic rules of the game only once and without clarifications to a group of players with no previous experience, and they would have to work the rest out for themselves while we filmed and snickered from the side lines.

This didn’t end up happening. But it didn’t end up happening in THE BEST WAY POSSIBLE. The game in question was Betrayal at House on the Hill, one that I love but has received mixed receptions in the past, but enough people seemed psyched to play it that we went ahead and did just that without filming. It plays up to six people, but once various players had to drop out part way through with others taking their places I think about 9 of us actually participated. I mucked up some of the rules and the game went for way longer than usual but none of that really mattered because it was so much fun! The Banshee was THIS CLOSE to killing everyone in the research lab when she was finally banished!

I found it particularly interesting experiencing this game play while keeping in mind the concept of “The Magic Circle” which Chris talked about in the lecture. The concept originated with Johan Huizinga who talked about play as occurring in any spaces where “the ordinary world” is set aside to give way to fabricated rules and restrictions that are happily adhered to in the name of creating a sort of new virtual reality. Places “within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart” (Huizinga 1955, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, p. 10)

The concept can be problematic in that it is often read as though there is a distinct barrier cutting off the “real” world from the “playground” of games where this special mood takes place. As far as I understand from the lecture and further reading, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman try to alter that perception suggesting in Jerked Around by the Magic Circle – Clearing the Air Ten Years Later that the boundaries implied by the Magic Circle were never intended to be so rigid. In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals their argument seems to be more that the willing, and joyful, suspension of reality entered into by participants at the beginning of play IS the magic circle, and that the magic circle isn’t nearly so confined or restricted as it originally appeared. “To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins” (2004, p.95)

I feel like I witnessed the Magic Circle in action during this particular lesson. A virtual reality was certainly summoned into being as we accepted our roles as Ox Bellows the dumb jock and Professor Longfellow the creepy old scientist heading into a clearly haunted house with very little reason. I would also say that in these circumstances the sense of play wasn’t restricted in any way to this virtual realm of constructed rules. Despite players coming in and out of them game, confusion over rule technicalities, and even in many ways regardless of the game having finished, that sense of play lived on. And it. Was. Excellent.

Note: This is also the lesson in which we started our game designs but I think I’ll talk about that in another blog post because this one’s pretty long already.


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