Stories and Games (2): The Emotions of Play
Stories and Games

Stories and Games (3): Experiencing Fiction

Missed the first two parts? Click here for Stories and Games (1): Art, or here for (2) The Emotions of Play.

realm-of-the-mad-god-classes Could games be the ultimate artworks? I've heard this view advanced on two distinct but related grounds. Firstly, there is the argument that because the player of game has the experience happen directly for them, games are superior works of art to other media like films and books where the experience is second hand. The trouble with this approach is that the reasons we esteem art have very little to do with whether the relevant experiences happen to us directly or not – if this were not the case, Shakespeare could only truly be appreciated by actors performing his plays, not by the audience. It may well be the case that in assessing games as artworks our direct participation is vital – but this is an artefact of how games work as artworks, not an argument that games must be superior artworks.

Equivalently, the fact that we directly see a painting whereas we only imagine the events when we read a book cannot be used to rank either paintings or books above or below one another as artworks, since the cultural esteem afforded to art accrues differently in different media, and the distinctions between the techniques of each medium are not reasons to rank one form of art above or below another. These kind of attempts to produce a hierarchy of artworks are wildly incoherent and are thankfully rarely attempted these days – although incredibly the eighteenth philosopher Immanuel Kant did provide just such a 'ladder of art' in his Critique of Judgment, admittedly as an aside in what is otherwise some impressive philosophical work. 

A stronger challenge in respect of the idea of games as the ultimate artworks focusses on the intensity of the associated experience, a viewpoint recently advanced by game designer Dan Cook on his Lost Garden blog in a piece entitled 'Shadow Emotions and Primary Emotions', which essentially argues that games are superior artworks to stories (although Dan’s argument is not actually mounted in those terms). What Dan calls 'primary emotions' are more-or-less what I have called the primal emotions of play, and he is correct to recognise that these are more "visceral". However, he also wants to say that these emotions are "more real", and here I have to take issue with his methodology. He says: "As a game designer, I can and have put the player in situation where they experience real loss. The best a movie or book can manage is evoking a shadow of loss", and "the feeling of victory in a game of Chess is real. The feeling of anger at a Counter-Strike camper is real and visceral."

Behind Dan's rhetoric lies the belief that the 'primary emotions', being both more intense and 'more real', are more significant than the 'shadow emotions' – the emotions of empathy and imagination. I'm certain many game designers and players would back Dan in this – but what he proposes is a potential disaster for the artistic validity of games as a medium, and I shall argue that he is mistaken about the reality of his 'primary emotions', and misguided in placing these on a higher pedestal than the empathic emotions.

In the make-believe theory of representation that Imaginary Games adapts to videogames, Kendall Walton calls our emotional responses in respect of fiction 'quasi-emotions', and this in many respects is equivalent to what Dan calls 'shadow emotions'. When we weep for the tragedy of a fictional character, we experience not pity, but an emotional response Walton would term quasi-pity. When we feel a sense of terror that the life of the protagonist is in danger we feel not fear, but quasi-fear. The emotions experienced in the context of fiction, as both Dan and Professor Walton would agree, are still physically manifested in the body and are real experiences, but they are not quite the same as the emotions we experience in connection with everyday life. The quasi-sadness we feel at the tragic death of Anna Karenina or Aeris is not the sadness we feel for the death of a relative. In this regard, Dan and Professor Walton are in agreement.

However, Dan oddly seems to believe that quasi-emotions are not, indeed cannot be, as intense as primal emotions – he remains "unimpressed" by his experience of  'shadow emotions'. This is slightly problematic for his argument since this it seems to be just a fact about Dan Cook, and not really anything deeper. For many humans, the intensity of quasi-emotions can equal or exceed the intensity of ‘real’ emotions – people can and do weep tears over films, books and plays, and indeed a great many more people are deeply emotionally connected to the fictional worlds of TV and film than are equivalently immersed in the fictional worlds of games. What's more, many people care more about these quasi-emotions than about 'real' emotional experiences they could have with the world around them – the fate of TV soap characters elicits more engagement and discussion than the fate of real individuals suffering in other nations, for instance, even when the latter are presented directly in news programmes.

The quasi-emotions evoked by fiction are intimately tied up with the esteem given to certain artworks, particularly books and films (this is somewhat less relevant to paintings and sculpture, but can still be a factor). What makes critics afford Hamlet the praise it justly receives is precisely the intensity of the quasi-emotions evoked by the play when it is performed well. For me personally, the most intensely memorable emotional experiences I've had in connection with games have been precisely in the context of quasi-emotions that were evoked during tabletop role-playing games. In so much as Dan's argument rests on the idea that 'shadow emotions' are weaker versions of 'primary emotions', his argument doesn't really stack up in practice, and it isn't necessarily helpful to the case for games as artworks since if games aren't effective at evoking quasi-emotions then some critics will be reluctant to recognise their merits as art. Ebert's fence, the argument the noted film critic advanced against games but later retracted, is largely of this nature.

The nub of Dan's argument rests on the intensity of emotional response evoked by permadeath, which he references in the context of Realm of the Mad God, a game service that his company Spry Fox runs (and which is pictured above):

Consider the sense of anguish that one feels when the character you've built up over many hours of dedicated play dies for all eternity. This system, permadeath, is quite uncommon in many modern games, but thousands of players go through the process everyday in the game Realm of the Mad God.... Despite the coldly mechanistic nature of the system, the player feels intense anguish. It is a raw, primordial thing that courses through your veins and makes breathing difficult. There is really nothing playful or distant about this emotion.

Thus, Dan ultimately concludes, the primal emotions of play are more significant than quasi-emotions and we should give up trying to get games to evoke the latter and concentrate on what games do best, namely triumph, excitement and anger. I have some sympathy for this view in so much as I do believe that when games try to be films it is usually a waste of resources, but I can only follow Dan so far down this path. The anguish of permadeath is inherently superior (Dan seems to say) than any quasi-emotion could ever be, and in part because it is real – but is it 'really' real, and how do we know? It won't do to rest on the intensity of the experience as proof of its reality, since Dan accedes that quasi-emotions are real experiences, and observation of people other than Dan shows that they have intense experiences in relation to fiction that could only be understood as quasi-emotions. Emotional intensity simply isn't proof of reality.

Consider some of the other examples Dan cites concerning 'real' primal emotions – victory in Chess and anger at a camper in Counter-Strike are also claimed as 'real'. But this can't be taken for granted, as can clearly be seen in the case of Counter-Strike. What is the hypothetical player angry about? That another player has transgressed the largely unwritten taboo against camping? Or that a fictional soldier stayed in the same fictional place and thus killed another fictional soldier? These are descriptions of the same event. If the latter is what's relevant, then this isn't anger but quasi-anger, because it is in connection with the contents of a fictional world. (It might not, however, be a 'shadow emotion' in Dan's sense because he seems to always take primal emotions to be primary). If the former, then the anger is in connection with the behaviour of the player of a game, and we usually don't allow the content of a game to be considered 'real'. If the anger at the player is real because the behaviour is real (they 'really did' camp, even though it was 'just in a game') are the quasi-emotions of biographical books and movies to be considered differently from those of pure fiction – after all, those events 'really did' happen?

Even the apparently simple case of victory at Chess is not clear cut. Is it triumph or quasi-triumph the player experiences when they win? Is there a difference, and how would we tell them apart? Again, because it is an emotional response to an entirely arbitrarily accepted set of conventions (the rules of chess) this is an emotional response in connection with fiction, albeit the functional fiction of a game not the narrative fiction of a story. We have a choice as to whether to consider this victory real, but not everyone will consider it so, since some will say "it's only a game" and therefore “doesn’t really matter”. If the case of victory in Chess doesn't seem ambiguous, consider the case of virtual money – are Zelda's ruppees a real currency? There is a strong inclination in most people to fence off what happens in games as being unreal, and because of this it won't do simply to assert that responses to games are real without advancing some actual (philosophical) argument in support of that interpretation.

The situation is even more confusing in the context of victory at sports, which is parallel to the Chess example. Most people would consider a sporting victory real, even though it occurs solely in the fiction of the game in question (e.g. football or decathlon). There's nothing empirical about a ball passing between goal posts that makes it a goal – it's solely the context of the game in question that it is considered a goal, and it's not a goal if it happens outside of that context. We don't often spot that sport has an important element of fiction, but when we critically consider our sports it becomes hard to deny.

I'm very reluctant to go down the route that says that emotions in response to the fiction of games are real while the emotions in response to the fiction of stories are 'not real', and not just because I believe stories are themselves a kind of game. The anger I feel at a player who betrays me in a game of Junta is not on the same footing as the anger I feel at a friend who betrays me in everyday life and, despite the intensity of experience, the former deserves to be considered quasi-anger. I have almost fallen out with my friends over this quasi-anger, but it is nonetheless an emotional response to a fictional experience we were participating in.

In the case of permadeath, the claim to reality goes precisely to the intensity (the "visceral" nature of the feelings) of the anguish felt – yet what exactly has the player lost? A save file that allowed them to access a fictional world. It doesn't have any meaning to anyone else but the individual in question, which is a signpost that their emotional feeling intimately involves fiction. If I experience the equivalent anguish to permadeath because Microsoft Word has crashed, taking with it days of work (something that happened to me many times in the 1990s), I can explain the (real?) reasons why that work has value to me: other people needed it to advance the project, and now I have to duplicate that work all over again. The sufferer of a permadeath experience has no way of demonstrating any equivalent real value – value that other people would recognise. It occurs in connection with the fictional world of the game Realm of the Mad God, and is thus quasi-anguish (a powerful blend of quasi-anger and quasi-sadness). If it were real, other people would be able to empathise with you – but the only ones who can do so are those who have prior (fictional) experiences of permadeath – and this circumstance meets both Dan's description of 'shadow emotions' and Professor Walton's description of quasi-emotions. It's not real – but it certainly is intense!

What Dan advances is a kind of aesthetic theory for games that might be called the primal aesthetic – the view that intensity of emotions are the hallmark of great art, or perhaps just of great games-as-art. The former is an impossible road to walk, since it makes rollercoasters and crashing productivity software into great artworks, something few if any people are going to want to back. But the latter route is viable – I don't hold this aesthetic viewpoint myself, since I believe game stories, and the quasi-emotions they evoke, can be even more engaging and interesting than the primal emotions of play, and thus hold to what I've called a fiction aesthetic for games, where the confluence of the fiction of the rules and the fiction of the world creates new kinds of artistic value.

But although Dan and I advance different aesthetic theories we both advance aesthetic theories of games-as-art. As such, the idea that games cannot be art is simply untenable. Not only are all artworks games, as I asserted in the first part of this series, but videogame critics have multiple aesthetic theories available, and no medium that supports a diversity of aesthetic judgement can plausibly be excluded from the cultural esteem we provide to those curious works of fiction we call art. If we can appreciate a human-made artefact like a videogame aesthetically as a game, how can games not be art?

The inspiration for this short series of posts, my philosophy of games book ‘Imaginary Games’ is available from and all good booksellers now.


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Hi, Chris:

I think you're onto something important here, and that a significant strand within the Indian philosophy of aesthetics will support you.

Specifically, I suspect the notion of rasa is relevant to your discussion of quasi or shadow emotions. The word is found in connection with Abhinavagupta's aesthetics, which pretty much provide the foundation of Indian (and Tibetan and other Asian) philosophies of art. A rasa is a mood which can be conjured in suitably disposed others by those who can reach it in themselves and have the requisite skills to transmit it.

I have an essay, written some years ago and far from perfect, in which I suggest that Jaques' melancholy in As You Like it, Spencer's mutabilitie, the Spanish duende as described by Lorca, the American blues and various Japanese moods such as yugen and aware are all examples of rasas from different cultures. You can find my essay here -- but there are far more eloquent expressions of each of these rasas by aficionados, Lorca's terrific essay on the Duende being the example that comes immediately to mind:

This writer appears to suggest that the sublime is another such mood or rasa

Rene Daumal is another great writer who has explored the question of rasa.

Myself, I think of the rasas as a "second octave of emotions" -- which in specifically sacred contexts I can easily term "devotions".


I hope that this will prove useful, and that we can continue to exchange notes… I'm still hoping to review your book, but have been sick & "not up to par" recently.

Lovely write up. Some clarifications about my essay that may nor may not alter the points you are making.

Primary Emotions are different in type, not intensity

Consider the definition:
- Primary Emotions: Emotions felt by person A placed directly in situation X
- Shadow Emotions: Emotions felt by person A simulating person B in situation X.

There is some backing from neuroscience that these are different paths for processing experience, hence the reference to somatic marker theory and its 'body loop' vs 'as-if-body loop'.

There is a less a judgement of superiority than an acknowledgement that both paths exist. The terminology is less important to me than the concepts so if the term 'primary' suggests superiority, we could replace it with 'direct' vs 'indirect'.

I would also make the argument that games tend to be well suited to producing these primary emotions for the simple reason that games tend to put players directly in complex situations that involve decisions and emotional reactions all the time.

Evocative media such as books, movies, etc do not do this all that often. Instead, they rely heavily on shadow emotions...most such works are very much about "simulating person B in situation X". The 'turning the page' affordance creates a shallow rule space for generating interesting primary emotions. (Improv drama is a notable exception here and it is as much a game as anything else.)

So I'm not talking about intensity. I'm talking about type. And yes, these things get mixed together. Our brains are multi-channel devices that melt many means of processing reality together. Yet, these two classes of emotional response are rather fundamentally different. They are triggered using different methods and they yield different results. And as chefs, we should know our ingredients.

If anything, my promotion of primary emotions stems from the fact that they a) aren't well studied b) seem at the heart of many good game experiences and c) are often swamped by the immense amount of writing dedicated to shadow emotions. Do not mistake "Hey, look at idea A!" for "Only idea A matters". For a more nuanced application of both primary and shadow emotions, check out:

The games as art discussion is something I'll stay out of. I love redefining of the institution of fine art been seen as an (arbitrary, culturally dependent, endogenous system of value) game. Past that point we enter the realm of arguing over house rules. :-)

take care,

Hipbonegamer: Really interesting stuff you're talking about here! I love Indian philosophy and will dig into your essay as soon as I get a spare moment (possibly next year at this point!).

The reference to devotion particularly interests me, as it is suggestive of bakhti as a form of sacred fiction, and I think there's a lot to be gained in this perspective (which is prefigured in some of the Hindu philosophical schools as far as I can ascertain).

Honestly, I don't know why we're so hung up on Greek philosophy in the West when the Indian philosophy has had so much great stuff going on for so long! :)

Best wishes - and look forward to a book review, if you get around to it!

Danc: Might as well cc my Google+ reply to your notes for completeness:

I recognize what you're claiming here, but believe it might be a lot shallower than you assert. There is an argument that all emotional experience would be shadow emotion since the person in question is only ever a fictional construct. So so-called primary or direct emotions are "Emotions felt by person A simulating person A in situation X." :)

To really break these apart in the empirical sense you want to get to means breaking down the assumption of a person - your primary/direct emotions might be left to the limbic system as an autonomous entity, and it (ironically) doesn't distinguish enormously well between fiction and its alternatives. I suspect the reason primary emotions don't appear to be well studied could be that it's a lot harder to support the case for their separation than it initially appears.

Great topic, though! ;)

I'll just add: a wise person avoids playing the game of "what is art?"... but foolish people have so much fun. ;)

Take care!

Hi Chris:

The reference to devotion particularly interests me, as it is suggestive of bakhti as a form of sacred fiction, and I think there's a lot to be gained in this perspective (which is prefigured in some of the Hindu philosophical schools as far as I can ascertain).
Indeed -- as you'll see in my essay, Bhakti tradition could be very specific about the rasas.

As to the fictive aspect...


You’ll recall Jean Renoir appearing as Octave in his own movie, La Règle du Jeu? Hitchcock and others do it too, of course, and it’s figurative of a Creator taking incarnation -- or playing a role as avatar -- within creation...

Well.. with the Ramayana, we can also find the reverse!

I recall that when I was in India more than thirty years ago, I was told the Ramayana was written by Valmiki, first among poets -- and it was only afterwards, and under the poem's inspiration, that Vishnu did indeed take the form of Rama and come to earth to live out the story already depicted in Valmiki’s epic.

I just did a quick Google search to see if I could corroborate this memory, and found the following brief statement (wish I had better access to scholarly resources):

Rama was born a hundred and fifty years after Sage Valmiki wrote theRamayan. According to some the Ramayan was written in theSatyayug and Rama was born in the Tretayug.

The Valmiki Ramayan or Dhoumit Ramayan

That’s a pretty lovely tribute to the creative artist, no? The god performs what the poet has first envisioned?


... taken from a comment of mine on Bill Benzon's blog, where he was discussing Nina Paley's magnificent film, Sita Sings the Blues -- which is, btw, simply put, a must see, a masterpiece!

(Copied from G+)
Perhaps this difference of opinion stems from a discussion of how players treat a game as 'real' or 'play'.

In certain games such as chess or certain types of pretend play like attacking a weed with a stick and pretending it is a monster, there is a clear boundary between the results according to the game and the impact on real life. Your king doesn't actually die in the real world when you lose a king in chess. Nor do you feel the emotion of actually killing a living animal when you hit the weed. These situations could be described in terms of shadow emotions and this thread of "Games are absolutely defined as imaginary / leisure activities" is perhaps one of the most consistent threads in the study of games.

Yet there's another thread of games as utilitarian pursuits. When I play a game of Werewolf, I'm learning about how certain people lie and whether or not I can trust them. As you say, certain games can ruin (or make) friendships. When a child plays with sticks, they are learning critical skills about object manipulation. When the stick slips and puts splinters in your finger, the lesson is quite physical and very real. You aren't feeling pain and the associated irritation because of some simulation, but because you had a direct experience that caused an emotional reaction. (I use such blunt examples since I'm trying to be very clear...I really don't see how being upset about a splinter in your finger could be considered a 'shadow emotion'.)

I'd guess when games become more real and utilitarian, you see more primary emotions. Because the game matters and not just within the magic circle of the rules or fiction.

Consider the following spectrum of experiences, all of which are roughly identical in roles and rules, but vary in degree of 'realness': Prisoner / Guard relationships in A) Abu Ghraib B) The Stanford Prison Experiment C) A LARP in which a group of players was captured and is being guarded by another group of opposing players.

The emotions experiences in Abu Ghraib are far more in the camp of primary emotions (those derived from direct experience) than they are from shadow emotions. The emotions in the LARP are heavily moderated by the expectations of boundaries and to a lesser degree the fiction of the event.

Realm of the Mad God is an interesting example here. People 'rage quit' and experience such strong emotional highs and lows because the game doesn't quite fit the dismissive model of games as 'an activity done for fun and leisure with no utilitarian purpose." Many players passionately pursue excellence in the game and give it everything they can. Their time, social status, relationships and identity are deeply bound up in that little 8x8 pixel character. That provide are large dose of 'realness' and therefore acts a solid foundation for the generation of primary emotions.

Let's not forget that the words "art" and "artificial" are intimately connected! Per definition, nothing real can be art.

Hipbonegamer: really interesting supplemental to your earlier comment! I look forward to reading your essay as soon as I have a chance.

Danc: I think our differences go to ontological distinctions i.e. use of 'real' - and particularly in my case the concept of 'person'. Neither of us view games as necessarily leisure activities, so that's not likely to be a factor (although I don't necessarily agree that Realm of the Mad God isn't a leisure activity because of 'rage quitting' - but perhaps that's a sideline!)

"I really don't see how being upset about a splinter in your finger could be considered a 'shadow emotion'"

The electrochemical response to the splinter on the nervous system works on the limbic system, and if we were describing things purely in these terms there would be no doubt this would be empirically different from the other cases (*including* the case of humiliation and psychological torture in Abu Ghraib). But you say "being upset about a splinter in your finger" - *your* finger! That involves the brain simulating a fictive construct, the person that unites that nervous system into a unitary form. Hence my claim that even your primary emotions involve simulation (simulation of self).

In order to make this distinction hold up, you'd need to switch to empirical descriptions that would make it next to impossible to make this work in a lot of key cases that it seems you'd want to be considered primary. The Abu Ghraib example is a case in point since intuitively we want to make it a primary case but it involves a lot of fictive simulation (perhaps not in the case of waterboarding, but certainly in the case of humiliation).

We agree that there is a continuum here - my disagreement is with the placing of the line between primary and its alternatives. A great many of the experiences that most people would want to call primary could not be ascertained as such in any empirical sense - grief for a dead relative is a good example. We don't really want to make this qualify as a shadow emotion, yet in terms of empirical distinctions it uses the somatic loop you associated with shadow emotions.

As I say, the problem is with your ontology. If you make your boundary for primary emotions the direct activation of the pain responses in the nervous system, you can ground it empirically. But once you push any further than this, it will always involve the fictive-simulative element, and the real-game boundary distinction won't necessarily help us. I'm not sure what empirical criteria you could turn to that would distinguish between simulating ourselves and simulating 'others' in the way required to uphold your boundary. I suppose you can pin your hopes on mirror neurons bailing you out of this pickle. :)

None of this prevents you using your distinction - but my sense is that you want it to hold up as an empirical criterion, and it isn't going to do that very well.

Hope this is somehow clear! :) And thanks for extending our discussions. (Copied back into Google+ as well).

All the best!

Michael: "Let's not forget that the words 'art' and 'artificial' are intimately connected! Per definition, nothing real can be art."

Then if I live my life as art my life cannot be real. :)

Take care!

Picking up on Chris' last remark, with which I strongly agree:

I'd like to suggest that what's artificial is something made by artifice, an artefact. A suspension bridge that Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed is certainly an artefact, certainly artificial, and plausibly a work of art as well as craft – but it's definitely real.

If I'm right about this, the opposite of artificial would probably be natural or (if one argues that bees' honeycombs are in fact artefacts) spontaneously-occurring. Our use of artificial to mean false or unreal is a later usage, albeit one ideally suited to a world of sound-bite politics, photo-opportunities and PR.

Nice discussion really!

Btw, I feel the urge to add that "literal" and "literature" too are ultimately connected. Nothing real that can't be art, we would have to say then...

This is a great post, Chris! I mostly agree with you, but in some way Dan has a good point. There is a realness to videogames you are not quite taking into account, but I do agree that one shouldn't be bound to primary emotions. I hope this elaboration can help you guys see each other's points.

As games, videogames are the most real. That is because with videogames there is no magic circle. The only means of playing are exactly those which are permitted. In that specific sense, "Games are artificial. Videogames are not. Games have rules. Videogames do not." (DeLeon).

In the conventional version of boardgame Chess, moving a pawn sideways is physically allowed, but not allowed in the context of the game because of its rules. However in the conventional version of videogame Chess, moving a pawn sideways is not allowed at all. That limitation is very real. There are no game boundaries defined by game rules; there are just game boundaries. You simply cannot move that piece illegally. That means there's no requirement at all to hold up the game-based fiction of the experience, because the videogame holds that up on its own. In fact, in a sense you could say videogames have no game-based fiction at all, only game-based reality.

And thus, Dan is right in this sense.

The very way videogames becomes the most real as a form of games is by becoming the least real as a medium. To say that moving a pawn sideways is not allowed in videogame Chess in only partially true. Technically, there is no pawn. It's only a depiction of a pawn. Technically, you're not playing Chess, but a virtual depiction of Chess.

And so, the experience becomes real as a game, yet only does so by being fully encapsulated as a simulated fictional experience. The magic circle of games gets exchanged for the suspension of disbelief that other media has. And therefore, it is subject to those same emotional results.

And thus, Chris you are right in this sense.

But since games are simply an abstract structure for meaning, surely other structures can also become real through videogames, right? Dan's example of permadeath in an online videogame is a perfect example here. The concept of death applies to living beings. In the context of a videogame experience, a living being is a fictional thing. But within the videogame, a permadeath is real. That character is really gone.

There's no actual way to experience living as that character again like you could by simply watching a movie again or reading a book again. Since the beginning of mankind, we've never before had that ability with our fiction. And since what is happening is a fictional character dying, there's no reason at all to think that only primary emotions are relevant here. Death can cause any number of them.

Godatplay: There is much I like about your commentary here, especially your remarks concerning permadeath.

But I don't agree there is no magic circle with videogames. This to me is an odd claim.

"However in the conventional version of videogame Chess, moving a pawn sideways is not allowed at all. That limitation is very real."

Nothing prevents you hacking the game to allow this except perhaps the meta-rules some players impose. Juul and Sicart both agree that a characteristic of videogames is that the rules are unchangeable - but this claim is false. The rules of videogames are much more flexible than the rules of (say) professional sports. Difficulty is not impossibility.

Thanks for your thoughtful remarks!

Thanks Chris! I'm glad you are critiquing this idea, as I've been trying to find holes in it myself. I think you'd have to look further than hacking, though.

Hacking a videogame is an act that lies completely outside the experience of playing it. And the end result of a hacked videogame is an altogether different experience than the original, not only as a game but as a work in a medium.

The magic circle for Mouse Trap involves upholding its game rules and even the arrangement of pieces on the board, but not upholding the laws of physics. Could the game be played in zero gravity? It sure could, and the result would be fundamentally different. That doesn't mean that the physics of the interactions the game relies on are part of the magic circle. Gravity in Mouse Trap is a real limitation, the circumvention of which requires effort that lies completely outside the experience, not only as a game but as a work in a medium.

It seems that you're trying to argue for a magic circle of civilized society. To me, the walls of a building during a game of tag are real limitations. How hard is it to kick a hole in the wall so you can give yourself a shortcut? Probably not too hard, certainly less effort on average than hacking the game rules of a videogame.

But I think it's reasonable to argue that the difficulty in modifying that restriction doesn't suddenly make that part of the magic circle. With that same reason, I argue hacking does not support a notion of a magic circle for videogames.


"Hacking a videogame is an act that lies completely outside the experience of playing it. And the end result of a hacked videogame is an altogether different experience than the original, not only as a game but as a work in a medium."

The difference in experience is neither here nor there with software games, since a game-as-service (e.g. a social game) changes on a day-to-day basis and we still think of it as one game (despite the difference in experience). The same is true of the playtesters who are playing a game in development. In fact, the hacker experience is on-par with the experience of the playtesters (except the hacker does so without consent, a point I believe can be ignored). If the playtesters are playing the game - and I believe they are - then the hacker is equally playing the game. The difference of experience argument can't exclude hacking in my opinion.

"To me, the walls of a building during a game of tag are real limitations. How hard is it to kick a hole in the wall so you can give yourself a shortcut? Probably not too hard, certainly less effort on average than hacking the game rules of a videogame."

You wouldn't knock down the wall in tag for reasons that are not related to the physical exertion involved in doing so! But imagine a game of tag that took place in a warehouse full of cardboard boxes intended for recycling - then changing the landscape of play would be fair game, and might even be expected.

The fact that some players view hacking as cheating, and others (including myself!) consider it fair game is a sure sign (to me, at least!) that there is a magic circle applicable to videogames. The magic circle, as Huizinga outlines it (although the actual term owes to Salen & Zimmerman), is a socially ratified space for play - videogames provide that space in spades.

Best wishes!

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