Magic circles. Mundane circles.

by waxbanks

Reminder: this is an impulsive, insomniac first draft. ‘I’ll have to think about it.’ –wa.

In game studies, the term ‘magic circle’ has been borrowed from Huizinga to mean, basically, the peculiar ritually charged piece of spacetime that gameplay occupies. It’s a temporarily transformed place and moment, within which the dream of play is not only possible but inevitable, where rules like ‘no throwing the pancake-ball if you’ve gone past the hitting-each-other line’ make perfect sense.

In an earlier post — which is, as it says on the tin, an ill-tempered outburst — I said this:

…remember that most of us now watch our movies at home — in a domestic, distraction-filled ‘curated’ environment, rather than the sense-heightening identity-submerging collective ritual strangeness of the movie theater. We’re too ‘enlightened’ to recognize the importance of the magic circle of ritual transformation which surrounds the theater, and too lazy to seek it out, at fatal cost to our imaginations.

There is no magic circle around the Web. There can’t be.

The ‘magic circle’ makes possible a total transformation of perception and action and relation and desire within gameplay. But that’s only half its purpose. It’s also there to keep the gameworld, the storyworld, the transformed magical field, from leaking out into the ‘real’ world. It’s topologically equivalent to a mundane circle around the other, largely boring things we do, and we’re quick to scold those weirdos who too eagerly violate the circle’s integrity in either direction: the fantasy football dweeb who delays the start of a work meeting by gabbing about his league, the hardcore Trekker wearing Spock ears to drop their kids off at school, the Christian fundie proselytizing at bowling night, the Deadhead blasting a 40-minute ‘Dark Star’ on the cafe stereo, the feng shui devotee rearranging his work area (and only his) in the immunology lab, even the child who passes on her imaginary friend’s messages at the dinner table.

The circle divides us from the dream — for its protection and for ours.

And so that quote about watching movies at home.

The biggest difference between the (movie) theater and home screen-viewing has always been TV’s domesticity. TV long favoured reassuring depictions of functional civic institutions (the city hospital, the police force) and endlessly talky domestic melodramas; in the 60s and 70s network TV assumed film’s role as consensus storytelling medium, freeing Hollywood up to enter its 70s Golden Age of subversive and oppositional storytelling and worldbuilding. Movies prefer detectives to cops, and fighting to conversation. TV comes into our living room, it talks to our kids when we’re not there. You don’t dress up for it or make an effort to attend. You just let it in through the door, into the chaos and recrimination and fatigue and mundanity of every day life.

With a number of exceptions statistically indistinguishable from zero, TV has more in common with Chap-Stik than with art.

The theater doesn’t work that way. At the theater you sit in the dark listening to strangers breathe, your body falling away, the screen so large you can’t escape it, noise coming from everywhere, to see stories which you’ve opted into — you’ve chosen to subject yourself to that ritual transformation, and so license can be taken. Something’s at stake. Before TV (have you ever thought about this?) we could only watch news footage at the movie theater — and those weekly glimpses of current events were charged with ritual energy. ‘News’ meant something very different then; it wasn’t yet ambient noise. TV domesticated audiovisual storytelling, fictional and non-.

(And if you think things are fundamentally changing — TV getting smarter, movies getting dumber — then consider taking the $15 you spent to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron and go watch a new movie with no explosions in it. They still make those! They make astonishing quantities of those movies. The real question is why nobody cares.)

The cost of TV’s domesticity, its ease of access, is banality. Here’s where we miss the magic circle. At home, watching Game of Thrones On Demand whenever we want, slurping microwave ramen in stocking feet with one eye on Facebook, there’s no magic circle at all — maybe you turn down the lights, but the ineffable quality of transformation, of journey, has been lost. You know this as well as I do. You control every aspect of the presentation. You can pause the experience to tweet about how freaked out you are by what’s happening in the story, if you want, and to be reassured that your ‘followers'(!) have had the same experience in their own time, on their own terms. And no matter how good the story is, how fine the craftsmanship, how ‘cinematic’ the ‘production values’ (ugh), the show’s there first and foremost to satisfy you. It is a home-delivered product and it is beholden to you. The real world leaks into the art, and the art’s power diffuses through the environment.

At the theater (as long as your turn off your cell phone), nothing can protect you. And that’s good for us! As Joss Whedon said in the NYT a few years ago, speaking against ‘spoilers’ (ugh) and in favour of surprise as a storytelling tool, the sense of humility and smallness that great stories give us is a holy emotion. It’s essential for our development as social beings able to imagine a universe that doesn’t revolve around us.

TV can shock us, it can dropkick our souls, it can change our lives, but it rarely inspires awe. Even now, that isn’t its purpose — and even a 48″ plasma HD screen is peanuts to the smallest theater at the Cineplex Odeon, not because the screen is smaller or the bass less deep but because our identity in the theater is so different from who we are at home. The movie screen lies inside the circle. What works on TV, in our living room, works not least because it’s in our living room, because it starts from that relationship of banality and trust and takes advantage of it. (‘It’s not TV. It’s HBO’ and all that.)

Reagan was a movie star.

Trump is a TV star.

This isn’t really about TV, of course, it’s about Donald Trump, Internet-accelerated atomization, ‘Republic 2.0,’ the way computer-mediated communication has deepened an already massive generational gap and made possible phenomena like the ‘lost generation’ of retired Fox News addicts, the destabilizing mix of postmillennial deflation and post-9/11 enervation, the invisible but crippling mental/physical health crises which our screen dependency has brought on, the 24hr ‘news’ cycle’s role in our present inability to conceive of timescales (e.g. for seismic shifts in Iraqi society) beyond the presidential-electoral, the humourlessness and irony-aversion of even the ‘intellectual’ threads of our national discourse — boring stuff, I know. And it all ties, in complex ways, to the slow-moving tectonic shift in modern cultures toward pseudosocial interaction, the pseudoagency of the consumer, an addiction to carefully filtered and ‘curated’ pseudoknowledge: a world designed for machines, for money, in which we (less and less) happily take what pleasures we can as consolation for the fact that joy, a built-in feature of most human minds, is less and less affordable, can only be experienced with a permission slip from your boss or your shrink or your political fellow-travelers.

I think that I’m mourning something called ‘magic.’ I think we’re scared of it, but we weren’t always.