(Play) Ground Rules: The Social Contract and the Magic Circle

Stewart John Woods


In his 1950 work, Homo Ludens, Johanes Huizinga discusses the ritualistic qualities of play in describing the Magic Circle, a metaphor for the bounded nature of play that has received a degree of acceptance within the sphere of contemporary game studies. Since that time, a number of writers have alluded to the similarities between the social construction of game environments and the philosophical principles of the social contract. In this paper I provide an overview of the results of an online survey of over 700 strategy board game players which focuses specifically on the unwritten expectations that surround gameplay in a face to face social environment, arguing that these implicit regularities embody the liminal relationship between the game world and the social context in which it occurs. This is particularly evident in the consciously schizophrenic realm of contested games, where players are ostensibly obligated to play with each other, yet must actively strive against each other within the artifice of the game world. Drawing on Erving Goffman’s notion of the “gaming encounter”, this paper examines player attachment to the outcomes of games and the degree to which their contestual elements are foregrounded over social cohesion in an intimate game environment.


Game studies; social play; players; rules; goals; metagame

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.15847/obsOBS312009243