magic circles

Day 29 of 30. In discussions of play and game design, there's the concept of the magic circle. I'll defer to Johan Huizinga on the matter:

All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the 'consecrated spot' cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.

What strikes me about this quote is that it could apply to pretty much anything people do in groups. Organisations have their own magic circles of a sort, a space into which you step into a new set of norms and rules. This is what you need to do to gain a level (see: promotions, raises). This is our main quest (see: vision, roadmap, release scope). These things are out of play bounds (see: contracts, workplace policies). This is your party (see: team), the character classes within it (see: roles, skillsets), and how we work together (see: ways of working, workflows).

It's a bit strange to put it this way, especially when many workplaces fall well short of being, well, magical inside their magic circle. Still, it's an interesting thought experiment, and maybe it explains some things that didn't make sense before.

How is it that organisations can barge ahead with strategies that appear obviously bad to anyone on the outside? (For instance: Unity's fee structure changes.) And then you peek inside the magic circle. Maybe you see a bad case of groupthink. Or badly-designed incentives that made it worth it for a few key people to stick to the strategy. Or organisational politics. Or design by committee. Or, more charitably: contractual obligations that left no better choices, or time and resource constraints, or - much more rarely - commitment to a longer-term vision, or a spirit of bold experimentation that allows for even high-profile failures, so long as something of lasting value is learned.

How does every organisation evolve its very own language of acronyms and codenames and other such shorthands? Peek inside any online gaming community and you'll find equally rich dialects. This is a consequence of the magic circle: the special rules within shape a new reality, and that new reality needs its own language for efficient information exchange. It's the same reason academic disciplines evolve specialised terminology, that connoisseurship comes with its own lingo of wines or whiskies or board games. The corp-speak may feel cringey sometimes, but it does actually serve a purpose (which I won't double-click on here).

I believe that being serious and being playful can co-exist, and that we could all benefit from them co-existing more often. In our Jugger Copenhagen board meetings, we remember to keep lively banter and a relaxed mood. At the field, while playing this wonderful weird sport, we remember to reflect so that we improve our motions and actions over time. Serious play. Playful seriousness. Why not? Who said they had to be separate? Who said adults can't play? No such rules in my magic circle.