This post might be a bit weird and confusing, but this is something I’ve wanted to try to explain for quite some time now so I’m giving it a shot. I’d love to get other people’s thoughts on this, so please feel free to leave a comment. Cool? Cool. Okay, here we go.
Cheater, Cheater, Pumpkin Eater
Cheating is when a player purposefully violates the rules of the game in order to gain an advantage. Think of card counting in Blackjack, stealing money from the bank in Monopoly, or using an aim bot in an FPS. In most cases, cheating caries consequences that extend beyond the game (such as being forced to forfeit the game, being banned from playing again, or having previous victories nullified). The decision to cheat often comes down to a cost/benefit analysis, where the player weighs the risks and consequences of getting caught against the benefits and rewards for getting away with it (if you want to learn more about cheating, you can check out this video).
Now don’t get me wrong here, cheating is pretty awful. Cheating can very easily ruin the game for everyone and you shouldn’t do it. But there’s a key idea behind cheating that I want to highlight, which is that cheaters acknowledge that the game matters, but choose to disobey its rules. While this is certainly disrespectful to the game and the players, it at least acknowledges that the game exists and has some value. Which is why there’s something I think is worse than cheating: “playing.”
Magic Is Everywhere…Until Its Not
Originating from Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and popularized by Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play, the Magic Circle refers to the boundary between the game and the real world. It acts as a barrier that allows players to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the game. For a moment, the Magic Circle allows the game to matter, even if the game has no impact on the outside world. This might feel a bit lofty and abstract (and if you want to learn more about it this video might help), but the main point here is that the Magic Circle is necessary in order to facilitate play. If the circle is ruined, play is ruined along with it.
This is where “play” comes in. Have you ever played a game with someone that just doesn’t remotely care about the game? Someone who doesn’t pay attention to what’s happening, doesn’t try to learn or understand the rules, is always distracted or on their phone, or belittles the game constantly? In my opinion, this person isn’t playing the game, they are “playing” the game. “Playing” is when someone participating in a game makes no active attempt to engage with the game’s systems or rules. Why do I think this is worse than cheating? It’s because, unlike cheaters, “players” don’t acknowledge that the game matters at all.
Like I said before, maintaining the Magic Circle is critical for a game to exist. If that circle breaks, so does the player’s suspension of disbelief needed to play. But when someone cheats, as awful as it is, it doesn’t necessitate breaking the Magic Circle. Sure, if the offense is severe enough it can shatter it, but cheaters want to maintain the Magic Circle because they believe that the game has value. After all, you wouldn’t cheat if you thought the game was unimportant. This is part of why cheating is typically done secretly, because cheaters don’t want their violation to be known because it would break the spell. But “players” don’t care about any of that. They don’t care about the game and have no desire to maintain the Magic Circle at all. This means that they are constantly openly eroding away at it, until eventually it doesn’t exist anymore. And once that happens, the game is ruined for everyone else that actually wanted to play the game. So while cheating can break the circle, “playing” will break the circle.
“GAME used RULES! PLAYER is confused!”
Sometimes, despite your best intentions, you just can’t get into a game. Maybe you find the game too confusing, or too complicated, or you just straight up don’t find it fun. And that’s okay. Not every game is for everyone, and you might not find out until you’ve started playing that a game isn’t for you. But whenever you agree to play a game with other people you are making a promise to them that you will attempt to maintain the Magic Circle as best you can. Sometimes, if you’re having a particularly terrible time, you might fail at that. But you can at least say you tried. But if you come into the game intending only to “play,” you’re going back on that promise. All you’re doing is dooming the game from the start and wasting everyone else’s time.
If you want to play, you’re always welcome. But if you only intend to “play,” please stay out of the circle.