Flourishing in the Magic Circle: Notes for an Ethics of Games, Part 2

Cyberspace abounds with opposing views on the personal and social values of video games. The range extends from “a total waste of time” to “can make us better and change the world.” As a gamer, I tend toward the positive, while recognizing that video games aren’t for everyone. Nevertheless, I occasionally wonder if I’m wasting my time. Because I’m familiar with pro-game arguments (summarized, in part, on this Squidoo site), I ran a web search with the key words “video games a waste of time?” Yahoo/answers (2011) was listed first. Here the asker explains, in some interesting detail, that his life is much better since he quit playing VGs and wonders if others think VGs are a waste of time. One reply gave me a chuckle: “lol Yahoo answers are a bigger waste of time than video games.” And another reply made me think: “What is similar to video games? Let’s see: fun things. Remove every fun thing in your life and then you won’t waste anymore time.” Indeed, the other side of pondering what counts as a waste of time is pondering what makes life worth living. How much time we spend in VGs and how we use our time while playing surely varies from player to player. But one thing seems virtually universal: the desire to be the best that we can be, to flourish.

Forlorn Woods, Northrend (World of Warcraft)

Forlorn Woods, Northrend (World of Warcraft)

In my previous post, I explored the possibility of an ethics of MMORPGs based on Aristotle’s notion of human flourishing (i.e., eudaimonia, most often translated as happiness). I concluded that a flourishing toon is one that participates in a flourishing guild, that is, a guild that supports individual toons in their specific goals and is populated with toons who cooperate in furthering a guild’s goals. Now I’d like to expand on the notion of flourishing toons, while keeping in mind this assumption: time spent in the pursuit of happiness is not time wasted. Below I outline three concepts that I then attempt to weave together.

1. The Magic Circle.  In Homo Ludens (literally “playing man,” 1938), early game theorist Johan Huizinga included the phrase “magic circle” in a list of play spaces like the card-table, stage, and tennis court. VG scholars Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman in Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (2003) and Edward Castronova in Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (2005) adopted this term. Salen and Zimmerman consider the magic circle a game space where “a new reality is created, defined by the rules of the game and inhabited by its players,” where “special meanings accrue and cluster around objects and behaviors” (96). Castronova describes the magic circle as “a shield of sorts, protecting the fantasy world from the outside world,” a porous membrane that he calls a “synthetic world” because “people are crossing it all the time in both directions, carrying their behavioral assumptions and attitudes with them.” For MMORPG players, as exemplified in guild chats and dungeon guides, the “allegedly ‘virtual’ is blending so smoothly into the allegedly ‘real’ as to make the distinction increasingly difficult to see” (see “Magic Circle” in Wikipedia).

Dragonblight, Northrend (WoW)

Dragonblight, Northrend (WoW)

2. The Will to Power. English and media teacher Paul Brown in “Boredom, Power, and Self-Actualization in Azeroth” (World of Warcraft and Philosophy, 2009) argues that the console game Warcraft II “begins by saving the player from boredom and ends by offering eternal happiness” (67). While arguing for the game’s immersive powers, he draws on Friederich Nietzsche’s concept “Will to Power.” Nietzsche, he says, “believed that the will to exert power is greater than the will to live.” Such a will aims to dominate others, but given the constraints on overt domination, we sublimate by seeking self-mastery, by striving to overcome our own weaknesses (75-76). In MMORPGs, a player’s feeling of power can be heightened in both ways: by dominating virtual others in quests, dungeons, arenas, etc. and by dominating the toon-self through continual improvement of gear, talents, and skill. And this, Nietzsche would say, leads to happiness, which he defines as “the Feeling that power increases – that a resistance is overcome” (Brown 78).

Uldum catmen warriors, Kalimdor (WoW)

Uldum catmen warriors, Kalimdor (WoW)

3. The Goodness of Unnecessary Obstacles. Philosopher Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (1978) defines a game as the “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” and argues that if we lived in a utopia where all our needs were met, many of us would choose to spend much of our time playing games because (1) we thrive on challenges and embrace difficulties and competition, (2) it’s the journey not the destination that gives our lives meaning, and (3) it’s the process of reaching the goal, not the goal itself, that makes the game fun. Suits suggests that games and human flourishing are interwoven.

Fiero! on downing a boss in a Heart of Fear Raid (WoW)

Fiero! on downing a boss in a Heart of Fear Raid (WoW)

Flow and Flourishing Interwoven. Combining the concepts above, we can define an MMORPG as a magic circle populated with toons (characters, avatars) created by players who take up the challenge of overcoming unnecessary obstacles in order to feel powerful. In World of Warcraft, for example, players are aware that their journeys through Azeroth are fantasy, yet the feelings of accomplishment are real. “An active sense of accomplishment and improvement” is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of happiness, according to Russ Allberry in his review of Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990). And the doorway to happiness is flow, the state of being so immersed in an activity that self-consciousness and sense of time all but disappear. Allberry notes that flow activities “are challenging, require skill, have clear and immediate feedback …  and have well-defined success or failure metrics.” Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of happiness is similar to Aristotle’s notion that happiness is the ongoing activity of furthering human excellence, of flourishing. Thus I venture to say that any ethics of digital games, particularly MMORPGs, should take the concepts of flow and human flourishing into consideration. Flourishing toons provide frequent flow experiences for players. And it seems to me that the peak of flow is what some gamers call fiero: a burst of happiness expressed on suddenly overcoming a difficult obstacle, a hard-won accomplishment expressed with jump in the air, a moment of ecstasy. Epic!



About Lotus Greene

I started the blog called "Educating Lotus" in 2011, shortly after I began exploring the virtual world Second Life. With friends I met there, I migrated my virtual life to World of Warcraft (WoW) and joined an educators' guild. Lotus Greene is my gamer name, one I kept when I started another blog in 2015 called "Not Quite Ignored," which originally focused on the lighter side of news and now also includes political news and opinions.
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