The Magic Circle

Mr Elliot McGarry, Teacher of Health and Physical Education

Games have been a part of our lives for millennia. Ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century, stated in Book 1 (Clio) of The Histories that the Lydians were ‘playing with the dice and the knucklebones’, which were made from the actual knuckle bones (talus bone) of sheep, 2 500 years ago. In fact, according to Herodotus, they used dice games as a solution to surviving a famine. In her TED Talk, Gaming can make a better world, Dr Jane McGonigal goes on to further explain that the Lydians

set up a kingdom-wide policy: on one day, everybody would eat, and on the next day, everybody would play games. And they would be so immersed in playing the dice games, because games are so engaging, and immerse us in such satisfying, blissful productivity, they would ignore the fact that they had no food to eat. And then on the next day, they would eat; and on the next day, they would play games (McGonigal, 2010).

The Lydians survived an eighteen-year famine by playing games.

Since then, games have been used as more than just a way to save an entire civilisation from starvation. The Romans used gladiatorial games to honour the dead, the ancient Indians used Gyan Chauper (now known as Snakes and Ladders) to teach players about the levels of spiritual enlightenment, the Vikings used tafl games (board games) as a source of entertainment and the ancient Greeks used games to bring communities together, an idea that was taken by Baron Pierre de Coubertin to create the modern Olympic Games. And like de Coubertin, we are taking the idea behind these games and bringing them into the modern world.

Adam Penenberg, author of Play at Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking, has stated in an interview with Forbes Magazine that companies such as Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Deloitte, Sun Microsystems, IBM, L’Oreal, Canon, Lexus, FedEx, UPS, Wells Fargo and countless others have embraced games to make workers more satisfied, better trained and focused on their jobs, as well as to improve products and services (Schawbel, 2013). This gamification in business is linked to the way that games are designed and in what can be learnt by playing them. Dr Jason Fox, a global authority on motivation and design, states in his book The Game Changer that all games — whether they are puzzles, sports games, strategy games, role-playing games, simulation games, training games or video games — share the same essential three ingredients: goals, rules and feedback (Fox, 2014). By using these three elements, companies have found ways to motivate, stimulate, and better equip their employees. Goals, rules and feedback correlate with our modern understanding of intrinsic motivation: purpose, mastery and autonomy (Fox, 2014).

Games can motivate us by being challenging; they also have a way of holding our attention for a long time. As a child, I would play Tetris on my Nintendo Gameboy® continuously for hours. Nothing captured my attention in the way that these different-shaped bricks did as they dropped from the top of the screen. The challenge is that, as the game progresses, you must get faster and faster at deciding how to align the bricks so that they disappear before they stack up and hit the top of the screen (Fox, 2014). It’s a very simple-by-design game, yet it provided enough of a challenge for me to play it continuously, stuck in my own little world.

When we play games, the outside, or ‘real’ world often disappears, and this allows us to concentrate intently for extended periods of time. We are completely engaged in the game. In gaming parlance, this mind-space players go to is known as the Magic Circle. Often used in reference to video games, this concept can be applied to all types of games. The concept of the Magic Circle was first outlined in the book Homo Ludens by Dutch historian John Huizinga (1949) and used as a metaphor by Salen and Zimmermann (2004) for understanding the space where game-play takes place. It is a temporary place and time where the players of games establish, negotiate and maintain rules specific to that particular time, place and game — rules that do not necessarily apply outside of the Circle. This can make players feel separated from the outside world even though they are not. This level of engagement based on challenge, simulation and reward also creates a space of intense learning.

Games can make you smarter. In Health and Physical Education we often create Magic Circles by coupling cognitive skills and movement patterns in games. Intense concentration within well-designed games allows students to develop cognitive skills such as problem solving, decision making, creativity, perception, visual and spatial processing, sequencing and anticipation. When we create Magic Circles in class we allow students to feel safe and to take risks, as their engagement in the game creates the feeling of separation from the ‘real world’. They also create a space of incidental non-cognitive learning such as patience, discipline, resilience, teamwork and social interaction.

Games are important to learning and we should all continue to play them. Whether card or board games on holidays, challenging goal-based games at work, sport before and after school, specific skill games in class, or games at lunch that are created by the imagination of the players, there are always opportunities to create Magic Circles. At Brisbane Girls Grammar School the opportunity to play games and learn is always present. The Student Care team at the School, working with the Year 12 prefects and the Health and Physical Education Faculty, have over the past year created the Come and Play initiative where students, particularly those in Year 7, are encouraged to access the Sports Centre and its equipment to play games at lunch.

2 500 years ago, the Lydians saved their culture and civilization by playing games. Today we are creating culture and enhancing our civilization by doing the same. When we play a well-designed game, we enter a Magic Circle that challenges, stimulates and rewards us with new knowledge and skills. When we play games we learn.


Fox, J. (2014). The game changer. Milton: John Wiley & Sons Australia.

Huizinga, J. (1949) Homo ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

McGonigal, J. (2010, February). Gaming can make a better world [TED talk]. Retrieved from

Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of play: Game design fundamentals. London: MIT Press.

Schawbel, D. (2013, October 7). Adam Penenberg: How gamification is going to change the workplace [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from