In Beyond the Magic Circle: A Network Perspective on Role-Play in Online Games, Marinka Copier aims to dispense with the metaphor of a “magic circle” defining play (as defined by Huizinga), arguing that it establishes a fallacious dichotomy between “in-game” and “out-of-game” that hides the true complexity of actual play, game design, and research. A corollary to this pursuit is an effort to break down another dichotomy, created by the metaphor of the “ivory tower.” In their place Copier proposes a “network perspective,” based on the Actor-Network Theory of Bruno Latour and others, connecting clusters of people within networks (or systems of connections) which can include things, such as computers. I’m not myself familiar with ANT, although I gather that within CR it’s been criticized for having a flat social ontology, and from what little I can tell by reading Copier and Wikipedia, that seems to be the case: the agential level is the only one considered.
Be that as it may, Copier depicts the ways that role players traverse the in-game and out-of-game realms, and (more briefly) the traffic between gamers, the game industry, and academia. I’m very much in sympathy with her desire to excise the notion of a magic circle: as the term itself suggests, it seems to mystify rather than elucidate. But I’m not convinced that applying ANT achieves the goal. It seems in fact to be answering a very different kind of question, a sociological one principally concerned with interpersonal and small group interactions. It’s all well and good to say that the real and the imaginary are constructs under constant negotiation, but that really doesn’t tell us much about the nature of role playing per se. The epistemological or ontological status of the “magic circle” doesn’t seem to be addressed through her argument.
She does have an interesting suggestion about RP involving a type of conceptual blending, but she doesn’t explore the idea to any depth. It might – perhaps – provide one way of understanding the fictional/game element of RP, without resorting to the notion of a magic circle. I think it’s also going to be necessary to explore “possible worlds” (modal) philosophy as another possible avenue; I’m now reading a book by Christopher Norris that touches on those issues. Hopefully I can avoid the notion of a “willing suspension of disbelief,” an idea which has always rubbed me the wrong way.
These readings do raise for me the question of what exactly my goal is, and how it differs (if it does) from previous work. This may be particularly an issue with respect to Mackay. I think that my concerns are more philosophical, specifically ontological, even if that may lead me in some strange directions. On the other hand, somewhere or other I do need to reconnect to the history of communication practices.