The Magic Circle Isn’t That SIMple

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February 7, 2013 by trosen3

Theo Rosenstein

Dr. Tanine Allison

Film 373: Videogames

February 2013

The Magic Circle Isn’t That SIMple

In 1938, Dutch historian and theorist Johan Huizinga published his book Homo Ludens, which translates into “Man the Player.” In this book, Huizinga details the importance of games and play in human society. He coins the term “magic circle,” which describes how a barrier, distinct and separate from the outside world, exists in games. As videogames and virtual play have developed, Huizinga’s magic circle theory has remained relevant and applicable, separating the gaming world from the outside world. However, Electronic Arts’ best-selling PC franchise The Sims, a role-playing game that uses a third-person perspective, complicates Huizinga’s boundaries by allowing people to bring in their own character traits and create a virtual life that mirrors their desires and lives. This phenomenon of a player incorporating his or her outside life into The Sims is explored in Thaddeus Griebel 2006 study “Self-Portrayal in a Simulated Life Projecting Personality and Values in The Sims 2.” Griebel’s research provides useful empirical evidence that players do in fact project intimate aspects of their own lives into their Sim creations and suggests ways in which the game could be adapted by psychologists to study a client’s inner world. However, the article neglects to address if and how action in The Sims influences players after they have finished playing.

Greibel conducted his research using a group of 30 undergraduate students from Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. His tests explored various aspects of how people portray their personality and own life in The Sims 2. The results yielded significant correlations between participants’ personality traits and personal characteristics and the ways in which they played The Sims 2. These traits ranged from neuroticism, openness, and conscientiousness to a players value in wealth, creativity, flirting and fidelity. Characteristics such as race, gender, age, and parental marital status were included in the study as well. Greibel’s research also details how the game allows players to convey facets of their own lives into The Sims 2, individualizing the game with their own personal experiences and aesthetics. First, the characters in the game do not speak an actual language. Rather they converse in a pidgin language accompanied by pictures, forcing the player to unconsciously fill in the details of the character interaction within The Sims. Players also build a whole existence in The Sims. The creator of the game, Will Wright, discusses this ability to create and its result, asserting “‘You can look at somebody’s [Sim] house and get a good sense of their personality … What a lot of people do right off the bat is they’ll put themselves, their family, their house and their neighbors in the game.’” Although there had previously been talk in the media about players portraying themselves in The Sims, until Greibel’s article there had been no published research testing whether this is true. This gives extra importance to Greibel’s findings because it provides practical evidence to backup the claims of the media and Will Wright.

Greibel also presents various possible ways psychologists might be able to use The Sims as a tool to help understand a client’s inner world. This has important implications for psychology because The Sims could potentially be a more effective instrument then projective tests such “doll play” to analyze a patient. By using The Sims in a clinical setting, a psychologist could learn how a patient’s family interacts, what the patient values, or “how neurotic, open to experience, or conscientious a client may be.” This is a new imaginative way of using The Sims, which has extensive potential in psychology. However, Greibel also recognizes that The Sims 2 was designed to entertain not to reveal aspects of people, limiting a player’s ability to effectively reflect their own life into their Sims.

Greibel’s article demonstrates how even though virtual worlds contain characteristics and attributes that are unique to their realm, the idea of a completely separate world based off the magic circle has difficulties. Greibel clearly provides evidence showing ways in which bring pieces of themselves into the synthetic world of The Sims. One participant discussed this idea, stating, “I played out my ideal life scenario through The Sims… it is only natural for people to [project] aspects of their lives into any situation, real or make believe.” However Greibel’s research neglects to address another aspect of Huizinga’s theory that states that once someone finishes playing a game, the game completely leaves that person and has no significant effect on him or her. The only time Greibel addresses this reverse breaking of the magic circle and whether players take aspects of their Sims and the synthetic world and brings them into the players’ real lives occurs during his discussion of uses psychological uses of the game. He writes “The Sims 2 may also be useful in training people to develop skills such as organization, time management, responsibility, and planning… it seems only natural that these skills used in a virtual household would translate into players’ real lives.” This offers a potentially productive way in which the magic circle can alternately be broken.

However, there are alternate possibilities of how a player could take elements of their virtual character into the real world. Harold Goldberg reveals that Will Wright thought The Sims would remain with a player even after the game in his book All Your Base Are Belong To Us, writing “Wright believed that people would play The Sims in their own mind even when they had no access to the game, just as they would relive a movie or book they had enjoyed” (Goldberg). Interesting questions arise from this idea based off players creating an avatar which does not mirror themselves, something Greibel does not explore. If a timid self-conscious person has a confident outgoing avatar in The Sims, does that confidence translate to the real life? If a player has their Sim do something they are afraid of doing, such as travelling, are they more willing to try it in real outside world? Though these questions are harder to gauge then self-projection, they are relevant in how people’s real lives connect to their virtual lives.




Work Cited

Goldberg, Harold. All Your Base Are Belong To Us: How Fifty Years Of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture. New York: Three Rivers, 2011. Print.

Griebel, Thaddeus. “Self-Portrayal in a Simulated Life: Projecting Personality and Values in The Sims 2.” Game Studies 6.1 (2006): n. pag. – Self-Portrayal in a Simulated Life: Projecting Personality and Values in The Sims 2. Web.


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