Play on the iPad: the Magic Circle and a marketplace

Justin Hall on the iPad's gaming possibilities and Apple's restrictions

Flash and Facebook have opened up a fantastic flood of new games — there are amazing experiments coming from people with relatively unbrokered access to online audiences. Facebook aside, bringing rich games to mainstream audiences still requires working with some kind of gatekeeper: Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft and now Apple.

iPad CoverageOne charitable way to view these gatekeepers is as keepers of the magic circle. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman write about the magic circle in their book “Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals.” The magic circle describes a space in which gaming takes place. Games suspend the rules of our shared reality to make a temporary alternate reality: a fantasy world with its own rules. By stepping into that fantasy world, bounded by the magic circle, we agree to compete without lasting antagonism. We agree to experiment with new identities without jeopardizing our real world credentials. The magic circle is a critical part of allowing players to enjoy shared play experiences.

The magic circle might explain a bit why Microsoft removes player names like “Frodo T. Baggins” from Xbox Live. When people sit on their couch and play social games with strangers, the gatekeeper is standing by to protect a civil level of social discourse. Sometimes those regulations go too far, and the gatekeepers are out of sync with their players. After years of protests, Microsoft reversed their policy on gay nicknames for Xbox players. Policing a platform is a delicate balancing act.

Perhaps Apple’s app store helps create the magic circle. If I’m playing a game I downloaded from the app store, I’m somewhat shielded from abject ugliness, suffering, pain and humiliation. I’m also largely shielded from viruses, system updates and crashes!

Will tight platform controls promote or hinder social gaming innovation on the iPad? Ben Fry’s post, “On needing approval for what we create, and losing control over how it’s distributed,” asks Apple to allow tinkerers to experiment more broadly with the iPad hardware and software.

From what I’ve read of the iPad, it’s a powerful portal into new forms of play. Using multiple fingers across a broad responsive screen! Tilting and rotating to reorient your perspective! A ~10-inch screen with multitouch even gives the iPad potential for in-person social gaming. Imagine two people sitting on either end of the iPad, running their fingers across their half of the device, sharing a touchscreen game with their partner.

I can lament the lack of multitasking and extensions — if I want to make Skype calls while I’m sitting on ICQ chat and surfing the web, waiting for my raspberries to ripen in Farmville, I won’t be happy on the iPad. But I’m excited for a game experience where I can grab, move and touch a digital playfield. So excited, in fact, I’m feeling charitable towards the iPad’s gatekeeper.

Yes Apple limits the range of apps we see on the iPhone and iPad. But they’ve also created a marketplace where small game developers can make a healthy living providing innovative games to receptive players. I’m excited to see what those developers will do with this new platform.

Maybe devices like the zenPad running Android will allow for a broader range of software and interactive experiments. But without the magic circle and a marketplace, we’re not as likely to see large-scale innovative entertainment experiments played by millions of people. For 2010, I’ll be looking at the iPad to see connected, social games making new use of my hands.

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