March 2013

Walter Biggins


The Magic Circle by Jenny Davidson

Video games ceased to be fun, for me, around the time they began striving to be movies or "real" experiences, and thus stopped emphasizing their sheer artificiality. Let's say the tipping point was 1996, when the first-person shooter Quake was released for PCs. Until that point, even the most "authentically" designed flight simulators relied on eight-bit and sixteen-bit graphics and clinky MIDI audio that sounded as if it was filtered through sheet metal. Players were forced to imagine that their onscreen avatars were actually submarines or vampire hunters, because the technological limitations meant that much of what was onscreen was abstract. As with reading, your mind did much of the work, using the suggestions of crude graphics engines to construct the game's world, and thus you were more invested in that world -- because part of it was yours and yours only.

Quake, and everything that came after, changed that. Its hyper-detailed graphics, shadows, lighting, and multilayered audio -- designed, in part, by Nine Inch Nails -- intensified the onscreen carnage. Progress! Tomb Raider used semi-accurate laws of physics to ensure that Lara Croft's breasts jiggled and her butt bounced realistically, and in the process sexualized gaming in ways that was heretofore impossible. Progress! SimCity 2000's game mechanics were so realistic (for the time) that you could pretend you were an urban planner, complete with spreadsheets and actuarial tables, which must have been super-exciting escapist entertainment for real urban planners. Progress!

The closer graphics, sound, and controls got to lived experience, the more they became work. We play games, in part, to escape the drudgery of work, to immerse ourselves in an abstract world that doesn't follow the rules of the world we live in, a world that has very different boundaries from the places and relationships in which we operate. Boundaries, though, are essential. Without the arbitrary rules imposed on us by the game, games can bleed over into real life. Play begins to feel like work; work starts feeling like play; and the imaginative, regenerative properties of the latter get overtaken and subsumed by the emphasis on "authenticity."

Jenny Davidson's The Magic Circle ponders what happens when the line between game and reality gets smudged. The novel argues that a game is ritualized play, with arbitrary mechanics as precise and mannered as that of a religious ceremony. When you enter into a game's space, you enter into a "magic circle," an isolated spot where only the circle's rules apply. That's true for a board game, for charades, for an all-night session of World of Warcraft, for a hand of poker. When there's slippage between game and life, when the rituals of a game bleed into the everyday world, as they do in Davidson's novel, bad things happen.

Ruth, Lucy, and Anna are three game designers at Columbia University, and they're all caught up in some stage of the academic game. Ruth studies game theory and designs "larp" (live-action role playing) games, in which her players use smartphones, GPS coordination, and engagement with real New York City environments to play. Lucy, an MFA-ensconced poet, helps Ruth fill in the backstories of her larps; she also pays Ruth for a room in her apartment, making the former dependent on the latter to an alarming degree. Anna studies urban design and city planning. She lives down the hall from Ruth and Lucy, and half-seduces-half-challenges them into creating the most immersive larp possible, one with lots of participants, sex, blood, drunkenness, and chaos throughout the city, mostly around Morningside Park and Harlem.

As I said, bad things happen. Larping, by its design, blurs the distinction between the game and their lives. Curiously, though, these bad things don't register as fully as they should. That's largely because the novel shares the same problem as its protagonists. Here's Davidson introducing us to the women:

Ruth and Lucy shared a university-owned apartment on the south side of West 122nd Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. A native New Yorker, Ruth had an undergraduate degree from Bryn Mawr and a PhD from NYU in game theory and design, and she now received housing as a postdoctoral fellow at the humanities center. She rented her second bedroom to Lucy at a very reasonable rate, a rate that Lucy was nonetheless barely able to afford after two years of full-time tuition as an MFA student at Columbia's School of the Arts. Anna had moved in down the hall at the end of the summer; a Copenhagen-based sociologist, she had received a Fulbright to study New York City's cultures of urban exploration.

That's a succinct summary of the women's careers. It's also essentially a Wikipedia entry. Like hyper-real games, Davidson's prose often leaves too little room for the reader to imagine, to play in. Much of the dialogue seems expository, moving the plot along clunkily, while not sounding quite human. When the women play a wine-soaked round of Truth or Dare, Davidson tells us flatly that "Lucy was a physical coward and hated to be embarrassed," instead of... Actually, she also lets the progress of the game reveal this to us, which makes the summarizing unnecessary.

The novel's first half details the parameters of the group's uneasy and envy-filled friendship, in prose that often sounds like Google Translation. Though the three-act structure shifts from third person to first (Ruth's, then Lucy's), most of it sounds as tinny and impersonal as an encyclopedic entry on live-action gaming. Lucy's section -- the third and final act -- begins to sound like a warm, wobbly human voice, but even it's befogged by discursive footnotes and descriptions that Davidson fails to convince me that anyone in her fictive world would actually say or think. Here's Lucy at a key moment:

[Anna] had brought another bottle of white wine, which I put in the refrigerator for later. It was an Alsatian white in a long, thin, green bottle. It looked delicious, but the mere fact of its existence made me slightly uneasy. When she had come over in the fall semester, Anna usually brought red wine, not white, as that was what both she and Ruth preferred. White wine seemed to signal an attempt to cater to my preferences. There had to be an ulterior motive.

Again, this occurs in the most convincing narrative voice of The Magic Circle, the section with the most natural sense of rhythm and evocation.

Beneath the plodding, detail-laden sentences lie interesting ideas about authenticity and play, and why the two shouldn't mix. Ruth, Lucy, and Anna create a game based loosely on Euripides's The Bacchae, and let's just say the bacchanalia gets way out of hand. Homeless people get beaten up. Anna blows a stranger on the grounds of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and then has him stab her in the collarbone. A couple of people die. It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion, or when one of those silly dudes in the Society for Creative Anachronism starts fucking around with a broadsword and accidentally lops off the forearm of his challenger.

The brutality and competitiveness that games incite in their players should be more forcefully portrayed in The Magic Circle than they are. Davidson imagines modern Manhattan in such detail that there's no room left for her readers to insert their own savagery, grace, and, yes, playfulness into the narrative. It reads like the rules of the novel but not the novel itself.

The Magic Circle by Jenny Davidson
New Harvest
ISBN: 978-0544028098  
208 pages