In what ways can the boundaries between playing a game and the rest of life be blurred, dissolved, or broken?

“It’s only a game.” This popular saying is often used to dismiss the events occurring in some contest as having no consequence beyond the game itself. This belies the concept of the magic circle, i.e. a special, rule-bound, voluntary and agreed-upon place in space and time that features boundaries (http://tinyurl.com/ludicarch). The magic circle is essentially a constructed reality kept separate and safe from an external reality. This is part of why people can enter into games and take actions there that might otherwise be condemned, and it is also part of the reason one can take the role of adversary in a game against people who will otherwise be one’s friends. Especially in the realm of video games, there is often a clear demarcation between game space and real space, but this need not always be the case. The magic circle that separates game from life can contain gaps, ruptures and overlaps where one affects the other, and the play other that we engage with engages us back.

One of the most obvious examples of game space coinciding with real space can be found in pervasive games. These games often reappropriate player’s existing physical environment, the objects found within, and the actions that players take with regards to their environment. An application as simple as Foursquare turns simple physical presence somewhere into a competitive and exploratory action; users can be motivated to record their location to best their friends’ scores or by curiosity as to what sorts of points, badges, and other benefits might be waiting in a location.

Foursquare is one of the simplest reappropriations of a player’s environment; the boundaries of the game become the limits of the player’s ability to travel. There is ample space for pervasive game design beyond this, however. At the San Francisco “Come Out and Play” festival in 2006, the game “Payphone Warriors” (http://tinyurl.com/paywar) required players to claim territory by calling a certain code from the city’s neglected payphones. The player is again bounded by their physical ability to travel, but the game also claims a physical object, the payphone, as one of the elements of the game. It’s role and utility to the player is transformed by the introduction of a new action that can be accomplished through it, that of claiming control of an area.

These pervasive games reappropriate the real world and overlap game space onto it, but could still be considered to have a firm boundary between play actions and real life actions. An area where one might find a decidedly more blurred line between game and reality, however, can be found in the realm of economics. Video games are a multibillion Euro industry, of course, but this is just in reference to their sale as products and services. Complex economic ecosystems such as World of Warcraft have, as a natural consequence, spawned parasites in the form of gold farming, and in doing so have inadvertently acted as platforms for new economic endeavors. Gold farming is a phenomenon powered largely by developing economies such as China and Indonesia, where inexpensive labor is plentiful enough that the harvest and sale of in-game gold for real world money is a viable business. In China, gold farming has been both treated as an undesirable nuisance and banned (http://tinyurl.com/banfarm) and exploited through prison labor (http://tinyurl.com/chinaprisonfarm). The end result of all of this is that there are people placing real value, in the form of their money, on in-game gold as well as, by extension, the items that it can buy, as well as people whose life and livelihood is dependent upon what is for some “just a game.” In spite of the current general illegitimacy of this practice, it is a prelude to a legitimate future industry as indicated by such things as a 2010 ruling in Korea that means that “exchanging virtual currency for real money is legal in the country although subject to taxation” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gold_farming).

Gold farming is not the only economic phenomenon present in gaming; there is also crime. Consider a the MMO game EVE: Online; this game has at least twice been subject to scams costing other players more than €10.000,00 worth in aggregate. The first is a scheme in which players from an in-game group of assassins for hire infiltrated a corporation, EVE’s equivalent of a guild, over the course of one year. When the time was right, the members of this assassins’ group launched a coordinated strike in which thousands of Euros worth of virtual goods were looted by players who had gained trust within and infiltrated the target corporation (http://eve.klaki.net/heist/). The second is the “EVE Intergalactic Bank” fraud; an EVE player known as Cally created a banking corporation in-game. Offering loans, interest, and insurance, he ran the equivalent of a bank in-game for months before one day simply disappearing and taking with him more than €100,000 worth in EVE’s in-game currency (http://tinyurl.com/bsieoh). These stories show how the increasing complexity and realism of video games allows for occurrences involving drama that was once impossible in the confines of most things given the title of “game.” It raises an interesting conundrum: are crime and theft legitimate gameplay components, or have MMOs such as EVE Online already become something more than games?

Games can co-opt the “real world” and affect its economies; clearly it is possible for the issues of game space to encroach upon real space. Can real world issues do the reverse? The answer might be found in human computation. The ESP Game, an idea developed by Lius Von Ahn and later adapted as for the Google image labeler game, pairs two players who type terms related to a series of images shown to them one image at a time. In the process of doing so, the terms that players type are recorded as potential tags for the image that both players see. This game has helped solve the difficult problem of generating appropriate and meaningful tags for images. In truth, it is a game not intended chiefly to amuse, but rather to solve that very problem through the means of providing a diversion. It is not the only member of its kind, however. In September 2011, a game called Foldit, where players help to improve protein folding algorithms for HIV research by attempting to fold simulated proteins themselves, resuled in the discovery of a new synthetic protein that has the potential to help treat HIV (http://tinyurl.com/folditgame). Clearly, it is not just games which can encroach upon reality. The concerns of the real world are finding their way into games in increasing measure and with encouraging results.

The lines between games and reality are often clearly marked, even today. There are, however, places where one bleeds into the other. These gaps in the magic circle have already given rise to intriguing phenomenon, and raise questions for the future. What is the next step in the refinement of pervasive games? What is the appropriate approach to legislation concerning virtual currencies and economies? Will new real life actions, such as political organizing, find their way into games? If so, where are the lines between games and reality drawn, if at all? Perhaps it is arbitrary to draw lines between game space and real space, games and real life; games are based on play, and play is as real an activity as any.