Man the Magic Circle! – Why game spaces cater to unsettled men and their inner conflicts

von Harald Koberg


These days (as most days I guess) there is a lot to get angry about. And anger, as is frequently claimed, is not so much about rational disagreement rather than about fear and uncertainty. The times, to quote the young Bob Dylan, they are a-changing. And when social norms change, conflict is at hand. Conflict not only between conservatives and progressives, but also within individuals. One can criticize pop-culture’s constant reproduction of seemingly outdated ideas of heroism and at the same time enjoy saving the (fictional) world time and time again. One can use online games as places to rant and rave ardently and at the same time be ashamed of one’s behavior. Or one can be frustrated about the objectifying representation of women in games and be pleasantly aroused by scarcely clad damsels in distress and sophisticated breast physics. Digital games, as I will argue in this article, invite players to experiment with the in-betweens of real and fictional, heterotopia and utopia, fun and earnestness. And by doing so they embrace those inner conflicts and encourage players to interact with them without a high risk of getting hurt.

In this text I want to focus on this elusive aspect of playing games, evading theoretical frameworks and the power structures attached to them. And I want to show, why this is especially attractive for people who struggle with and are angry about changing social norms or, to be more specific, for men struggling with and angry about the ongoing crisis of hegemonic masculinity – a discourse closely connected to the riot at the US-Capitol in January 2021.

The thoughts presented in this text are rooted in my cultural anthropological research on social functions of digital play. It is based on qualitative interviews with players as well as parents and teachers and on a large number of participant observations and group discussions all conducted between 2013 and 2019. The research focuses on needs and longings satisfied by digital play and asks, what the existence of those needs and longings can tell about the social contexts they originate from.

Playing in between

The perception of digital game worlds as ‘not real’ is hard to avoid when playing, discussing or studying digital games. A lot of widespread criticism of digital games is based on the premise of players not being able to distinguish the real from the virtual, implying a binary system of reality and unreal game worlds. Social contacts via online games are often considered not to be real. And large parts of the discourse of video game violence are based on the idea of this inability. While there are a lot of logical inconsistencies to be uncovered in such commonplace critique of digital play, I believe it to be most productive to focus on the deconstruction of the premise of a clear distinction between the real and the virtual.

Video games, according to Jesper Juul, are half-real [1]. This description does not yet overcome the binary thinking, but it helps to intelligibly describe one of the core aspects of play: it is, in many ways, real and unreal at the same time. And it is, in relevant parts, the players’ choosing, how real they want it to be. Playing together requires players to come to a mutual agreement about how seriously, how earnestly they want the game to be played. A soccer player using a championship game to playfully experiment with new ways to outplay opponents and esthetically please her audience might be criticized for not acknowledging the significance of the game. The same player might be blamed of being too competitive after tackling a six-year-old at a family round of soccer at a neighborhood barbecue. To play, to a certain extent always means to play with the level of earnestness. And this is not only true for the interaction of different players but also for the subjective experience of play.

The joy of playing a horror game for many players originates in knowing and forgetting at the same time, that the horrors are not ‘real’. Being afraid of things which, you know, cannot harm you is irrational and highly enjoyable (for some people) at the same time. And a lot of the fascination of what is summed up under terms like nerd or geek culture stems from the joy of investing seemingly exaggerated amounts of time, money and expertise into subjects the overwhelming majority of people identifying with these cultures know to be of very limited relevance in the social contexts they live in.

For real

All these examples show, why the distinction of real und unreal does not help much in the context of play. The games themselves are, of course, real. And so are the experiences players make and the emotions they feel. But they are somehow detached from social contexts around them. To believe that the appeal of play comes from forgetting about the ‘real’ world is what Salen and Zimmermann call the immersive fallacy [2]. Instead, as Gordon Calleja points out, we should not draw a “strict line of demarcation between stimuli emerging from the virtual environment and stimuli emerging from the physical world.” The emphasis, as he claims based on his concept of incorporation, should be placed on the “internally constructed consciousness of the individual.”[3] Calleja’s theory strongly relates to broader theories of digital subjectivity such as the concept of augmented subjectivity, introduced by Rey and Boesel [4] or Wendy Chun’s theory of the (N)YOU [5]. They all conceptualize subjectivity in digitalized social contexts as a combination of physical and virtual or digital experiences.

Play in all of its forms, as well as all variants of digital subjectivity, invite us to dance on the alleged borderline between the real and the virtual, providing opportunities to leave aspects of our selves behind. Digital worlds and ludispheres – which is Celia Pearce’s term for networked spaces of play [6]  – match in large parts what Marc Augé describes as Non-Places: places of synchronized anonymity, defined by what he – mistakenly as I would argue – identifies as an absence of culture but at the same time essential for our current cultural period which he calls Supermodernity [7]. The anonymity of the Non-Place, following my own thoughts building on Augé’s, for many of us comes with a notion of relief. It bears an opportunity to get rid of certain aspects of our subjectivity for a specific amount of time; aspects that hinder us to do or to be what we want to be.

Videogames, to provide an obvious example, enable us to experience movement beyond our physical possibilities. But ludispheres, as the networked realities these games are embedded in, provide a lot more. Here one can hide or make up sensible aspects of one’s identity such as nationality, physical appearance, age, sex or gender. One can, to use the words of Stefano Gualeni and Daniel Vella, shelter oneself “from the seriousness and the boundaries of one’s own identity, one’s own physical capabilities, and one’s own existential situation more generally speaking.” [8] And one can do so without taking high risks. Because the playful context alleviates concepts such as lie and deception of much of its moral weight. 

Digital games as experiences, as understood in this text, are neither half-real nor unreal. They expand the reality of the players. But they do so in a very specific way due to a certain extent of detachment from the world around them. This detachment is what has been discussed as the magic circle. And it, very basically, describes a reduced impact that actions within the context of play have on the rest of reality.  The magic circle, however, is not that magical after all. It’s not some kind of metaphysical barrier, but quite a simple product of social conventions. As described above, the actors within the ludisphere, the players if you will, get to decide how serious they want their play to be. If you want to play along you have to behave according to those conventions – or struggle to change them. That is where the trouble begins.

Boys want to be boys

There is a crisis of masculinity seeping through societies in the global north. Raewyn Connell was one of the first to pin it down scientifically [9], but it has become undeniably visible in the myriad of anti-feminist movements of the 21st century. The fact that patriarchy is being discussed and challenged, is proof of it ceasing to be regarded as normal. It comes to people’s attention because it is no longer accepted as something unchangeable. Patriarchy, as Pierre Bourdieu argues, is long from its collapse. But the fact that for many it is now something that has to be defended bears evidence to the great success of feminist movements [10].

Videogame-spaces, however, have long been – and many of them still are – a safe haven of nonreflective masculinity. Why else would a person like Aris Bakhtanians remain to be a central figure of the fighting game community after making the following statement in a live stream: “This is a community that’s, you know, 15 or 20 years old, and sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s no longer the fighting game community, it’s StarCraft.” [11] While the straightforwardness of his words is astonishing, the implications, as research and everyday-experiences within gaming spaces show, are nothing out of the ordinary. Much demeaning behavior, sexual harassment, sexualization and objectification of female as well as queer bodies has remained to be normal in many gaming spaces while being challenged elsewhere. And this, undoubtedly, has led to the relative invisibilities and absences of non-cis-male players in large parts of gaming culture.

Videogames, as Gualeni and Vella argue, “present us with ‘sanitized’ versions of the world” [12]. An while the authors primarily refer to “upsetting reminders of the banality and futility of human existence” that have been left out, most ludispheres also spare us the unsettling reminders that gender might be a fluid concept and many behaviors that are considered ‘manly’ might actually be better described as toxic. So if you happen to have been annoyed or unsettled by the complexity and implications of feminist discourse throughout the last years, there is a good chance that you have found your retreat in gaming spaces. Hence, it should not come as a surprise that these spaces are aggressively defended against any influence carrying the slightest hint of feminist agenda. And they have a long history of defensive battles against ‘moral panics’ that have brought forth the persistent conviction that people who attack gaming culture never have a clue of what they are taking about. 

“In the 90’s I had to defend myself against rightwing conservatives claiming our games where satanic,” an interviewee told me. “Now there are other people telling me what’s horrible about my hobbies.” And these “other people”, of course, were feminists and leftists, ‘Social Justice Warriors’ who hated videogames and were only in game journalism and game design for the money. Famous media critic Anita Sarkeesian, as I was told, got rich by satisfying feminist urges and being a professional “everything-is-sexist-cow” on the internet. The attackers, as Amanda Phillips describes it, are perceived to be breaking the magic circle. “A rupture in the envelope becomes akin to the castle walls under siege. Gamers react in the way they have been trained: by neutralizing the enemy.” [13]

In between there live the trolls

It is – as the last years have clearly shown – a dangerous misconception that everything online trolls want, is outrage, that they are not to be taken seriously und are not motivated by ideologies. Research as well as observation shows that large parts of what is considered to be trolling comes with an agenda. And antifeminism seems to be amongst the most prominent of those [14].

Sexual harassment campaigns that originated in gaming culture such as Team Dickwolves and the much more broadly perceived GamerGate-movement have demonstrated with expendable vigor, why ludispheres provide the perfect breeding ground for the insecure rage of people who do not feel heard. It is the ontological debate surrounding digital play, the question of realness, that creates situations in which the relevance, the earnestness of things that are being said and done is hard to determine. It is common for players to be quite forgiving, facing insults in situations of play. And it is, of course, an essential part of many games, to be mean to others without them being lastingly upset. The wickedness, in a sense, is not regarded to be real, because it happened in a moment of play.

This notion that helps to turn games into these wonderful situations of moral learning, however, also seems to be the basis of Aris’ argumentation about harassment being part of fighting game culture. It’s all fun and giggles. And if you cannot deal with that kind of humor you might have to find yourself a different community. StarCraft maybe.

Videogame spaces, as I have pointed out above are, amongst many other things, retreats for men unsettled by the growing critique of traditional gender normativity and, more particularly, concepts of masculinity. “There are not many things left, that are positively associated with being a man,” an interviewee told me: “I believe that to be part of the reason why there are so many angry young men. Because they are being attacked by feminists for things they have nothing to do with. Because what the hell does #metoo have to do with me?” Backlash against feminist presence in ludispheres was described to me as the uprising of a marginalized group that does not feel represented by mainstream discourses. And this position was not always connected to the endorsement of aggressive campaigns such as GamerGate. “I have always struggled to talk to women,” one player told me, “but now, with #metoo and the like I am outright afraid.”

So why have gaming spaces proven to provide the perfect petri dish for masculine outbursts of anger about feminism? There is the aspect of many of them being close-to-exclusive male spaces. And, of course, these spaces are primarily online, entailing forms of anonymity and accessible possibilities to connect big groups of individuals with very specific interests or opinions. My main point in this article is, however, that the perceived ontological in-betweenness of digital play invites players to experiment with ideological positions they are not yet sure about. The players, as Jesper Juul points out, get to decide, how serious they want their play to be taken. And it is not uncommon for that decision to be made in hindsight. Losers, for example, are quite likely to claim they did not really try hard or their defeat does not matter to them, pointing out that, after all, it’s just a game. Winners on the other hand like to attribute their victories to specific skills they own in- and outside of the ludisphere.

Another common behavioral pattern in the context is play is provocation. Players frequently provoke contestants, usually focusing on those about to lose and more likely to react emotionally. Losers are being told, they are not smart enough, too slow or too stupid. If the provoked defend themselves, they are accused of lacking the necessary humor. And if they finally blow up they are being told it’s just a game and they are taking it too serious. Trolling has always been part of play and it is closely connected to the blurred borderlines of the magic circle. But now, with digital game spaces quite seamlessly connected to the vast world of online communication, its relevance and possibilities have dramatically increased.

The concept of play is also strongly related to acting as-if. And this is where the pieces come together. Through play we can act as if we were more self-conscious, more aggressive, more determined than we actually are. And, as we control the level of earnestness, we are not forced to decide, to what extent our actions in the game refer to our ‘real’ selves.

Despite of some frequently claiming otherwise, the majority of men on the internet want to be accepted by mainstream society as well as wanting to be perceived as manly and to be accepted by online communities. And these interests are bound to get into conflict with each other. Theories of deviance and stigma as well as observations of gaming communities and movements like GamerGate describe an oscillating movement between very different, partially contradicting forms of self-perception. [15][16] There is the portrayal of the group as victims of the mainstream. Then there is the claim to represent the ‚real‘ mainstream. Like when I was told that Anita Sarkeesian is being “laughed at by every genuine player, for the bullshit she is spreading.” There are attempts to stay within the value frame of society (“I support women’s equality, but…”). There is the notion of superiority towards other groups. And this shifting between positions and experimenting with them works especially well within gaming contexts.

Male interviewees who presented themselves as very critical of sexism and harassment within gaming spaces told me how they enjoyed playing the dominant masculine hero or raging in online games. As stated above, one can criticize the construct of heroism and enjoy it at pretty much the same time. As well as one can be annoyed and aroused at the same time, by the overly sexualized depiction of female bodies. Subjectivity is not usually experienced as frictionless and homogenous [17]. And games offer retreats do deal with this inner turmoil that comes with conflicting sensations within one individual. Here we can experiment with aspects of which we are not yet sure, whether they belong to what we call ‘our self’ or not. This can be a blessing, considering how play helps people to develop their own sense of identity. But it can also be a curse. And, to stress that point once more, playful contexts offer opportunities to neglect behaviors we have been experimenting with as parts of our identity in hindsight, reacting to backlash we face for our actions.

This is how all harassment campaigns within gaming spaces proceed. And the ‘alt-right’ has proven to be an attentive student [18][19]. The attacks on women in general and feminists in particular are all fun and games. Just remember Aris’ statement about the fighting game community. These spaces offer opportunities to feel strong and manly, but no one really believes women should not be on the internet. Or do they? That game of sliding the seriousness-control up and down is not just being played for the outsiders, the critics and the press. It is also being played within the communities. So everybody can decide for themselves, what was really meant the way it has been said or written and what was playful provocation, sarcasm, meant to amuse the crowd (and maybe to provoke the ‘snowflakes’ on the other side).

This dynamic makes it possible for individuals moderately unsettled by feminist critique of their free time activities, to be in the same room with radicals ranting about the “liberal feminazi” takeover of western societies without initially noticing. And if that playful atmosphere is craftily woven into the communication spaces of radicalizing communities [20], we might end up with a mob storming the US Capitol, every one of the attackers telling their own story of how far they were earnestly meaning to go.

Bild:  Техника – молодёжи 1969-02

Empfohlene Zitierweise: Harald Koberg,  „Man the Magic Circle! – Why Game Space Caters to Unsettledn Men and Their Inner Conflicts“ in:  Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaften, <> 08.02.2021

[1] Juul, Jesper: Half-Real. Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press 2005, here p. 199.
[2] Salen, Katie/Zimmermann, Eric: Rules of Play. Game Design Fundamentals, Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press 2004, here p. 451.
[3] Calleja, Gordon: In-Game. From Immersion to Incorporation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press 2011, here p. 179.
[4] Rey, PJ/Boesel, Whitney Erin: »The Web, Digital Prostheses, and Augmented Subjectivity«, in: Kleinman, Daniel/Moore, Kelly, Routledge Handbook of Science, Technology, and Society, Abington: Routledge 2014, p. 173-188, here p. 184.
[5] Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong: Updating to Remain the Same. Habitual New Media, Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press 2016, here p. 17.
[6] Pearce, Celia/Artemnesia: Communities of Play. Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Works, Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press 2009, p. 137.
[7] Augé, Marc: Non-Places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London: Verso 1995, p. 30.
[8] Gualeni, Stefano/Vella, Daniel: Virtual Existentialism. Meaning and Subjectivity in Virtual Worlds, Cham: Pelgrace 2020, p. 71.
[9] Connell, Raewyn: Masculinities. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995.
[10] Bourdieu, Pierre (1998): Die männliche Herrschaft. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2017, p. 154.
[11] See Klepek, Patrick: When Passions Flare, Lines are Crossed. Giant Bomb, 28th February 2012,
[12] Gualeni/Vella 2020, p. 80.
[13] Phillips, Amanda: Gamer Trouble. Feminist Confrontations in Digital Culture, New York: New York University Press 2020, p. 15.
[14] See Megarry, Jessica: »Online incivility or sexual harassment? Conceptualising women’s experiences in the digital age«, in: Women’s Studies International Forum 47 (2014), p. 46-55,
[15] Becker, Howard: Außenseiter. Zur Soziologie abweichenden Verhaltens, 2. Auflage, Wiesbaden: Springer 2014, p. 79.
[16] Goffmann, Erwing: Stigma. Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, New York, Touchstone 1963, p. 129.
[17] Puar, Jasbir: »I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. Intersectionality, assemblage, and affective politics«, in: Meritum v.8 n. 2 (2013), p.371-390, here p. 373.
[18] Lees, Matt: What Gamergate should have taught us about the ‘alt-right’. The Guardian,
[19] Hertel, Yannic: Go right. GamerGate und AfD, Videogametourism,
[20] Berkowitz, Redd: A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon, curiouserinstitute,



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Eugen Pfister (2021, 9. Februar). Man the Magic Circle! – Why game spaces cater to unsettled men and their inner conflicts. Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaft. Abgerufen am 14. April 2024, von

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