In a recent GameTek segment within a Dice Tower Podcast, game designer and teacher Geoff Engelstein talks about drinking games. He mentions a few historical drinking games (including the intriguing “puzzle jug”), but ends with a cautionary “don’t-binge-drink” tale framed via the magic circle. He suggests that, when inside the magic circle, one can behave in ways that one would find repulsive or dangerous when one is outside the circle, which, when applied to drinking games, can lead to binge drinking. The notion of the evil magic circle is an interesting idea, though not a new one, as it has been explored by Brenda Romero’s “Train” and the Stanford Prison Experiment among other projects.
Where I take issue with Engelstein’s piece, however, is his method for resolving this problem: Just leave. He advises people to remember that the magic circle is not real life, and that they should, when playing drinking games, not drink too much. While this is a worthy message, Engelstein’s methodology is lacking for someone who is an accomplished maker and theorist of games.
Surely, if we find objectionable behavior within games, telling people to stop playing games (leave the magic circle) is not a game-friendly response. This is the response of the politician who says “video games create mass murderers.” Instead, perhaps we should design better drinking games. Now, if players of drinking games are, as Engelstein suggests, only playing to get as drunk as possible, then this effort is useless, and I agree that his suggestion of “leave the game” (or, perhaps, don’t play to begin with) is appropriate.
But, as a discussion later in the podcast suggests (around 54:45 onward), not everyone plays drinking games with this motivation. Some players might play drinking games to play an interesting game that incorporates alcohol and drunkenness as game elements. Drunkenness, when not taken to dangerous, binging extremes, has elements of Roger Callois’ “Ilinx,” that form of play comprising vertigo and dizziness. Ilinx is more commonly associated with children’s play and amusement park rides than it is with games, but what if a player wants to mix Callois’ more game-ful play elements (agon: competition, alea: chance, mimicry: role-play)?
I think those of us who want to make games better can focus on making drinking games that are both qualitatively more interesting, and less likely to provoke binge drinking as a way to combat the real problems that Engelstein highlights.
The problem in my opinion, is not that the magic circle can be put to evil uses, but rather that drinking games are almost all based around a strict positive feedback loop: When you fail to perform a task, you drink. Drinking increases your Ilinx, which is pleasurable (and perhaps the goal of even playing a drinking game), but limits your ability to perform the task, making it more likely that you will have to drink again and again and again.
I suggest that we implement a negative feedback loop in our drinking games: Instead of drinking as a penalty, assigned to those who are playing poorly and making it more likely that they will play even more poorly, we should make players who are succeeding drink. This means that drinking (the creation of the Ilinx state) is a reward, much more in line with the notion that players are playing to experience this sensation. Additionally, this creates a negative feedback loop: If the winner drinks (making it less likely that they can successfully perform the task) those who are losing are suddenly given an advantage, meaning that soon they will get to drink, experiencing the Ilinx state themselves, and will feel rewarded for playing well and having unseated the leader.
Again, I am not taking issue with Engelstein’s desire to reduce binge drinking, merely with his suggestion that the way to deal with problematic games is to stop playing them. We who make and play games have an incentive, if not a responsibility, to make games better, and drinking games are no exception.