A Plot to Bomb the Magic Circle: Chaos Magic in Urban Play

A Plot to Bomb the Magic Circle: Chaos Magic in Urban Play

The magic circle is a metaphor for a mutually agreed space for play. By playing larps, we willingly enter into these contracts with boundaries of where, how and when play is permitted in consensually agreed terms or social frame (Järvelä 2019). Through urban and pervasive styles of play, I’m exploring the possibilities arising from disrupting the social frame of the magic circle, particularly through the practice of chaos magic.

Psychogeography is often practiced as a pseudo-scientific study of the city, particularly in its early forms. Beginning in the 1950s from the Lettrist movement and in the following years with the Situationist movement, psychogeography is a ‘study’ or exploration of the range of emotions and behaviours that an urban landscape determines upon its inhabitants or participants. Considering the actively playful nature of urban landscapes as seen through the psychogeographic lens, it could be considered that a city’s inhabitants assume the role of participants, simply by taking part in everyday life. Psychogeography is characterised by the rejection of convenient forms of traversing a city in favour of more experimental forms of navigation, usually by walking to actively work against the intended purpose of urban design, as an act of playful resistance. It redefines the function of the architecture as tools for play, to be dissected and reassembled through the act of walking and reimagining what the city might be. The Situationist practice of blurring the boundaries between art and life is ever present in the form of a drift (in French: dérive) where a purposeless, playful interaction with the urban landscape through a journey creates possibility for chance encounters. The active participation of the drift, in contrast to passive consumption, creates the same levels of player agency desirable in most larp practices.

Psychogeography is not without its challenges. As a documented practice it can lack inclusivity by getting lost in opaque language and esotericism (obscure forms of knowledge). However, the active participation of the body situated in the space means that it has to be experienced in order to be understood.

Through encounters with cities in constant flux, moments of chance and serendipity are what I want to focus on, as well as the magic created through these experiences.

Since the 1990s, British psychogeography practitioners have borrowed more and more from esoteric and occult practices, particularly in London and Glasgow. Chaos magic is an accessible introduction to this crossover with urban play, with or without larp. The term ’chaos magic’ is easier to understand as ‘success magic’ or ‘results magic’. I don’t want to explain it away, but as this is the purpose of this piece of writing, please forgive me as I do precisely this.

Serendipity

Serendipity is similar to luck or good fortune, but not the same. We can view serendipity as the process of allowing unlikely chance findings to happen and accepting that what is found is not necessarily what is being looked for. Chaos magic relies on serendipity as a salient feature, and, this is the important bit, it uses the psychology of only celebrating successful results. (If this sounds like cheating, that’s because it is cheating. But you must immediately forget that I have written this, and this section should be détourned or ripped out and eaten).

Through the adventures of the city, you ordinarily encounter so much that is immediately forgotten. However, during a drift, you can become hyper attuned to your surroundings and pay attention to the brilliance of all details. Coming across buildings, signs, street furniture, and found objects that you might have ignored before offers infinite possibilities for play. It is these details which begin to build your magic. The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon gives a name to the psychological effect of coming across something new and then encountering it again in quick succession. This effect is similar to what can happen through the process of a  drift. By paying attention to the details of the urban environment, it is inevitable that some will be more interconnected than others, even showing repeated motifs in the way the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon might make us believe we are encountering incredible repetition, yet it is the process of being more susceptible to your own motifs that will make them stand out. These connections are the moments of serendipity that will shape a narrative and look like they are made for you.

Painted image of a crossing sign with person in green walking and the word "Flashing" above it

Facilitating play

In this context of psychogeographical chaos magic, urban play requires the practitioner to engage in a dialogue with the landscape. Reading the environment is similar to reading a tarot draft: it is an exercise of interpretation, of connecting ideas to create meaning. This allows you to approach the play with a problem that you want to solve or an unanswered question, either predetermined or found through the play itself. The process of being open to allowing events to happen is paramount, so don’t get too hung up on specific questions that do not bear fruit, and be prepared to give your playful journey enough time for symbols, clues, and answers to present themselves.

If you make a few predictions or choose a few overlapping threads of narratives, the odds stack up in your favour. It’s always an experiment, and some questions will be answered through the magic; some questions, if you allow them to continue outside of the magic circle, will be left hanging like an unresolved cadence for years. And some will be complete wild goose chases that leave you wondering if, in fact, you are the goose. For me, this is definitely part of the appeal.

Drift as larp as chaos magic?

To introduce a drift in larp terms, we could imagine the urban environment as a freeform sandbox larp without a spatial border to the agreed area of play. We can still create a fictive setting, and a narrative arc such as a question or prompt to be answered on the journey.

In Green Basilisk (2019), an environmental disaster takes place and time travellers from different eras come together to decide what happened through a collective drift. “Green Basilisk” refers to the disaster, the collective prompt for players is to interpret clues from the landscape, but without saying what actually happened. In the workshop, players create their characters who come from 3 fixed points in linear time and interact with real objects in the landscape as props for play in the fiction. The props (buildings, found objects) can be used diegetically or non-diegetically as the players feel appropriate. This contributes to a sense of being situated in the landscape at the same time as playing in the storyworld. When encountering a church, for example, players are permitted to use their own player knowledge of what the function of the building is, or they can create a new meaning for it, such as a spy headquarters or fallout shelter. Characters from different eras might have conflicting views on the function of buildings, which creates opportunities for play. The contradiction between eras, as well as moving between the ‘real’ and fictional interpretations of objects, creates a blurring of time boundaries. This allows players to experience a more fluid interpretation of the relationship between cause and effect of events through play. There is no set route in the larp, this is decided by players as they go, which is important for serendipitous activity to allow the process of a narrative to build through unexpected discoveries. In urban areas (and especially London, where this larp has been played), there are enough signifiers of consumer capitalism for the play to veer towards capitalism as theme and cause of the disaster but this setting could just as easily allow the players to take the narrative in other directions!

Bomb the Magic Circle

The magic circle as a boundary is not one that larp designers and players should give up on lightly. It expands possibilities by providing an alibi for the development of narrative and relationships, within a social contract which is predominantly safe for play. However, I want to encourage forms of urban play where the magic circle exists as a membrane, one which is permeable to the everyday world in both directions.Through this process, the blurring of “art” and “life” or play experiences with wider society, provides an opportunity to occupy space with play whilst maintaining a firmer connection with the everyday world. By taking up space for its own sake in the context of a city where privatised and monetised areas dominate, we can détourne the landscape to one that can be shaped by the imagination of the players. We can view it as an act of resistance and confrontation, it gives agency simultaneously in the play and the everyday, where players can imagine and prefigure hopeful futures for the city through the active reclamation of public space.

In urban play, particularly with the temporal stretching of play in psychogeographical scenarios, in which case it can be restarted at short notice out of the everyday, it is helpful to us to think about the 2 worlds layered on top of each other, or co-existing. For larp to be accessible in the broadest sense this method allows a process that keeps an openness for porosity and for serendipitous moments. If the magic circle exists as sacred without allowing the porosity of worlds in both directions, it has the possibility to only work as a privileged space for the same people. At the risk of hyperbole, if you think that larp has an opportunity to change the world, then the porosity of worlds in urban play is where the magic happens.

Crossing lamp with green illuminated person walking and a building in the background

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels. Image has been cropped.

Suggestions for DIY Chaos Magic in Urban Play

People: 1-6 players (3 is literally the magic number, as you tend to move as one unit). You don’t necessarily need characters for play, although fine to do so (they should relate to your problem as below).

Time: 1.5-2 hours at least. If you’re inclined to stretch the limits of spatio-temporal boundaries confining to ‘play’ and ‘not play’, then 1.5-2 years.

Prompts: Think of a collective problem you want to answer, or a prompt. This can be something based in reality: “How do we banish cars from city centres?,” something based in a fiction which still relates to the everyday world: “How do we escape the masked warriors?” or something more cryptic: “What happened to red?”

Location/direction: There should be no set route decided in advance. I would recommend following signs or clues which relate to your prompt (it is fine to choose a direction, e.g. north, although this can be limiting). In general, you should follow the route that looks the most interesting. You can also set rules in advance for wayfinding such as rolling a die, though instinct is the best guidance. Pay attention to the surroundings, and the more ground you cover without rushing, the more you will see.

Objects: Take cues from the surroundings in order to guide the journey. Use signs, symbols, words, buildings, street furniture, behaviour of people, or anything else you come across. Found objects are going to be particularly valuable.

Chaos magic: Try to loosen the idea of cause and effect and disrupt a sense of linear time. This will make events connect easier and create more possibilities for play. Remember that chaos magic is a process through which you will not find answers straight away. The questions that you first thought of may become dead-ends, don’t be disheartened by this. Be open to new suggestions from the landscape as you come across them, it’s fine to follow multiple threads of clues at the same time. Try to be situated in both the fiction and reality and consider how they feed into each other, how the magic circle is permeated, or in fact, bombed.

Bibliography

Järvelä, Simo. 2019. “How Real is Larp?” In Larp Design: Creating Role Play Experiences, edited by Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell and Elin Nilsen, 22. Copenhagen, Denmark: Landsforeningen Bifrost.

Cover photo: Jos van Ouwerkerk on Pexels. Photo has been cropped.

This article will be published in the upcoming companion book Book of Magic and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:

Brown, Alex. “A Plot to Bomb the Magic Circle: Chaos Magic in Urban Play.” In Book of Magic, edited by Kari Kvittingen Djukastein, Marcus Irgens, Nadja Lipsyc, and Lars Kristian Løveng Sunde. Oslo, Norway: Knutepunkt, 2021. (In press).

Authors

Alex Brown is a larp designer and 3-sided football player from England, living in Oslo. He is interested in the bridge between psychogeography, situationist games and role play, particularly using play as an act of resistance in public space. He has played 3-sided football in stone circles, in rivers and on mountains as part of the Invisible League, as well as in the 2017 World Cup in Germany. His interest in these games lies in the agency of the environment and emergent play, aka making the rules up as you go along. He designed Green Basilisk (2019) and Lost and Found: Belongings That Belong, first run at The Smoke (2020).
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