Issue 5.0: Abra-CODE-Abra!
Topic Introduction (+ BOOK GIVEAWAY): The Mystical, Mysterious, and Magical Side of Video Games [A Philosophical, Historical, Metaphysical, and Spiritual Analysis]
Game & Word Volume 5, Issue 0: Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023
Publisher: Jay Rooney
Author, Graphics, Research: Jay Rooney
Logo: Jarnest Media
Le_Takas, from Luzern, Switzerland (Member since April 14, 2022)
Ela F., from San Diego, CA (Member since April 24, 2022)
Alexi F., from Chicago, IL (Member since May 13, 2022)
Elvira O., from Mexico City, Mexico (Member since May 18, 2022)
Your name can be on the masthead, too! Simply upgrade your subscription to become a Founding Member.
J.V. Hilliard, for graciously providing the books we’ll be giving away this month, and for guesting on the podcast!
Pritesh G., for being Game & Word’s lucky SUBSCRIBER No. 900!!!
YOU, for reading this newsletter!
Table of Contents
Message From the Publisher (~10-minute read)
New G&W Guest Podcast Appearances
G&W at GDC
G&W Panel Appearance at Storycrafting Sessions Conference
Topic Introduction: “AbraCODEabra: The Mystical, Mysterious, and Magical Side of Video Games” (~23-minute read)
Food for Talk: Discussion Prompts
Message from the Publisher
Good morning, dear readers, and welcome to Game & Word VOLUME 5:
Abra-CODE-Abra: The Mystical, Mysterious, and Magical Side of Video Games
Over the next few months, we’ll survey, examine, and catalogue—in meticulous detail—the arcane side of video games. The esoteric side of video games. The hidden side of video games.
I’m talking, of course, of how video games portray, reference, and are influenced by magic.
Ah, magic! …What’s that? You want to know what I mean by “magic”? I see…
Well, you’ll just have to read the Topic Introduction further down to find out!
But chances are, when you read the word magic just now, I bet you pictured one of three things:
An old hag or geezer in a pointy hat, stirring a bubbling cauldron;
Ok, maybe not exactly those three, but substitute David Blaine for Siegfried & Roy, the old hag/geezer for a group of hooded cultists prancing around an inverted pentacle, or Gandalf for Dumbledore, and my point still stands.
That point being, “magic” is an incredibly tricky concept to define. Seriously, you might as well ask what is love.
Again, you’ll read why in today’s main feature.
And yet, like love itself, magic is unmistakable to those who experience it. Regardless of whether you merely enjoy fantasy novels or believe in magic as an actual supernatural force, we’ve all experienced that uncanny, ineffable feeling of awe—of potential, of significance, of power, and of beauty.
It’s that feeling you get when a beautiful view leaves you speechless in the face of its sheer majesty. Or when a beautiful story moves you to tears. Or when you come home after the worst day at the office ever, into your family’s warm embrace.
You know the feeling. It’s a feeling that could only be described as magical.
And if you’re a creative soul, you know this feeling intimately. Because whenever you complete a work of art and release it into the world, that is also an act of magic.
As you’ll learn over the following several issues, magic is hard-wired into our very essence as sapient beings. And although there are as many conceptions of magic are there are people, there’s one common thread tying all of them together:
Magic represents potential. It represents possibility. It represents the power, innate to everyone alive, to create our own reality. It represents the indomitable human will to dream and to make those dreams come true.
This is why magic continues to persist, in some form or another, despite the persistent efforts of society’s dominant institutions’ (whether religious, secular, or both) to persecute, shame, silence, strangle, and extinguish the flame since time immemorial.
The wizards of yore might have waved wands around, and the wizards of fiction may wear silly pointed blue hats. But the wizards of today are just as likely to be artists, entrepreneurs, engineers, and (as the hero image so strongly suggests) even gamers as they are to be the fortune tellers and psychics we usually associate with magical acts.
Magic represents the Promethean audacity to imagine a better a better future, as well as the Herculean drive to alter reality as much as it takes to manifest that vision.
Magic represents our species’ individual and collective refusal to bend over backward and kowtow to the forces of chaos, darkness, and oppression—to instead seize control over our own destinies.
Magic represents our ingrained longing to live freely and never be constrained by arbitrary rules and laws—whether the laws of your family, your country, or even the very laws of physics.
Magic represents our spiritual need for truth, beauty, and enlightenment. It represents our inner drive to create and admire the creations of others.
Whether J.R.R. Tolkien or Leonardo Da Vinci, Aleister Crowley or Steve Jobs, the Prophet Enoch or Carl Jung, every magician around the world and throughout the ages has intimately understood one thing, more than anything else, about magic:
Magic represents what it means to be human.
And now, you are about to embark on an enchanting and spellbinding journey that will lift the veil from your eyes, and show you a whole other side to your favorite games that you never even knew existed.
We’ll trace a line between Tolkien’s seminal universe of Middle Earth in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to today’s epic fantasy games, like Elden Ring, Diablo, and (duh) Final Fantasy. We’ll look at the real-world origins of popular magical fantasy tropes like mana, summoning, amulets, and potions. And we’ll examine how video games enable people to make their own magic—whether figuratively (Minecraft, game development in general) or even literally (technomancy and generative AI).
And that’s for starters!
On the podcast, I’ll be speaking with bestselling fantasy authors, dream interpreters, magic Ph.D.s, spiritualists, game developers, mystics, RPG game masters, philosophers… all kinds of magicians, creators, and experts from both within and without the gaming, creative, and mystical communities.
But wait, there’s more!
I’ve also got some other tricks up my sleeve (ha!), including live Legend of Zelda Tarot readings, ChatGPT-enabled video game character evocations, a gamer’s grimoire, and other fun, cool, and enchanted gaming surprises!
Volume 5 of Game & Word, more than any other so far, is a true labor of love. I know I always say that when launching a new volume, but in this case, it’s true. Ever since I could remember, I have had a keenly acute sense for the wonderful, the amazing, and the extraordinary—especially when hidden in plain sight amongst the ordinary.
It seemed a shame to cut myself off from all that wonder upon reaching adulthood, as society expects us all to do. So, I didn’t. And as a result, I was always “the weird guy” among my friends and colleagues. But in the end, I’m very glad I held on to that wonder because my life is so much richer for it.
Because I know to look for the magic in this world, and I know how and where to look for it. I sincerely hope you’ll come out of this volume with a desire to do the same.
Now, don’t come in expecting to cast literal fireballs from your hands. Even if that were actually possible (it’s not), and even if that were what I was all about (it’s not), I just wouldn’t be that reckless. Sorry.
Rather, my hope with this volume is to rekindle that sense of wonder and awe—that sacred flame of potential that adult life so easily and readily blows out—in your heart, mind, and soul.
To encourage you to seek truth and beauty in a very ugly and cruel world. To nudge you towards casting off arbitrary norms and expectations, and be your own damn self. To reawaken your latent drive to visualize, and then realize, your best possible life.
You don’t have to believe in ghosts, levitation, or crystal pendulums. You don’t have to believe anything with even the slightest whiff of the mystical or supernatural. You don’t have to “believe in magic”… or, at least not magic in its literal sense.
But a belief in magic in its symbolic sense, as a metaphor for the human spirit? Then yes, I do hope you’ll come away with that—because all that means, is that you believe in wonder, awe, and imagination. And what’s wrong with that, anyway?
If this volume can convince and remind you to stop and smell the Korok seeds every now and then, to peek a little deeper under the hood of reality (whether actual or virtual), to open your eyes to just how truly remarkable the very fact of your own existence is…
If I can instill that in even just one of you… then I will have fulfilled what I set out to do.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy the articles. I will see you on the other side.
Publisher, Game & Word
Sunday, February 26, 2023, C.E.
Ok, folks, in addition to all the Volume 5 goodness coming your way, March is turning out to be a jam-packed month here at Game & Word! Here are some podcasts, panels, and events you can catch me at this month… along with a chance to win signed copies of a seriously awesome fantasy series!
🧙♀️🪄📚 Another Awesome Game & Word Book Giveaway! 🎁🔮✨
To commemorate the launch of Volume 5, I’m super excited to announce that J.V. Hilliard, author of the bestselling Warminster saga of fantasy novels (and one video game currently in development!), has graciously given Game & Word a signed copy of The Last Keeper and Vorodin’s Lair, the first two books (out of four planned titles) in the series, for one lucky subscriber to win at the end of March!
So, just in case you aren’t clued into the awesomeness of Warminster, here’s what you’ve been missing out on: a blind prophet, an Elven princess, an unstoppable evil, and the fate of the realm in the balance. This is dark fantasy at its finest, most epic, most intense, and most magical.
But don’t take my word for it! Here’s a small sample of the Warminster books’ Amazon reviews (emphasis mine):
“It's as if Dungeons and Dragons wrote a book that is better than the game.”
“A must-read for fantasy lovers!”
“I had the feeling that every character was someone the author had known personally. The emotions of every character no matter how fantastical they may be felt real.”
“If you love fantasy, you need to read this.”
“A book that reminded me why fantasy is such an alluring genre.”
“Would love to see this series become a big screen epic.”
“I don’t know if Hollywood is paying attention to this series, but they should.”
“From beginning to end, you get swept into the world of Warminster and it's an incredible ride!”
“J. V. Hilliard's The Last Keeper was my first book in this genre. I enjoyed every page of the attention grabbing adventure!”
“Make some space on your bookshelf beside J.R.R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin and now J. V. Hilliard.”
So, what are you waiting for? Throw your hat in the ring for a signed copy of The Last Keeper and Vorodin’s Lair!
Oh, wait… I still need to tell you how, right?
How to Enter the Giveaway
Ok, this one’s easy! All you have to do is be subscribed to Game & Word on Substack by 11:59 p.m. (PDT) on March 31st, 2023. All subscribers, free and paid, will be automatically entered into the drawing.
Yup, that’s it! No need to dance for the Twitter algorithm, or hijack a stream, or buy stuff, or any of that jazz (though, obviously, we do appreciate you sharing the giveaway with folks you feel would enjoy Warminster!).
Just subscribe to Game & Word and stay subscribed through all of March (though if you wanted to stick around longer, I won’t complain!), and you’ll get a chance to win. Easy as that.
How Will You Determine the Winner?
On 11:69 p.m. (PDT) on March 31st, 2023, Game & Word will randomly select the winner from Game & Word’s current subscriber list at that time. We’ll then reach out to the winner, and upon confirmation, will mail the books to them.
If the winner declines the prize or doesn’t respond to our confirmation request, another winner will be chosen randomly from the list.
This Looks Cool! I Don’t Want to Wait! How Can I BUY a Copy, NOW?!
No worries! You can buy both Warminster books on Amazon. It’s available in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook:
The Last Keeper: Paperback ● Kindle ● Audiobook
Vorodin’s Lair: Paperback ● Kindle ● Audiobook
Cool! What If I Have More Questions?
You can always email me at email@example.com, drop a comment on an article, reply to a thread in the Game & Word Subscriber Chat, or DM me on Twitter @GameAndWord — I’ll get back to you as soon as I can!
I Want to Learn More about Warminster from the Author, Himself!
Well then, you’re in luck: Warminster author J.V. Hilliard will be a guest on The Game & Word Podcast next Sunday, March 5, 2023! To hear us talk more in-depth about Warminster, the ubiquity of magic in the Fantasy genre, and what writers should know about incorporating magic into their stories, join me as I talk Sword & Sorcery with J.V.!
You can listen to us—and all episodes of The Game & Word Podcast—on Substack, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
🎧🎙️💬 Game & Word Podcast + Speaking Tour 📢🌐📲
Speaking of podcasts, I’ve been very fortunate to have been invited to talk on some great podcasts with some great hosts, participate in some great panels, and facilitate some great workshops, spreading the good word (#sorrynotsorry) about games to audiences worldwide!
Here are the most recently-published recordings (if you enjoy the recordings, go ahead and hit “like” or leave a nice review for the episode; it really helps all these wonderful hosts out!):
👆 Listen to me rave about EarthBound in this one above! One of my favorite gaming conversations so far.
👆 The above episode of Paul G’s Corner, is one of my favorites, as I got to finally let loose and fully express how I really feel about Kentucky Route Zero (Namely, that it’s 🐴💩)
👆 This YouTube recording above is a presentation I did for the educational institution that graciously pays me to teach MBA students how to write good (and learn to do other stuff good too). The Q&A was great!
- (Again): I'll be joining (Matt) again on his show, this time with (of fame) to playtest Matt's new tabletop RPG!
IGA Game Writing Workshop Series: All workshop recordings (including mine) will be uploaded to IGA’s YouTube channel within the next few weeks (hopefully!)
📈🚀🎉 Thank You for 900 SUBSCRIBERS! 🍾☄️🗞️
Wow! Right in the nick of time, mere hours before this issue is scheduled to go out, Game & Word hit an amazing milestone: 900 SUBSCRIBERS!!
What an amazing feeling! It’s barely been over a year, and 1K is just within reach! Thank you so much to all of you for subscribing to and reading Game & Word! I couldn’t have done this without to.
Congratulations to Pritesh G. on being the lucky 900th Subscriber! Please enjoy a 6-month paid subscription to Game &. Word, for the amazingly low price of “on the house.” Enjoy, and thank you for subscribing!
Now… can we get to 1,000 before the end of March?? I might have to add a stretch goal or two (or three) to that giveaway… 🤔
📆🎮💼 Come Kick It with Me at GDC! 🌁💪🌉
March is around the corner, which means that it’s almost time for the most wonderful time of the year: the 2023 Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco!
I will be attending the full conference, from March 20-24, 2023 at the Moscone Center. If you’d like to meet up and geek out, collab, or just kick it, let me know!
🧑🎓📚🧑🏫 Learn MOAR Writing with Game & Word! 💯✍️🎮
Did you miss the seminar on Story Structure that I presented as part of Indie Game Academy’s Inaugural Game Writing Convention? Well, no fret! The recordings will go up on IGA’s YouTube channel soon, so you’ll get to catch up on not just my seminar, but also my talented colleagues’ workshops!
Good news, everybody! I’ve been invited to be part of a panel for the Weeknight Writers Group’s Storycrafting Sessions: Drafting online conference on Saturday, March 25th, 2023 (that’s the day after GDC ends)!
The panel I’ll be participating in is called Understanding POVs: How To Choose the Right POV for a Story, and it runs from 2:30-3:30 pm EST / 11:30 am-12:30 pm PST. Admission is FREE (although donations are always appreciated!). You can sign up here:
The full conference has a ton of other awesome panels going on all day, by the way! Clicky ze linky for the full conference schedule and information on each panel:
NOTE: Game & Word is a reader-supported publication. Free issues are available to all, free of charge, for the first six (6) weeks after their publication date, after which they’ll be archived (podcasts and videos will always remain free).
Archived issues are archived and only accessible to paid subscribers. To access articles from the Game & Word archive, support my work, and keep this newsletter free and available to all, upgrade your subscription today:
Volume 1 (The Name of the Game): Issue 1 ● Issue 2 ● Issue 3 ● Issue 4
Volume 2 (Yo Ho Ho, It’s a Gamer’s Life for Me): Issue 1 ● Issue 2 ● Issue 3 ● Bonus 1 ● Issue 4 ● Issue 5 ● Issue 6 ● Issue 7 ● Bonus 2 ● Issue 8 ● Bonus 3
Volume 3 (Game Over Matter): Intro ● Issue 1 ● Issue 2 ● Issue 3 ● Podcast 1 ● Issue 4 ● Video Podcast 1 ● Bonus 1 ● Issue 5 ● Podcast 2 ● Issue 6 ● Issue 7 ● Issue 8 ● Issue 9 ● Podcast 3 ● Bonus 2
Volume 4 (Tempus Ludos): Intro ● Issue 1 ● Video Podcast 1 ● Video Podcast 2 ● Issue 2 ● Issue 3 ● Issue 4 ● Issue 5 ● Podcast 1 ● Issue 6 ● Issue 7 ● Issue 8 ● Issue 9
Not ready to commit to a paid subscription? You can also help offset my caffeine costs by chipping in for the price of a cup of joe:
👾🤔🤷 CONFUSED? ➡ NEW GAMING GLOSSARY! 📚💬🧑🎓
Confused by any of the gaming jargon, slang, lingo, or other “insider terminology” on this newsletter? Just click on the term and it’ll take you to its entry on Game & Word’s comprehensive and user-friendly Glossary of Gaming Terms!
Introduction: “Abra-CODE-Abra: The Mystical, Mysterious, and Magical Side of Video Games.”
⚖️⚖️⚖️ ETHICS DISCLOSURE ⚖️⚖️⚖️
This article contains affiliate links. If you click on any such link and purchase the linked product, Game & Word gets a small cut of the sale. This helps keep the newsletter sustainable without needing to put up more paywalls or ads.
🔥🔥🔥 CONTENTIOUS TOPIC ADVISORY 🔥🔥🔥
This series contains discussions of Spirituality, Philosophy, Religion (including "Fringe” Religious Movements) and the Occult. Game & Word makes zero claims on the veracity (or lack thereof) of any of the religious or spiritual beliefs, opinions, and practices discussed in this article. Similarly, Game & Word does not take a stance on anyone else’s stances (or non-stances) about said practices.
Game & Word’s coverage of these topics is purely academic, and our goal is to simply present the facts along with any important nuance, debate, or other relevant background info. What you do with or how you interpret this information is not our concern. As the Garo Tribe famously declared, belief or disbelief rests with you.
Also, play nicely in the comments! Disagreement and debate is fine, but Game & Word will not allow comments made primarily (or solely) to disparage other people’s faith(s). I will personally nuke such comments, and repeat offenses will put you at risk for a ban… as will simply being a jerk. Whatever that entails is entirely at my discretion.
As with every other topic covered here, Game & Word aims to provide a space for respectful conversations and debates in good faith. If you’ve got a problem with that, then go back to Twitter, Elon.
💡💡💡 POINT OF CLARIFICATION 💡💡💡
To more easily distinguish between “stage” magic and “for realsies” magic, most practitioners spell the latter with a “k” at the end, as “magick.” However, this is a fairly recent convention, having been popularized by the notorious 20th Century British
philandereroccultist, Aleister Crowley.
As we’ll soon see, “magic” is already enough of an “othering” term as it is, and I believe that adding the “k” subtly contributes to the further marginalization of an already heavily marginalized spiritual practice.
Therefore, while I acknowledge people’s preferences as to how to spell it, I’ve opted to use the original spelling. If you’re used to spelling it as “magick” or are unclear if I’m referring to the stage or supernatural variety, remember that I’m talking about the latter, unless otherwise noted.
Do You Believe in Magic?
Such a simple question, yet one that opens up an entire realm of possibility, depending on your answer. Kind of like magic itself, really. Magic is the metaphysical language through which humanity interfaces with and interprets the worlds of mystery, possibility, and wonder—it is the process through which we, through our imaginations, make the impossible possible, and bring the possible within reach. And it’s the cipher through which we make sense of it all.
Whether Gandalf and Harry Potter’s “Sword & Sorcery”-style fictional magic, IRL occult magic, or even illusory “pull a bunny out of a top hat” stage magic (or, more specifically, the accompanying sense of awe and wonder that can only be described as “magical”), chances are that at one point in your life, you believed wholeheartedly in magic.
And hey, maybe you still do—but most of us have had that belief thoroughly beaten out of us by the time we hit adulthood. Belief in the magical gets quickly quashed, as much by the ugliness of the world as by society’s relentless efforts to stamp imagination and creativity out of our minds from a criminally young age.
And yet, magic persists, refusing to die out. It endures in the visions of mystics and entrepreneurs alike. It reveals itself through technology, including the internet and (especially) cutting-edge generative AI. It lives in the dreams and imaginations of hundreds of millions of children. It has always found a loving home in the arts, especially myth and storytelling, throughout the ages—nowadays, primarily in the Fantasy genre (and all its myriad subgenres).
So… do you believe in magic? Remember, I don’t just mean the magic that Ronald McDonald or David Blaine does. Nor do I only mean the magic that Gandalf, Harry Potter, or Merlin perform. I’m also talking about the magic that real people perform, in the real world.
The answer to my question lies in your reaction to that last sentence—most of you will have audibly scoffed and rolled your eyes at such a ridiculous query. If that’s the case, I might as well have asked if you believed in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or Zeus.
The rest of you will pause, perhaps because this is the first time you will have actually given the question some serious thought, before also dismissing it as the stuff of fairy tales and ultra-nerdy fantasy novels.
However, a tiny minority of you will have nodded excitedly at the question. You are proud to believe in something that 99 out of 100 people at best deride as childish and wishful thinking, or possibly (depending on where, and in which century, you were born) fear as dark, sinister, and even evil—to the point that the mere accusation of indulging in it could cost you your reputation, your livelihood, or even your life.
Despite such harrowing personal risks, you steadfastly maintain and profess not just the reality of magic (whether or not you consider it to be actually real, or merely symbolic of the human spirit), but also its power. And in doing so, you are continuing a proud tradition of magic, mysticism, and mystery that’s as old as humanity itself. One that has stubbornly endured despite constant attempts by religious and secular authorities to stamp it out.
But whether magic is an actual metaphysical/supernatural force, a method of "hacking" the inner workings of our deepest, most subconscious parts of the human mind, or merely a beautifully poetic metaphor for acts of imagination and creativity,one thing is for certain:
From the tribal shamans and biblical prophets of our forebears, all the way to the bestselling fantasy novels and Jungian/Gestalt neo-mysticism of today, magic has always been a part of human existence.
Or, put another way: whether it’s embraced, tolerated, feared, or persecuted, magic remains—because it’s deeply intertwined with the fundamental nature of what it means to be human.
So, it should come as no surprise that magic has also heavily influenced video games—like it has literature, film, music, and TV—often, without the developers even realizing it.
This is what we will explore over the next few months: how video games portray and explore magic, and what this treatment says about the people and societies that created them.
Defining the Undefinable
Oh! But I must apologize—I’ve been going on and on about magic all this time, and I haven’t even provided a definition for us to work with! Here, I will distinguish between the illusions of stage magicians like David Copperfield, or David Blaine, and the magic that people take more seriously. The former type of “magic” is more accurately described as a series of illusions; as such, as impressive as they are when performed, they all have perfectly mundane and natural explanations.
Magic as a spiritual practice, however, is not a stage or parlor trick. It is a supernatural phenomenon—which by definitionputs it beyond the grasp of natural science, and squarely into the highly abstract realm of religion, metaphysics, and philosophy.
Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The definition. Here’s what our good friends at the New Oxford American Dictionary define it:
Magic (n.): the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces: suddenly, as if by magic, the doors start to open | do you believe in magic?
Taken at face value, this is a perfectly workable definition. After all, people do magic whenever they want to change something in their life—to the point that practicing wizards and witches define magic as the imposition of the will on reality. Likewise, when Gandalf beams light from his staff, seemingly out of nowhere, there’s something clearly extraordinary and mysterious at play. So far, the dictionary tracks.
So… what’s the problem with this definition? Mainly, it’s overly broad. Also, it’s literally impossible to fully and accurately define “magic.”
Don’t believe me? Keep on reading.
Going only by the dictionary definition, magic can encompass everything from rain dances, blood sacrifices, and hexing… all the way to prayer, meditation, “energy” work, and wishing wells.
And as we’ve touched on, and will continue to examine, “magic” can be (and often is) a HIGHLY contentious term. Certain groups and people would NOT take kindly to some snooty know-it-all outsider describing their sacred rites and cherished traditions as… *gasp*… MAGIC—that’s only marginally better than calling them “superstition.”
But… why? Why have so many people throughout the ages treated magic with suspicion, fear, and contempt, while plenty of other people have seen (and continue to see) it as a force of beauty, truth, and empowerment… all while most people today see it as little more than childish fantasy?
The short answer is: any given individual’s views on magic almost always spring from their social standing and their place in their culture’s socioeconomic pecking order.
Throughout history, the vilification of magic primarily came from whichever religious (and later, scientific) institutions happened to be dominant at the time.
And to be fair, religious authorities did have their reasons for coming down on magic so hard. If a religious institution decreed that there was a “right” way to engage with the supernatural, they’d naturally want their followers to do it the “right” way, not the “wrong” way.
As such, the “wrong” ways of convening with the supernatural got labeled as “magic” (as well as adjacent “othering” terms like “witchcraft” and “sorcery”), regardless of whether the intentions, rituals, or even deities involved were the same.
As a bonus, if the establishment religion’s holy texts contained any explicit prohibitions against “witchcraft” or “magic,” then that was all the better with which to restrict these practices further.
And thus, the establishment’s diviners become “prophets,” who received messages from the divine on what the future held in store, and thus had to be respected, taken seriously, and believed fully.
Meanwhile, the marginalized diviners become “seers,” “fortune tellers,” or just straight-up “witches” who were at best frauds… or, at worst, relaying messages from evil entities instead of divine ones.
Similarly, if an establishment magician used magic to raise the dead, he was a “miracle worker,” and he channeled the “good” deities’ power to accomplish impossible feats of resurrection.
But if a marginalized magician attempted the same, she’d be called a “necromancer,” and subsequent stoned/burned/beat to death (depending on the historical era).
When an establishment magician performed an incantation to cast out a spirit? He was an “exorcist,” and would be thanked (maybe even venerated!).
But if a marginalized magician tried that? Then she was a “sorceress,” and would have been (at least) run out of town.
You might have noticed that in these examples, I’ve gendered all the marginalized magicians as women, and the establishment magicians as men. This is not coincidental—tragically, throughout history, the only difference between an approved magical act and a prohibited one often came down to nothing more than the practitioner’s gender. But more on that down the line.
Warning: This WILL Invade Your Intellectual Comfort Zone!
At the risk of offending a lot of folks, I’d like to propose the following thought experiment. Again, I’m not passing any judgment—there are no right or wrong answers here.
If you’re still here and haven’t closed out your tab and/or unsubscribed, then please carefully consider the following questions:
Could praying to God be considered a form of magic? Why, or why not?
Compare and contrast this to evoking and commanding a spirit: in both cases, you’re directly appealing to a more powerful supernatural force or entity to intercede and change reality in your favor, whether or not He/She/They even wants to help you in the first place.
What about using prayer beads like mandalas, saying the Rosary, or strapping tefillin on yourself? Why, or why not?
All three of these practices consist of repeating a prayer—or other combination of sacred words—over and over again, like a mantra, to work yourself up into the deeply meditative and ecstatic altered states where the miraculous is said to occur (with tefillin, there’s the added benefit of constricting your blood flow, all the better to assist you in achieving said state).
Meanwhile, ceremonial magic (the kind associated with hooded robes, crooked daggers, secret handshakes, and ominous Latin chants) works almost exactly the same way.
Is lighting a candle in a European cathedral to honor a deceased relative different than doing the same on an ancestral shrine in an East Asian residence? Why, or why not?
Is seeing the visage of a saint, angel, or deity on a piece of toast much different from finding patterns in tea leaves, besides the cast of characters involved? Why, or why not?
(Remember: PLAY NICE IN THE COMMENTS!)
If your answer to any of the above questions is some variation of “well, the good rituals come from God/Allah/Brahma/etc. and the bad rituals come from demons/devils/ghouls/etc,” or “my religion/religious community/religious authority allows these rituals, but not the other ones,” well, that’s precisely my point!
Time and time again, all around the world and throughout history, the only appreciable difference between “religion” and “magic”often boiled down to which spirits or deities (or which methods of contacting them) the era’s religious leaders approved of. And that's still very much the case today.
If a ritual involves the “Real God(s),” you’re simply praying and practicing your religion, as is the sacred duty of any and every piously virtuous person. If it involves anything else, you’re casting a spell, which makes you either a witch or a heretic… and the frocked holy men might have to save your soul by strapping you to a log and burning you alive.
Now, do you see how fraught trying to define this term is?
Black Magic, White Magic, Left Magic, Right Magic
“But wait!”, I hear you shouting back at your monitor. “That’s not all there is to it! What about ‘White Magic’ and ‘Black Magic’?! Everyone knows that some magic is clearly evil!”
This is a fair assumption. Although it’s pretty much taken as fact amongst IRL wizards that magic (assuming it's real, and not merely symbolic) is a fundamentally neutral force, some spells and rituals are more… conducive to nefarious acts, just like others are better suited for altruistic works. It just makes intuitive sense.
Magic that involves negative energies, an intent to harm, or engaging with malevolent forces has always raised eyebrows, even among magicians themselves. This, along with magic primarily dealing with the unknownand the not-uncommon tendency of reckless and/or unstable magicians to literally lose their minds after biting off way more than they could chew, has lent magic writ large a highly fearsome reputation, independent of religious proscriptions.
If you’ve ever seen The Exorcist, heard terrifying stories from your classmates about a Ouija board “inviting” an evil spirit into their house, or have even the most cursory familiarity with how Faust ended up after selling his soul to the devil,then you’re aware of this fearsome reputation. Maybe you even believe it.
But even if you do, you probably still agree not all magicis meant to harm or frighten.
Therefore, a distinction is usually made between “good” (or at least harmless) White Magic, and “evil” (or at least nefarious) Black Magic. Curses, necromancy, summoning demons, and sticking needles in Voodoo dolls are among the more (in)famous forms of “Black” Magic. Conversely, healing spells, exorcisms, protective wards, summoning angels, and seeking higher truths are archetypal examples of “White” Magic.
However, these are highly loaded and contentious terms, especially in this day and age—much like how the terms “good” and “evil” themselves are similarly suspect. Among modern witches and wizards, the more acceptable terminology is “Left-Hand Path” and “Right-Hand Path” instead of “Black” and “White” magic, respectively.
To highly oversimplify—dear readers, please don’t curse me—“Right-Hand Path” refers to magic used for altruistic ends, whereas “Left-Hand Path” magic is used for selfish ends. The former obviously includes things like healing and protection, while the latter still covers things like curses and blood sacrifices. But beyond that, things get very muddy.
For instance, although we modern folks might find the idea of summoning a demon to perform an act of good to be utterly inconceivable to the point of ridiculousness, such an act isn’t without precedent in religion, myth, and folklore!
King Solomon, fondly remembered in the big three Abrahamic faithsas the wisest king of Ancient Israel, was also a highly proficient sorcerer who—according to legend—summoned 72 demons, bound them with a holy ring supposedly bestowed to him by God Himself, and then ordered them to build the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
I don’t know about you, but building a huge temple for your creator deity seems like the opposite of selfishness. This certainly adds a wrinkle to the idea that summoning demons is inherently “Black” or “Left-Hand Path” Magic. Perhaps it could also be “Grey” Magic?
I don’t know the answer to that particular quandary. But again, it further illustrates what an impossible task defining anything that has anything to do with magic is!
Any Sufficiently Advanced Magic…
But wait, there’s more!
As the above section should have made clear, the type of magic being performed doesn’t necessarily determine its “darkness” or “evilness.” So, what does?
Easy: it’s the magician’s intent that makes the magic “good” or “evil.”
Seen this way, you can think of magic as akin to technology—both are fundamentally neutral, and both can be either constructive or destructive depending on their use. A blade can be used to cook, perform surgery, or kill, depending on how it’s wielded. It’s the same with magic—it can heal and protect, or curse and control.
Whether or not the practitioner is trying to summon angels, demons, or the ghost of Billy Mays is ultimately irrelevant if the result is the same—and just like with everything else in life, results spring from intentions.
To further underscore magic’s link to technology, mystics and magicians often refer to magical rituals and methods as “tech.” As in, “technology.” The word has become so associated with machines that it’s easy to forget that the actual definition of “technology” isn’t simply “tool” or “machine,” but rather, the application of knowledge. Tools and machines just happen to be the most common application of our collective knowledge. Magic is a more fringe application, but an application nonetheless.
Indeed, think of how often you’ve heard technologically adept people referred to as “tech wizards” or “techno-shamans.” Maybe you’ve even been called that by someone less tech-savvy than you. If so, admit it—hearing that felt awesome, didn’t it?
Still not obvious enough? Then let us remember that famous corollary to Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Do you remember the old meme about the Jedi from Star Wars being “space wizards”? Well, there’s more truth to that joke than you’d think! As a corollary: what do you think would happen if you traveled to Medieval Europe and showed the villagers your iPhone? You’d probably be burned as a witch on the spot.
Technology and magic are intertwined, and they are inextricable. Both are applications of knowledge, to bring about change—to alter the world in some way or another (even if that change is just to kill all the germs on your teeth with bristles and sand paste every day).
Indeed, as technology quickly took over the world during the Industrial Revolution, magic would again become increasingly marginalized. But this time, not as heresy… but rather, as fantasy. Science and technology were concrete, tangible, and objective. Magic, on the other hand, was abstract, ethereal, and highly subjective. Those latter qualities tend to make the more logos-oriented people of science very uncomfortable.
Therefore, magical practice was increasingly scorned by the new secular establishment, its practitioners dismissed as weird or even dragged off to the insane asylum, and the very concept only taken seriously in works of fiction and children’s fantasies—where it largely remains relegated, to this day.
Well… at least on the surface, that is. But something curious is happening in the world of magic.
Since the dawn of the 21st Century, there’s been a resurgence of interest in magic, for many reasons. One big driver has been the diminishing role of organized religion—which used to at least attempt to explore the mysteries of existence— in people’s lives, without anything else stepping in to replace it.
Meanwhile, science, being firmly grounded in the material world, doesn’t even consider entertaining such mysteries, instead delegating the task to philosophy and theology—two fields with which science has had, at best, a strained relationship.
At the same time, life’s gotten worse for almost everyone. The security and prosperity of the late 20th Century are but a rapidly fading memory. Between 9/11, the Great Recession, the rise of social media, the 2016 and 2020 elections, the COVID-19 pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine, rampant inflation, and a new recession that’s just starting? It’s enough to snuff out anyone’s spirit.
Indeed, it’s during dark times like these that people usually turn (or return) to religion. But they haven’t. Perhaps feeling burned or disillusioned by mainstream religion, people have instead latched onto political ideologies, identity groups, cults, fandoms, fringe sciences… and yes, magic.
And in a reflection the secular materialism that rules our major institutions, magic can now accommodate people who don’t believe in anything supernatural! Indeed, for a certain type of mystic… like say, oh, I don’t know, the late, great CARL GUSTAV JUNG…“magic” has less to do with literal celestial forces and entities, and is more akin to methodology of “hacking” one’s mind using the power of archetypes, introspection, and the collective unconscious.
Bonus: in another nod to today’s more accepting and inclusive world, plenty of practitioners subscribe to both views—they consider magic a metaphysical and a psychological phenomenon.
So… yeah, man. Magic. Whatever it is, it seems that all the cool kids are into it these days.
Do you know what else has exploded in popularity lately? Video games. And if you remember Clarke’s Third Law and accept that magic and technology are merely two sides of the same coin… then would it really surprise you that countless games are absolutely saturated in magical references?
Double, Double, Game and Trouble…
Ok, so now that we have a somewhat working (non-)definition of magic, we can use that as a launching point for our exploration of magic in video games. For this Volume, I’m going to make a distinction between three different types/interpretations of magic:
Fantasy Magic (a.k.a. “Sword & Sorcery”): the magic ubiquitous in—and highly central to—an untold number of storytelling genres, particularly Fantasy and its many offshoots.
Far too many to countThe Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Dungeons & Dragons
Video Game Examples:
Slightly less, but still too many to countFinal Fantasy, Diablo, The Legend of Zelda
Occult Magic: the type of magic (or “magick”) practiced by real-life witches and wizards, as well as magic-adjacent practices like Tarot, alchemy, astrology, and countless others. NOTE: This also includes magic as a psychological (instead of spiritual) practice.
General Examples: Wicca,Chaos Magic
Video Game Examples: Wylde Flowers, Goetia, Cult of the Lamb
The Magic of the Imagination: the domain of stage magicians, children playing make-believe, and every artist/poet/creator alive; this is the sense of wonder and potential that comes from believing in the possibility of the impossible, and in the extraordinary within the mundane.
General Examples: Storytelling, pretending, dreaming, art
Video Game Examples: “Sandbox” games (Minecraft, Roblox), the process of video game development, the very “magic” of video games themselves
Now, these three categories will bleed into each other a lot, so keep that in mind. What I plan to do with this Volumeis to explore each of these three categories in as much depth as possible. Ideally, in the order presented—although some jumping around (and other changes, including possibly throwing out the plan entirely) may be necessary, depending on what feels right further down the line.
So with all that, dust off your witch’s hat and your wizard’s wand, and get ready to cast a spell that will forever change the way you think of this topic (and the many games we’ll explore over the next few months!).
First, I’ve got some awesome podcast episodes coming your way—starting with the inimitable J.V. Hilliard, author of the bestselling Warminster universe of novels and games (you know, those signed books we’re giving away)—and then we’ll dive headfirst into the type of magic almost everyone thinks of when they hear the word: Fantasy Magic, also known as “Sword & Sorcery.”
See you then!
Food for Talk: Discussion Prompts
While you wait for the next issue, I invite you to mull over the following discussion prompts. Please reply to this email with your answers, post them in the comments, or post them in this week’s subscriber chat thread—I'd love to hear your thoughts!
How do you define and/or conceive of “magic,” whether the fantasy, occult, or imaginative variety (or some combination thereof)?
In your view, is magic a literal metaphysical thing that exists in the world, an archetypal conceptual framework for the workings of the subconscious mind, or merely a beautiful and poetic metaphor for a creative act?
Have you ever had an experience you’d consider “magical”? Again, whether the literal or symbolic variety.
Do YOU believe in magic? If so, how so? If not, when did you stop believing? (Again, this can be the literal or symbolic variety of magic)
Answer the questions from the thought experiment in the main piece, and elaborate on your answers.
Which are your favorite magical video games?
#magic #history #philosophy #metaphysics #religion #spirituality
And I make zero assertions on which of these possibilities, or even another one entirely, is true.
To reiterate: this is an academic exploration of magic as a subject/topic of inquiry. In an area as intensely personal and subjective as spirituality, nobody has a monopoly on the truth—I most certainly do not, nor would I ever presume to. Anyone who claims otherwise is someone you need to run away from, as fast as you can.
No pun intended. For realsies.
Whether for genuinely spiritual or more worldly and cynical reasons is immaterial to this analysis, as the results were the same regardless.
Or “superstition,” if you really want to be a dick about it.
The word “occult” literally means “hidden.”
Well, technically a devil (not the devil). Specifically, Mephistopheles. Contrary to popular belief, in the original story, Faust doesn’t sell his soul to Satan himself.
Again: assuming it’s real.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Now, I should mention that this legend does not appear in the canonical Bible (neither the Hebrew or Christian varieties), and is attributed to a 1st Century text called The Testament of Solomon. That said, it’s important to remember that the process of determining which texts became biblical “canon” was complex, contentious, highly political, and ultimately undertaken by flawed and self-interested humans. Therefore, just because a text is considered canonical, doesn’t necessarily mean it should be taken as gospel (no pun intended).
Today, only the foundation of the Temple—the “Temple Mount”—still stands. It remains the holiest site in Judaism to this day. The Kotel, the foundation’s Western Wall (also known as the “Wailing Wall”), is especially significant, as it’s the closest place to where the old Temple once stood where Jews are currently allowed to pray.
Hold your horses, Chaotes… we’ll get there, in due time.
The closest thing Game & Word has to a patron saint.
Not that this is unique to video games. Magic and mysticism are similarly ingrained in art, music, literature, and movies. This isn’t coincidental. For reasons we’ll explore in due course, the expression of creativity is an inherently magical act.
In the proud tradition of snobby occultist gatekeeping, “High” Magic has historically described intricate ceremonial rituals that call on powerful celestial entities (particularly angels, demons, and deities), as opposed to “Low” Magic which primarily works with elemental forces, local spirits, hexes, and the like.
Other, and only slightly less derisive, terms for “Low” Magic include “Folk Magic” and “Witchcraft.”
More on this when we dive into the wacky, fun world of technomancy!
If you’re a longtime reader, you know to take this with a grain of salt, as my plans for each Volume seldom pan out how I expect them to.
I brought it up in the chat threads, but I've always liked the overarching theme of magic and technology combined in SMT and related games like Persona, either through the classic demon summoning program or accessing the collective subconscious through a smartphone app. In general I like when fantasy and SF elements coexist.
Since you mentioned discussing mana I hope you go into the term's origins, it's an interesting story for how it became a fantasy staple and I believe we could do with more conscious recognition of what the fantasy genre owes to Polynesian culture. And I also find it interesting how when walking into a Barnes and Noble I usually see a lot of books on witchcraft and magic by the front. That's an interesting cultural development.
Also if we're talking about imagination as magic I need to throw a word in for Dragon Quest Builders 2, which is all about imagination, building, and destruction. The game has a simple narrative that I think is enhanced by being in a video game.
Looking forward to the rest of the volume.
Congrats on hitting 900 subs and launching the new volume! 🎉 🧙♂️ 🎉
I’ll be at GDC this year and would love to meet up.