Ask any geek, especially any gaming geek. What is this object?:
We all recognize it right away as a mana potion. Right, but how do we know that? Countless games, usually in the RPG category, use a system of mana to allow a magic-using game mechanic of some kind. You spend mana points to cast spells. Then you keep casting stuff until you run out of mana, at which point you can’t do any more cool stuff until you replenish mana points by chugging another potion, or sometimes regenerating mana points through other means. It’s as recognizable as a health, or healing potion, which is always red:
You’ll be hard-pressed to figure out which game used the concept of mana first, and yet somehow we all came to this consensus at once.
Mana in Gaming
Mana isn’t always blue liquid in a bottle, but in whatever form it’s an incredibly widespread idea. Just some of the appearances of mana in a gaming context include:
Blizzard Entertainment’s franchises of World of Warcraft and Diablo use the blue potions.
Hearthstone, the Blizzard card game related to WoW, uses mana crystals.
The TCG Magic: The Gathering uses mana as the central game mechanic. Mana is typically produced by tapping card resources such as land, artifacts, or creatures. It’s used for summoning every item on the battlefield and for casting every spell, with a few rare exceptions.
The close cousin TCG Pokemon calls it “energy points” and creatures produce it intrinsically, but it’s otherwise the same concept. Other items such as elixirs and ether balls restore energy points.
The Final Fantasy game series calls mana “ether,” so you’d have to drink an ether potion to cast spells.
The Elder Scrolls game series has “magicka” potions, blue in color, which restore magic points.
The Legend of Zelda series has magic restored from potions, with a different color system.
The video game Ragnarok Online has both blue potions and blue herbs to restore mana.
The video game Terraria has mana being required to use magic items. It’s restored by drinking blue potions.
The Nintendo classic video game Earthbound had “psi points,” which had to regenerate or could be recovered by drinking a “psi potion” or other food and drink items.
These are just some of the examples from better-known franchises, but we could go on listing them forever. Games vary mainly by their creativity in implementing a mana system. MTG has mana in five flavors originally produced by different kinds of real estate:
Left to right: Island, Swamp, Forest, Plain, and Mountain. So you have to pay attention to what color of mana you need to cast something. Later expansions introduced a sixth mana flavor, “colorless,” which was a confusing idea because it already had a “wild” mana type which meant “any color mana can be used to cast this part.” Mana, in the MTG literature, was said to be generated by a wizards’ strong memories of a place (land), with more lands of each type increasing their power.
Meanwhile other games even put the word “mana” right in the title, such as classic Nintendo’s Secret of Mana which has an introduction too lovely not to include:
Magical Energy In Folklore
So we have this interesting anthropology question: Where do we get this intrinsic notion about this “mana” substance, or any kind of energy storage system for the purpose of accomplishing mystical feats?
A lot of game designers point to golden-age science fiction author Larry Niven, who had such an influence on game designers that there’s a Magic: The Gathering card named after him, albeit backwards:
This card is no mere name-only homage: The idea comes from Niven’s short story The Magic Goes Away, which is part of his Warlock universe. Niven, with his geeky gift for applying logical rules to fantastic contexts, postulated that the reason we have so much magic in our folklore which isn’t around today is because mana (named that in the story) is a non-renewable resource, like crude oil. When all the mana magic got used up, all the warlocks and their works died off.
In the story, a metaphor for the modern atom bomb exists in the “Warlock’s Wheel,” a spinning device that burns mana uselessly at a fast rate. Set one spinning, and all the mana in the local region will be sapped, making all the workings of warlocks and magic go “poof.” So this Magic card is actually a sort of Warlock’s Wheel, destroying all items that were cast with mana.
The MTG Wiki boldly credits Larry Niven with inventing the word “mana,” but that’s not actually the case. However, Larry Niven was a much bigger deal in the 20th century and had tremendous influence on sci-fi, fantasy, and other geek pursuits. Together with Magic: the Gathering, which came out in 1993 and also was a tremendous influence on gaming culture in general, you can probably say that most games today wouldn’t have this concept of mana without MTG or Niven, who at least made the idea popular.
But Larry Niven didn’t invent mana either…
The word “mana” is traced to the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific, who coined the term to describe supernatural force. But that is just one name for it! Everywhere in the world, if you trace back far enough, you find a mystical, intangible energy source that makes magical stuff happen. To wit:
So now, in typical anthropology style, we find out the answer to one question poses an even bigger one. We have yet to codify the universal theory that explains why people believe in religion at all, but we’ll keep you posted when we do.
We’re also pan-belief here in geek culture, so we’re not out to deconstruct anybody’s religion. Keep your barakah and your ch’i, may it serve you well! We’ll just close on this note:
There might be energy systems in the universe which we haven’t discovered yet.
As the atheists say (yes, we’re inclusive of them too), “angry gods in the sky” is just how early cavemen explained lightning. Or as another golden age sci-fi master, Arthur C. Clarke, put it: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
If you traveled back in time and tried to show primitive people concepts such as electricity, they would likely think of it as a mystical energy source. Indeed, the pursuit of alchemy was a primitive attempt to tame the natural laws of the universe with science, living on at the cultural roots of many scientific disciplines we continue today. Just because the alchemists arrived at half-mystical conclusions doesn’t mean they weren’t trying to apply reason.
Obviously, to fill in those gaps in our scientific understanding, we will eventually have to discover something, maybe even a dozen more somethings. It is just as anti-scientific to declare that we have no more big discoveries to make as it is to go around insisting that orgone exists without the proper scientific rigor.
In the meantime, our fantasy and science fiction, and yes, our gaming pursuits too, speak to our sense of marvel and wonder. We crafty apes are constantly in awe of our universe and the wonders it contains, and the most far-out magical concepts we can imagine usually turn out pale in comparison to the actual scientific phenomenon we were unknowingly encountering.