How Did “Mana,” An Austronesian Religious Idea, Become a Gaming Staple?

Anthropologist Alex Golub tracks the path of mana, from ancient Taiwan to fantasy gaming culture

These mana potions won't actually let you cast fireballs. Paul Tarjan

Mana” is a staple of modern game design, the go-to resource wielded by millions of magi and warlocks and wardens and paladins. Whenever spells and incantations of immeasurable power are hurled at friends and foes, it's there, fueling the wizards' efforts. For millions of gamers worldwide, mana is their ammo, their shield, and the limiting resource that keeps their powers in check.

Yet mana isn't a term coined by geeks and gamers for their own purposes. And when anthropologist Alex Golub set out to follow the winding history of its adoption, it "involved tracing out the intellectual history of California subculture in the 1960s and 1970s — in other words, it made me relive my childhood,” he says. The history of mana, he writes for The Appendix, stretches back more than 3,000 years to a time when ancient Taiwanese people first set sail to found the sprawling Polynesian civilization of Pacific archipelago island dwellers. But to connect this Austronesian concept to the nascent Silicon Valley gaming scene, Golub had to trek through post-World War II counterculture, religious colonization, industrial-scale academia and Austronesian anthropological history.

Golub's story is long and full of nuance. But, for example, here's one important link: 

In 1969, Larry Niven published the short story “Not Long Before The End.” The story was set in the distant past, when the environment was suffused with mana. Wizards consumed mana by casting spells, slowly using it up. The result was our current, disenchanted world....Niven’s inspiration was a book he had read in college: Peter Worsley’s The Trumpet Shall Sound. Worsley’s book described cargo cults in New Guinea, many of which drew on Austronesian visions of the distant past as a time of powerful ancestors whose knowledge and capacities had been imperfectly handed down to us in the present. [Niven's] story was superbly told, frequently anthologized, and resulted in several spin-offs. As a result, word of mana spread.

But anthropologists and sci-fi writers aren't the only people who participated in this chain: getting the idea of "mana" from the Pacific Ocean to vast online fantasy worlds required Polynesian explorers, an English missionary, and a Romanian philosopher, too.

“Some might be tempted to read the story of mana as a tale of cultural appropriation in which Westerners ransack the culture of the colonized. They may be right,” says Golub. But he sees mana's story in a more positive light:

But gamers did something else with it: They cared for it. They made fantasy games and imaginary worlds, and came to love what they had created. They put mana into play, making it part of their lives, dragging it into their histories and self-understandings. ...Did they borrow it? Yes. Did they exoticize it? Perhaps. But by playing with it, they honored it. 

Either way, the story of how gamers first obtained mana is fascinating.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.