Taking Issue with ‘Magic’ in Video Games

What is magic?

Seriously, what is magic? I don’t know. Nobody really does. Aside from the question of whether it even really exists in the first place–it doesn’t, in case you were wondering–it has always been rather unclear what the term ‘magic’ exactly means. Magic is always presented as something that is beyond us mere mortals, a phenomenon that bends and/or breaks the laws of nature as we know them. According to Christopher Lehrich, “magic appears to be a way of labeling for future consideration that which has no reality to label, that which potentially violates reality”.1 It is a word that necessarily cannot refer to anything that is materially real. It is the unexplainable, the incomprehensible, the unthinkable. And yet, we all have a set of mental images that we can link to the concept: from the spectacular spells you can cast in Dragon Age to the subtle ‘Signs’ in The Witcher. Hell, the whole fantasy video game genre is based around the simple assertion that, in its fictional worlds, magic is real and omnipresent. In these games, magic becomes part of everyday life, normal instead of non-existent. It is clear that ‘real’ magic and video game magic are two entirely different things, but how can we understand this contrast between them? And, what does it tell us about the idea of magic more broadly?

Video games in the fantasy genre take their versions of magic one step further than other media. Not only do they depict magic, they also systematise magic. Game developers don’t just have to come up with an answer to the question of what magic would look like in this world they’re creating; they also need to consider how their idea of magic would work as a system, as part of their world’s metaphysical structure. While novelists and film producers can focus on the aesthetics of magic, game developers need to take the mechanical workings of magic into account as well. Armour that protects you from fire damage cannot just be “fire-resistant”, it needs to specify exactly how much fire damage it will ward off. A bolt of lightning cannot simply cause a bit of a shock and a third-degree burn wound, the game’s code needs to detail how long that shock will last, how much damage the bolt will cause to your character’s health points, and so forth.

This systematisation of magic seeps into other aspects of gameplay and game world. Spells and other forms of magic are often part of hierarchies and different categories, and can usually be upgraded to have additional effects or do more damage. The Storm Bolt spell in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, for instance, can be leveled up with ‘ability points’ to increase its damage output, stun duration and area of effect. Moreover, if the player upgrades two other abilities in their ‘Sorcery ability tree’, they can enhance the spell even further. We are never really told how this works diegetically2 and that’s arguably not necessary either, because this point-based upgrade mechanic has existed for decades, finding its roots in Dungeons and Dragons. It’s just how things are done around here.
Furthermore, in many games there is a limit to how often the player can cast their spells. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of creating such limits: ‘cooldown times’ on spells and ‘mana’. Cooldown time means that a spell cannot be used again for a set period of time after casting: the more powerful the spell, the longer its cooldown time will be. Mana, a slightly problematic concept also referred to as magicka, is most often seen as the mystical force from which magic draws its power.3 Similar to their health bar, the player character possesses a certain amount of ‘mana points’, and every spell costs mana points to be cast. Once these run out, the player cannot cast any more spells until their mana/magicka is replenished.

Casting the Shock Bolt spell in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, with the blue mana points bar displayed in the top left corner.

What I’m getting at with these examples is that video game magic is decidedly not the mysterious, untamed, invisible force that we usually think of ‘real’ magic as being. Instead, it is, like the rest of the virtual world it inhabits, very much grounded in rules. Video game magic requires such rules to be able to exist in the game world, because the game’s artificial, coded nature demands that everything in it is quantifiable. Any player-induced in-game action needs to met with a measurable, pre-determined in-game reaction. It’s no coincidence that this sounds suspiciously like Newton’s third law of motion: what developers do when they are programming the rules for a game is essentially the writing of fictional laws of physics. When they include magic of any kind in their game, they rewrite the laws of nature in such a way that magic can come to ‘exist’. Video game magic then works like any other game mechanic: a hunter’s flaming arrow and a mage’s fireball may look and feel different, but on a very basic level, they are both projectiles that will deal a certain amount of fire damage on impact.4

Hopefully, it’s clear now what the fundamental difference between ‘real’ magic and video game magic is. As we usually see it, magic in the real world would be something that breaks natural laws, it would be something supernatural. In video games, there is no room for the supernatural, because magic is already part of the game world’s natural laws. Because of this systematisation I have described, video game magic is never truly ‘magical’: though presented as mysterious, dangerous and arcane, it becomes quantified, regulated and mundane. Therefore, what we visualise when we think about the broader concept of ‘magic’ isn’t actually anything close to that, because it will often be based on video game (or any other medium’s version of) magic. ‘Real’ magic can never really be magic, if that makes any sense.

Something proving its non-existence by existing, what does that remind me of?


Notes and references:
1. Christopher Lehrich, The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2007): 164.
2. When an aspect of a game is ‘diegetic’, it means that this aspect is part of a game’s narrative world, which is also called ‘diegesis’. ‘Non-diegetic’ aspects are typically things like the menu screen, loading screen and interface; they are instrumental to the whole gaming experience, but exist distinctly outside of the game’s fiction.
3. For an example of how this is construed within game narratives, see: http://en.uesp.net/wiki/Lore:Magic.
4. William Sims Bainbridge, eGods: Faith versus Fantasy in Computer Gaming (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013): 167.