Wednesday, April 13, 2016

How Mana Became a Game Mechanic

Together with University of Hawai'i anthropologist Alex Golub, I wrote an essay about the origins of "mana" in tabletop and computer games. Alex previously distilled our work into a popular blog post about this, but people interested in the details of early concepts of spell points and how they came to be attached to the idea of mana will find more information in the academic version. Pioneers here included Greg Costikyan, Steve Perrin, Isaac Bonewits, Richard Garfield and many others.

Our essay "How Mana Left the Pacific and Became a Video Game Mechanic" appears in the newly-published anthology New Mana: Transformations of a Classic Concept in Pacific Languages and Cultures (ANU Press), which you can acquire in print versions or download online here: New Mana.


  1. Interesting, I had always thought that mana had derived from the biblical manna, and that's certainly what early video game glossaries posted online in the early 90s generally agreed on.

    1. There definitely was a lot of confusion about the distinction between Biblical manna and Pacific Islander mana at the time, which is discussed in the article. But as the article shows, the science-fiction authors like Niven who seem to have directly inspired the earliest attempts to implement mana in role-playing games (to say nothing of Magic: the Gathering) seem to have gotten this from the Pacific Islander concept.

    2. Yeah, "mana" is at least vaguely close in meaning to the "magical energy" of the game mechanic, whereas "manna" as "weird bread that falls from the sky" has no clear connection.

    3. Except of course that it's never described as bread falling from the sky. You just made that up yourself or are repeating misinformation

  2. You mean people are sloppy about word use? Horrors! Say it ain't so, Jon, say it ain't so!

    (On a digression, I actually prefer the OD&D paradigm of choosing your spells in advance; I think it's much more interesting as a game device.)

  3. You may not be aware of a tabletop roleplaying game called Beast, Men, and Gods. It was published in 1980 and featured a magic point magic system. The points were explicitly called mana points.

    Review here:

    Reissued edition here: