Mana: How an Austronesian concept became a video game mechanic

Today The Appendix (“a quarterly journal of experimental and narrative history”) published my piece “The History of Mana: How an Austronesian Concept Became a Video Game Mechanic“. I’m very happy with the piece (tho there are a few typos I want to fix), which is meant to be accessible to a broader audience — i.e. ‘public anthropology’. I wanted to blog about it here in order to get people to read it and to draw attention to a great young journal with a lot of energy behind it. But more importantly, I wanted to talk about how this article happened, and what the production process says about public anthropology and scholarly workflow.

I first got thinking about Mana in January 2013, when my friend and colleague Matt Tomlinson began putting together a conference on the topic of mana (co-organized with other friend and colleague Ty Tengan). Matt is probably the world’s expert on mana — he publishes on its regularly, and he’s spent a lot of time working on the topic.

I was flattered to be invited to the conference, but I have to admit: you get to a certain point in your career where people start inviting you to conferences out of a general sense that you’re an interesting person who ought to come to the conference, not because you necessarily know anything about the conference topic. Mana? I study gold mining and video games!

With Matt’s encouragement I ended up focusing on mana in World of Warcraft. Where did it come from? Figuring out how an Austronesian concept made its way into the world of video games involved tracing out the intellectual history of California subculture in the 1960s and 1970s — in other words, it made me relive my childhood. Gadamer teaches us that all scholarship is the process of becoming aware of how we have been shaped by the things we study, and nowhere was that more true than in this case. It was richly rewarding to learn the stories behind my vague memories, and thrilling to interview people like Steve Perrin and Larry Niven, who had done so much to shape my own imagination.

My research in WoW has always been on how American culture shapes online play, so doing culture history came easily to me. But I was a native of California counterculture, not an expert on it. So I reached out to Jon Peterson,  an old college friend of mine. His book Playing at the World is the definitive account of the cultural influences on Dungeons and Dragons. He not a professor, but to call him an ‘amateur scholar’ is ridiculous — he is more erudite and learned in his field of expertise than most professors I know. Jon was so knowledgeable and so enthusiastic about the process that we began collaborating as coauthors.

My paper at Matt’s conference went over really well, and I learned a lot about mana at the conference. I am hoping that it will eventually be published in an open access format so that everyone can read it. But I didn’t want to wait three years for the piece to appear. Luckily, I had worked with the Chris Heaney (whose book Cradle of Gold I really recommend — very teachable) at The Appendix before on a long review of Jared Diamond’s World Before Yesterday and he was eager to publish the mana piece in The Appendix.

The article available today is substantially different from the academic piece that will eventually appear. The Appendix article has a long introductory section explaining what mana is and how anthropologists first discovered and wrote about that. None of that will be in my final piece, since the academic piece will assume that background knowledge (it will also all be explained in Matt and Ty’s introduction). But having to summarize that literature really helped me master and understand a history that might have eluded me given the scholarly division of labor.

The academic piece will also be much strong than this piece. Writing a big picture piece for a popular audience made me stretch in ways that will greatly improve the academic version of the piece. I had to do original research. And because this wasn’t academic, much of that original research just involved a ton of googling and asking friends for help. With that done I am now oriented enough to the scholarly literature that I can find and locate scholarly sources that otherwise might have eluded me.

So what does this tell us about writing and publication? It points out the invisible but incredibly important role of professional service — if Matt and Ty hadn’t organized a conference on mana, this never would have happened. It demonstrates out the importance of government support for education — if the Australian government hadn’t funded the conference, this piece would never have been written. It shows the importance of the network of collaborators, friends, informants, and publishers that help our work see the light of day. And most importantly of all, it proves that with just a little more work, anthropologists can make a popular version of their publication a regular part of their scholarly process.

I have a slightly higher profile than most anthropologists because of this blog, but not much higher. Most academics know someone who knows someone who runs a journal, website, or podcast that would be willing to feature our work. If we take the time to reach out and make our anthropology public,  then these forums will grow, and so will public anthropology.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

4 thoughts on “Mana: How an Austronesian concept became a video game mechanic

  1. Very interesting article! Very cool subject – it’s always great to take a detailed look at the origins of these things in prehistory.

    Couple of quibbles – speakers of proto-Indo-European did not have chariots. Wheeled vehicles yes, chariots no. The first chariots appear with the Sintashta-Petrovka culture, almost unanimously believed to be associated with speakers of early Indo-Iranian languages.

    The other thing is the use of the word ‘Austronesian’ to denote things that are only found in one branch or one area. Mana is a word found primarily in Oceanic languages, not in every branch of Austronesian (unless Juliette Blevins is right, and mana is related to Meto smanaf, Malay semangat, Bugis sumange’, and so on). I think we should only use the word ‘Austronesian’ when we’re talking about tendencies across the whole family, or that can be reconstructed to PAN. OTOH, it’s pretty common to use it as you have – e.g. Chris Ballard’s so-called ‘Austronesian Painting Tradition’, a name that refers to a kind of red painted rock art found only in eastern Indonesia and Near Oceania, much of it under 2000 years old – so I guess it’s not a big deal.

  2. Fantastic article! I was spellbound by the spiritual thread woven through Polynesian linguistics, fantasy fiction and the world of computer gaming. I don’t believe I’ve read all the way to the end of an online article/blog post this long except possibly a few in the NYT or Atlantic.

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