Some weeks ago, I was in a movie theatre with Aubrey and while waiting for the movie to start we saw the trailer of the coming Harry Potter (Happy Potter number $n+1$ as I mentally refer to it) and I said to Aubrey that I would write a weblog entry about Harry Potter. She looked at me all surprised and pointed out that I have never showed any interest toward the books or the movies, so how could I possibly know anything about it ? To which I replied that I knew more about Harry Potter than she could ever imagine...
Indeed, I am not at all interested in Harry Potter, but I once wondered why MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayers Online Role Playing Games), such as World of Warcraft or Aion (to name only two), or games like Final Fantasy, featured so much fantasy and along with it a rather large dose of magic. This question actually popped up in my mind one day I was watching some Lineage 2 trailer videos. One thing leading to the other I started to think about magic and in particular could not reconcile the fact that we are a technological species and the fact that we (game designers) spend so much resources re-creating magical universes.
Of course there is a simple argument in favour of magically oriented universes. They simply offer more options and therefore are more interesting from a game mechanics point of view. This said, you can perfectly design a game without any use of magic, for instance Eve Online does that very well.
I think that the most important thing one could ever understand about magic is the fact that fundamentally there is no difference between a magician's magic wand and a blacksmith's stick.
The Bronze Age
Gold was the first metal (this is a quote by Isaac Asimov by the way...). It is one of the metals found in pure form in nature, and Egyptians were the first to work it. But our species journey with metal working and the idea of transformation came when we discovered that tin, copper and fire all together created something amazing called bronze, a material superior to stone, not only for everyday activities, but also for the very important activities of fights and wars. All this happened about 4000 years ago.
The thing here is that this new technology was understood by only a few, not only because it was valuable (just like our modern day classified military technologies or private corporate trade secrets), but also and almost more importantly, because blacksmiths of the time lived in the outside of villages, simply because they manipulated fire and almost everything was flammable back there.
So it wasn't long before the commoner of the time, regarded those metal geeks with respect and thought they had some kind of privileged access to some secret of nature.
In the light of the above, the legend of King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, makes a lot of sense. A sword pulled from a stone. Doesn't this remind anything to anybody ? Yes, for the previous few thousand years before Arthur that's exactly what people had been doing, pulling swords, axes, and all sorts of more or less deadly and/or useful stuff from the stones (where the metal melting was taking place).
Not only this, but I also find it fascinating that the most romantic metal-working story is actually associated with the most famous magician ever: Merlin. People think of Merlin as a magician but I think of him as a geek.
One thing about magic is that it is usually, rightfully, associated with knowledge and studies. It is very common to represent magicians surrounded by books; often reference books containing exact spells. Actually one doesn't become magicians or wizard without a lot of studies.
Alchemy represented a rather interesting stage of human evolution, a transition period between the mystery of transformations of matter and another infinitely more powerful technology: Chemistry. Alchemy was a protoscience (a philosophical discipline that existed prior to the development of scientific method) and it is interesting to know that Newton himself, who is one of the best scientists ever (after all, he gave us Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica) was an alchemist. (Newton died 16 years before the birth of the father of modern chemistry: the French Antoine Lavoiser).
With the rise of chemistry as the new way to think about matter, there was no longer place in the world for alchemy and its predecessor, the long lasting magic, and one external observer would think that never again would our species surround itself with the idea of magic, but in fact magic had not really been associated with the subtleties of metal working for a long time. It had became the way the commoner dealt with things they did not understand, a complex mental shortcut used by our species; not unlike religion. In particular magic had stopped being a tool for affecting matter, but was now associated with the mind of the magic practitioner, and completing the loop, magic was now associated with the mental ability of transforming matter as well as affecting other minds.
Because magic was putting so much power in the hands (and mind) of mere mortals, the major monotheistic religions were quick to forbid magic (at least the idea of it), for understandable reasons: people having personal power was, has always been, and will always be, against their business model.
The Computer Geeks
The most important idea which has emerged from engineering over the past two hundred years is computing. Computing is nothing else than the new metal working, and its practitioners the so called computer geeks (some of them actually self refer as computer wizards) are the new chemists (or new alchemists for most of them actually). But we have failed to avoid the magicanization of the field in the eyes of the commoner. Most people in the world, now feel as powerless and confused toward the exponentially increasing computerisation of our daily lives, as once centuries, ago people felt towards magicians, witches, and anybody able to transform matter, and the resulting power they got from it.