It's amazing to encounter so prescient, political and imaginative a worldview as was brought us some years ago in -- of all things -- a paper-and-paper game called "Mage The Ascension." Like "Shadowrunner" and other compelling works, "Mage" is one of the memorable folktales of this culture, the sort of tales which now mostly seem to have taken sophisticated electronic form.
In White Wolf's explanatory "Mage" book, the lines between the good guys and bad guys are never clear.
In the old days, goes the backstory, when magic was real, a group of Mages -- mystics and sages who wanted to bring magic back to the world concluded that if enough of the population didn't believe in evil and danger, they would disappear.
Calling themselves the Order of Reason, some mages banded together to educate and enlighten the masses, using science and technology to brighten the world's darker corners. Over the years, however, as this Order became dominant, it began to promote conformity. Iconoclasts and deviants were gradually eliminated through the use of science, financial pressure and social ostracism.
Now known as the Technocracy, these mages wielded increasing control over mass media, education, technology and business; they even defined what was real and what wasn't.
It's amazing to encounter so insightful a worldview in a paper-and-pencil role-playing game. While mainstream society was dismissing geeks and nerds, they were increasingly retreating -- via games, MUDs and MOOs -- into their own folktales, fantasy worlds that foretold the future as brilliantly as Orwell or H.G. Wells. "Shadowrun," "Werewolf" and "Changeling" were escape routes, a new genre that offered some of the most revealing insights yet into the people who built (and are still building) the Net and Web, and creating continuing revolutions like the open source movement.
The legacy of the techno-outsider culture, such games have been partly supplanted by flashier entertainment systems from Nintendo and Sega, and technologically-sophisticated games like "Seaman." But these early stories were the precursors to a social revolution and its new worldview.
In "Mage", cynicism and lack of imagination exist only on the surface.
A shadowy world flourishes underneath this everyday one. In it, enchanters and sorcerers commune with powers that no mortal can see or believe.
The world (our world) is definitely a poorer place for the loss of faith in magic, but it's richer for a subterranean fantasy like "Mage," and for the caverns, tunnels, hidden rooms and pools of a score of virtual games. "Mage's" sci-fi spiritualism fits perfectly with the ascent of the Net and Web, where people with imagination, creativity, individuality and yearning have lots of dark corners to hide in. These geek refugees and artists still dip underground in search of their own shadowy worlds. Stories like "Mage" foresaw the amazing creative power of the Net, where the ability to personalize reality becomes commonplace. People can customize information, design their own spaces, role play on games and in chat rooms, express themselves freely. Online, the shadow world of the Mages has come to pass. And it's a much richer, darker and political kind of culture than the corporations who dominate entertainmnent generally permit in music or on screens.
"Imagine a world where visionaries struggle to bring wonder to the mundane," reads the "Mage" introduction. "Picture a war where the winners decide the fate of the world, and the losers are hunted for their presumption. ... Forging their own rules through the power of will, these enlightened few cast the shape of tomorrow. Ultimately, they seek to surpass the limitations of the universe, to transcend this reality through Ascension. Their special wisdom sets them apart forever -- they are mages."
In the dawn of the new millenium, the Mages warned, the Technocracy dominated the world and its people, using programs designed to subvert the remaining isolated pockets of deviancy.
Often, in fact, science and technology do fail to come to terms with their own complexity when managed by fallible and manipulable humans. Another brilliant vision of the future: in this world, with more technology than ever -- gene maps, supercomputing, artificial intelligence, wireless delivery systems, an avalanche of new software, plentiful bandwidth -- most people are never permitted or helped to understand it. The technology spawns all sorts of new devices, even while knowledge seems to shrink.
In our culture, reality certainly gets defined by technocrats who acquire and control media and culture -- journalism, Hollywood, music. People comfort themselves in the idea the the Net provides millions of diverse voices, but very few have any real influence or reach. Mass media still dominate the most influential people and institutions in the culture.
But for all the fantasy in "Mage," there's also relentless reality. There's a poignant chapter on dealing with "the Mundane World," where everybody has to go, at some point, to go to school, sleep or face the real planet.
Stories like "Mage" and "Shadowrunner" LINK often incoporate the idea of an awakening. Sometimes you awaken to magic; sometimes you simply awaken to the nature of the world. Some Mages get jarred into insight through a tramautic event; others experience a slow heightening of awareness.
The idea of the awakening is widespread on the Net, too, usually in a different context. The supplicant, often bored or disconnected from the traditional world, gets drawn into a new reality -- a game, perhaps, an e-mail exchange, a chatroom encounter, a revelatory programming experience. The Net is a particular world and many people talk of their sense of revelation and astonishment when they first enter and discover it. It is especially transforming because their lives are not the same afterwards.