Games and Magic

Think of this…

Here’s Pong, one of the first video games ever made.


Here’s Donkey Kong, which came out about 10 years later.


And here is the trailer for the game The Last of Us which came out in 2013.

Think of how video games have evolved in forty years.

Yes, the graphics have come a million miles.

Ok, yes, that’s true. And that’s the most apparent change, but I don’t know that it’s the most significant.

When video games first came around, they were almost all about simply accomplishing a task. You’re a frog and you have to cross the street and then the river.


And further levels will just add more cars and remove logs. That’s what almost every game was. Your goal was to accomplish some task either as fast as possible or without dying or both.

But in just a few decades, video games became something quite different. It wasn’t just a change in graphics. Games became about narrative and immersion.

I began thinking about this because of an email I got a few weeks ago from friend of the site, Ricardo Delgado. He wrote, in part:

Games are capable of producing emotions that other media cannot

This phrase caught my eye when I was reading about Will Wright’s online course about game design on Masterclass. 

And reading through the Lesson Plan I saw some similarities with magic (specifically your ideas on MFYL). Both are a “different media”, there are lots of possibilities of what to do and stories to tell, they can be an immersive experience, etc. 

Then I was talking about the parallels between magic and game design with my friend, Pat, over text and he mentioned this…

Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 11.19.45 PM.png

I was surprised I hadn’t noticed this before. Throughout the 80s—the first real video game heyday— that was the whole point of playing the game: to get further along, to get the high score. And now it’s something people rarely consider. If you told someone playing Burger Time in 1984 that many future games would not even have “scores” they’d probably barely be able to wrap their mind around it. What’s a game without a score?

But video games changed and blossomed out from just this one metric of “score.” The goal of “completing tasks” was put in a context and that became a relatable narrative people could get caught up in.

That is, I believe, the next leap for close-up, social magic.

For the most part, how we present close-up magic hasn’t change much in 100 years. That is not the sign of a vibrant, healthy art form.

Our only concern is, often, “Did I fool them?” That’s a very one-dimensional approach to presenting magic. It reminds me of the 1980’s focus on the “hi-score” in video games. That focus keeps us from creating some more nuanced, and interesting experiences with magic. Instead we’re sitting here doing the same old Q*Bert shit.


But if we take “fooling them” and put it in the context of a larger story or experience, I think we can create a far more captivating encounter for the audience, similar to the way video games elevated simple task-based challenges by building a story around them.

(If you’re new here, and you have no idea what I’m talking about by putting a trick in a greater context, start at the beginning of the site and work your way back here. You’ll see examples along the way.)

People will say, “Oh, you’re too good to do things the way Dai Vernon did them?” No. But Dai Vernon wasn’t doing things the way people did them 75 years before him either. For magic to be vital it needs to change or at least try new things. Stage magic has evolved. Television magic has evolved. But close-up magic is still often just random, meaningless tricks with some half-hearted “presentation” thrown in.

“Well excuse me for being old-fashioned and just doing ‘random, meaningless tricks,’ but my audience seems to enjoy them just fine, thank you very much.”

I’m sure they do. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be open to a more engrossing presentational style. The thing is, they don’t know such a thing exists. It’s up to us to push the experience to new heights, not the audience. They don’t know what they want. You have to build it for them first. If you asked people in the early 70s playing Pong what changes they’d like to see in their video game experience, they wouldn’t have said, “I’d like a more immersive, narrative based experience.” They would have said, “It would be cool if the ball was blue.”

Further exploration:

Here you can watch the intro scene for The Last of Us video game.

And here you can watch some people in their 60s and older, playing that intro. It’s interesting to see people who haven’t seen what video games have become be exposed to them for the first time.

Coming soon:

Transitioning away from the “magic trick as performative demonstration” style and towards the “magic trick as immersive fiction” style for those who are having trouble with this sort of thing.