Harry Houdini, shown with his wife, enjoyed debunking the chicanery of others as well as doing his own feats.

Most of us who play these games have a memory of that moment. Our first moment in an MMO when we are just simply blown away by the size, mystery, or immersiveness of the world we’ve stepped into.

I’m just about finished with Robertson DaviesDeptford trilogy, three novels that are a meditation on, among other things, what Davies calls “wonder.” Davies’ contention is that there’s an innate human desire to be dazzled by illusion, to be made to marvel at the spectacular — like an audience at a stage magician, or a worshiper at the icon of a saint.

I think what first attracted me, and I think a lot of MMO players, to online worlds is that need for wonder, the need to be confused and mystified by an elaborate set-piece with its own internal mysteries to solve, or just wonder at.

But I’m just not sure it’s possible to capture that feeling anymore. Every secret a game possesses is bound to be laid bare on the Internet within hours of being discovered. And, barring a level of personal restraint I don’t have, players of games will seek out these secrets.

The very pervasiveness of Internet information that makes MMOs a viable medium of mass entertainment makes it harder to do one of the things these games are great at — surprise us with immersive detail or creative storytelling.

Mostly what’s got me thinking about this is Bioware. They want to make story the center of Star Wars: The Old Republic. They say they want your choices to have significance, and to preclude certain options — handle an encounter in one way and your character will be permanently altered.

How on earth does this square with a world in which every decision tree, every min-max alternative of a questline, has been fully mapped out on Allakhazam within hours of the game’s release? I don’t know. Even the greatest of illusionists get pleasure from laying bare the secrets of others. Just ask Houdini.

It simply won’t do to say “if you want mystery, don’t spoil yourself.” There has to be a way to design the game to still contain wonder and mystery for the world that it’s played in, one where answers and options are laid bare.

And as a reward for sticking with me on this pretty rambling topic, here’s footage of Teller (the quiet part of Penn & Teller) explaining the kinesthetic psychology of slight-of-hand tricks.

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