The divine witches of cyberspace
Fortune-telling games help us fumble toward deeper truths, at the junction of technology and mysticism
My fortune for the day says I’ll never understand selfies with the boys. I press a button and the machine produces another one: “you will make a new instagram mayb.”
Zach Gage’s latest app, #Fortune, is doing the prognostication for me. It culls strangers’ Tweets from the ether and regurgitates them as tiny fortunes. Sometimes they foretell heartbreak (this one says “You will PROBABLY MOST LIKELY cry for him”; this one says “you will make him a sandwich lol jk”). Other times, disaster (“You will make your life hell. Just a friendly reminder”). Here, the bot promises a querent that cuteness lies ahead.
Like a lot of Twitter-related bots, #Fortune creates eminently shareable content instantaneously—the randomness of machines is often endearing, and it’s inexplicably hooky to push the button that prompts the virtual machine to spit a little print-out onto your phone screen.
But you’re not just waiting to see what a bot will come up with. You’re waiting and hoping, perhaps against hope, that it will have something uncanny and affirming to say about your circumstances, your wishes. #Fortune is just one of the nuanced, fascinating swath of games that tell our future. We may imagine machines as cold, impartial things—but at the intersection of technology with the divine, we unearth fascinating things about being human.
#Fortune began life as a physical installation piece in 2013, part of a show themed around black magic—somewhere in the world, in Gage’s home, it still lives, a real little box plugged in and ready for him to consult it every day (see what it looks like in this quick clip). The app officially launched last month, a way of sharing something of that touchable experience with the rest of the world.
“#Fortune takes the things people are seeing and doing and saying, and making them into things that you are going to see and do and say,” Gage says. “It’s about the overwhelming power of our desire to relate.”
Gage is a prolific game designer, but historically he’s had no special interest in divination. To some extent, there’s a natural intersection of games with superstition—both are systems enthusiasts use to experience a feeling of logic and harmony in their worlds.
“I definitely think the superstition has a ridiculously rich history in games, though, especially dice games,” Gage says. “I know some Dungeons and Dragons players have ‘low dice’ and ‘high dice,’ and that players sometimes give their dice ‘timeouts’ when they don’t behave. Craps players often have pre-throw rituals, or specific grips. Even outside overt faith-based dice practices, superstition is basically why randomness works so well in games.”
Artist Kara Stone’s work frequently explores the places where community and technology meet. Her recent spiritual Twine work, Feminist Confessional, allows you to receive various prescriptions for penance based on the “sins” you’ve done against feminism—I whispered to it I’d called another woman ugly, and it told me to prostrate myself and sing Nicki Minaj’s verse from Truffle Butter. Into it. I felt better immediately.
Stone’s Techno Tarot offers you pixelly cards with a charming, handmade feel—at the start it asks you to meditate on your topic as you “attune” with your device, which will then dispense wisdom on your past, present and future. It’s funny and self-aware, the idea of “attuning with a device,” but not all that woo-woo—smartphones have very quickly become icons we touch on sleeping and rising. Ian Bogost once did an installation about the smartphone and its associated microtransactions that wreathed our rosary-like thumbing in church symbolism. Even if we’re not exactly religious about devices, we definitely have superstitions about them (if I keep the phone face down, the next buzz will be a text from a special ‘her’. If I don’t touch it between here and my front door, he’ll call when I get in).
Techno Tarot tells me that while I’ve achieved my professional goals, I’ve lost my connection to my body and stopped treating others around me well. I nearly decide this is something any full-time internet writer would nod her head at, and leave it at that, but I can’t shake the feeling that it knew me. Why do we believe in digital fortunetelling when we know machines only understand logic and randomness?
Stone thinks we don’t necessarily know that, citing “collective consciousness” trends online just a few years ago: “There was a belief that computers link humans together in some mystical way, where if one gathered the right information, one could predict the future, trends, business booms, and political movements,” she says.
“Spiritualization of computers might be as simple as ‘I don't understand it and therefore it is mystical’, or ‘It knows so much more than I do, therefore it is mystical,’ moving the unknown into the unknowable,” Stone tells me. And our lavish worship of technology is its own kind of future prediction. We judge our trajectory and guess at our future societies based on the tech we're so certain will define us there.
“People think computers are the whole future and thus they know the future… some people go so hard into loving technology and science that it becomes a dogma paralleling religion and spirituality, this whole worldview that is so often focused on the future, the future, the future,” she says.
Stone originally conceived Techno Tarot as an intentional criticism of our unquestioning faith in computers, but the response to it surprised even the artist: Users were thrilled by the accuracy of their readings, and found as much meaning in the randomly-assigned digital cards as they might in a real face-to-face reading with a practitioner.
“Also, people love hearing about themselves, seeing how people perceive them, what result they get on quizzes,” Stone says. “A lot of future-fortune-tech stuff plays into that, including my work... and it's easier to get a computer to pay attention to you than another human being.”
There is also a uniquely feminist layer to the digital fortunetelling space—it can offer a safe haven in the technology world, where smooth futures are far less certain for some as for others. Stone suggests that astrology and witchcraft have always, throughout history, offered ways for marginalized people to understand the world, even while white patriarchy, capitalism and their associated religious movements rutted up alongside and over them.
It may function as a similar expressive outlet for women and marginalized people online even today. My friend Merritt, a game designer who’s written at Offworld before, once made me a small digital incantation of power to use whenever I end up in the crosshairs of internet noise, which is a regular thing for me as it is for many visible women online.
“My draw to the mystical and the witchy is a desire to understand the world through a lens different than what is advertised,” Stone says. “We give logic and the rational so much authority because it gives a certain kind of person—a well-educated, science-focused white man—authority, and we pretend that those are separate from feelings and the body. We're taught to dismiss other kinds of knowledge.”
I think she’s right on: Logic, the known and the proven are highly valued by people in power—in any conversation about sexism, there’s always the guy who shows up to ask for statistical proof; there's also the presumed social dominance of the guy who insists feelings and identity don’t matter to games.
“To me, mysticism or witchyness or whatever has a rich history among oppressed people, and offers a way of living in this world that is healing and reparative, without pretending that marginalization of people doesn't exist,” says Stone.
It makes sense to view digital mysticism as an outlet for people marginalized by the world of technology, especially when you note the most common aesthetics among artists in the space tend to appear intentionally low-tech, borrowing the kitsch and accidental beauty of the early web, with all its weird portals and chunky mailing lists. This list of awards won by a "love calculator" that's been online since 1996 is charming in its way ("Fun Site of the Day").
Artist Rachel Weil often works with retro imagery, repurposing and reimagining the nostalgic language of the male-dominated consumer game fan as if it were girly stuff (I did an interview with her about this in the Guardian last year). She’s now done two divination games: Electronic Sweet-n-Fun Fortune Teller and Monkey Fortunetell, with Nathalie Lawhead.
Both projects are incredibly evocative of a younger era. “I found inspiration in old love testers, horoscope-dispensing amusement machines, Mattel’s Horoscope Computer, the browser-based Love Calculator, and of course the ubiquitous electronic diary and its horoscope function,” Weil says.
Monkey Fortunetell is wonderfully-weird, hyperstimulating, like an oddity ripped from the mid-1990s internet.You use the mouse to shake a barrel beside a human-shaped dancing ape, and then spill different-colored monkey charms all over a pulsating pastel zodiac chart. Today it said my passion and vitality was being constrained by circumstance—several monkeys fell into that sector of the chart, and all of it was a bit uncanny to a let’s-call-it-discussion I had with my boyfriend earlier today. We’ve been in different countries, and it’s been hard.
Weil and Lawhead came up with the idea of Monkey Fortunetell while playing together with a plastic barrel of the classic toys. Weil had also been reading a book on divination through casting stones and understanding crystals and planets—it reminded her of Sailor Moon, another element of vintage girlhood that’s seen a resurgence among a new generation of women and girls in the internet age.
A lot of us weird kids watched Sailor Moon back in high school, mailing VHS tapes around with message board friends. We lit black candles and drew a rune or two, too. When I was 13, my friends and I decided that if I drank a cup of black coffee, I could make accurate predictions about who would go out with who. I was often right.
It was similar for Weil: “As a young girl, I played with an old deck of Gypsy Witch cards and Napoleon’s Book of Fate, both gifts from my dad,” says Weil. “And in my teenage years, I earned a reputation among my friends for being psychic after making a few lucky prognostications about who would be going to the school dance with whom.”
“Looking back on all of this as an adult, I realize that I was very much concerned with the matter of love,” Weil continues. “I deeply wanted to find love and romance, to love and be loved, and I wanted that for others as well. Fortune telling was an attempt to help soothe the anxiety I felt about not knowing quite what love and romance might be while nonetheless being so intensely drawn to them.”
My 16 year-old cousin tells me she still remembers the 94% compatibility rating a website gave her regarding a crush she had at age nine. “It would be, like, two hearts, and you would put your name and your crush’s name and press ‘calculate’,” she tells me. “I still remember—his name was Jack, and I invited him over my house and we were playing Truth or Dare outside. I ‘truthed’ him who his crush was, and he didn’t say me.”
Weil wants her work on Electronic Sweet-n-Fun Fortune Teller and Monkey Fortunetell to be oriented toward recapturing the nostalgia of youthful romance. “What happens when we enlist a computer to help us find love? We believe the computer to be both smart and impartial, though in reality it is neither,” she says.
Fortune-telling games can also be a subversive way to poke fun at the traditional formal values of the video game space, where audiences and creators alike often expect systems where you can “win”, or at least improve—where marching toward mastery is the holiest order. As Weil says, the algorithms that drive fortunetelling game experiences are completely opaque to the player: “The player surrenders agency, surrenders to the machine,” says Weil. “Yet, somehow, the game is still fun! How can this be?”
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether we “truly” believe in the fortunes given to us by a machine. Nathalie Lawhead, Weil’s Monkey Fortunetell collaborator, believes faith bestows certain psychological advantages, and as humans our tendency to read meaning into nearly anything means that tools of fortune, even digital art games, can help us psychoanalyze ourselves and give ourselves appropriate care.
“We don’t properly think about ourselves enough, and this is why I think any fortune-telling tool, toy or app is important,” says Lawhead. “Scientifically arguing if it’s ‘real’ or not is kind of like going to a LARP and telling all the LARPers that what they are doing isn’t accurate medieval warfare. It’s a bit of a killjoy.”
Artist Katelan Foisy reads tarot professionally, so I asked her if machines can do readings just as well as a person. She says what matters isn’t the cards themselves, but the interpretation: “You are going to get a more in-depth and accurate reading from any reader or astrologer if they are doing it by hand, and know what they’re doing,” she says. “They’re going to make the connections between the cards that an app can't.”
That human element can help create a broader and more accurate picture of one’s fortune, she says, although there’s no reason not to rely on—or simply enjoy—apps that offer a single card reading or a general theme for the day. True in both real-world readings and digital spaces alike, querents are often simply looking to process the things they already know, somewhere inside themselves.
I press the button on my #Fortune app once more for the night. Because I’ve already exhausted it for the evening, I voluntarily watch a video ad in order to earn two more fortunes.
“You will make your point,” it tells me simply. Ooh.
I can’t help myself. I press the button again. “You will forever call him eminem from 8mile but he’s such an amazing person, always keep on doing him,” it says.
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