Troubleshooting with Tarot

Hong-An (Ann) Wu, University of Texas at Dallas

Troubleshooting with Tarot Critical Essay [Download Link]

Troubleshooting with Tarot Game [Download Link]

Author’s Note

This project was supported in part by a Humanities and Emerging Arts (HEArts) Grant  from the Office of Research at The University of Texas at Dallas to the Studio for Mediating  Play housed under the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at The  University of Texas at Dallas (Project ID: 7699).

Critical Essay

As a faculty member placed under the Animation and Games Area and Critical Media  Studies Area in an interdisciplinary arts school, every semester I encounter plenty of brilliant  undergraduate and graduate students that aspire to be game designers in my games-related  courses. However, as the semesters go on, many of them end up pursuing other creative  expressions instead of game production. Upon inquiring, their responses reflected their wide  range of personal and professional contexts that shape game development as the path of most  resistance. Intersecting and beyond the widely recognized structural racism and sexism rampant  in gaming communities and game development environments (Weststar & Legault, 2018), every  one of them located the required technical literacy to “make” games, meaning programming  languages and computational thinking, as a key obstacle. Here, their reflections spoke to how  they understood themselves as not in proximity to the necessary pre-requisite knowledge to utilize game-making technologies. However, what are these assumed technologies for making  games and what is this assumed pre-requisite knowledge, anyways?  

In the anthology Queer Game Studies edited by Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw  (2017), Edmond Chang conceptualized queergaming as an act that engages in “the articulation of  and investment in alternative modes of play and ways of being” that insist upon “a refusal of the  idea that digital games and gaming communities are the sole provenance of adolescent, straight,  white, cisgender, masculine, able, male, and ‘hardcore’ bodies and desires” (p. 15). Targeting the  technological imagination underpinning gaming communities, the experimental browser-based game Troubleshooting with Tarot is my gesture of queergaming aimed at resisting hegemonic  narratives of technology and normative expectations about programming language literacy  through playfully centering communities of Tarot practitioners that engages Tarot as a technology. Troubleshooting with Tarot juxtaposes two distinctly different community of  practitioners, namely the sought-after masculinized computer programmers (Wajcman, 1991;  Ensmenger, 2010; Taylor, 2012) and the precarious feminized Tarot practitioners (Gregory,  2012; Miller, 2017), that both employ interpretative strategies to create and produce knowledge  based on its own internally bounded and coherent epistemologies.  

In the first segment of Troubleshooting with Tarot, players are introduced to the website  of TAROTechnology, a fictional non-formal educational institution liken to and parodying the non-fictional CodeAcademy and CodeUp, that promotes the ideology that social progress  depends upon the furthering of our technical aptitude and profits off of individuals that lacked  the supposed required literacy to compete. However, as opposed to being solicited to learn  coding, writing, and troubleshooting computer programs, players are positioned in a subverted universe in which technical literacy in drawing, writing, and interpreting Tarot cards are the  default necessary “21st century skills” desired for any career paths (Partnership for 21st Century  Skills, 2010). Here, Troubleshooting with Tarot draws attention to the implicit assumptions in contemporary discourses around what is considered a technology and what kind of know-how are deemed worthy as a technical literacy.  

In the second segment of Troubleshooting with Tarot, players are faced with a HTTP connection error page and prompted to engage in the act of troubleshooting the problem.  However, in lieu of lines of code, Troubleshooting with Tarot displays a Tarot card for players to decipher using a modified version of Laura Gibbs’ Tarot widget (Gibbs, 2019). Here,  Troubleshooting with Tarot exploits the normative narratives of technical troubleshooting that  relies upon outsourcing problems to those with the specific technical literacy to take care of,  which inadvertently further reinforces the legitimacy of that knowledge and those with access to that knowledge, to extend the narrative of this universe where specialized literacy in Tarot is  assumed and considered matter-of-fact. In doing so, Troubleshooting with Tarot calls into  question whose knowledge and what kind of knowledge do we consider matter-of-fact and continue to extend.  

Theoretical Underpinnings

Troubleshooting with Tarot approaches technology as beyond the things that people point  towards to include the “ongoing energies, activities, relations, interpenetrations, and investments  within which these things appear, take flight, and have effects” (Slack & Wise, 2005, p. 96-97).  Because “technical things have political qualities” (Winner, 1986, p. 19) insofar as decisions  made during the making of technologies becomes “strongly fixed in material equipment,  economic investment, and social habit, the original flexibility vanishes for all practical purposes  once the initial commitments are made” (p. 29). In this instance, technology is used to describe  “a form of knowledge” that includes practices of “what people do as well as what they know”  how to do with things (Wacjman, 1991, p. 14), and what technology one chooses to engage with  have grave consequences in terms of what kind of legacy one is extending.  

Thus, Troubleshooting with Tarot takes technologies seriously by considering what  counts as a technology and why might that be the technology we’re accustomed and presumed to  use. Here, I turn to wisdom from the field of science and technology studies. Science and  technology studies (STS) traces the nexus of power through reflexively examining the socio cultural, material, and historical conditions that underpin hegemonic conceptions of knowledge,  modernity, science, and technology. Specifically, STS scholars have examined the co constitutive relationship between colonialism and science as manifested in taken-for-granted  technologies, namely technologies developed in service of western science as a totalizing colonial enterprise. The expansion of this enterprise popularized scientific thinking and  technological developments rooted in 18th century European Enlightenment values, privileging what Wacjman (1991) characterized as a dichotomizing epistemology that assumes a false  distinction between “culture vs. nature, mind vs. body, reason vs. emotion, objectivity vs.  subjectivity, the public realm vs. the private realm” (p. 5) while displacing other epistemologies.  

Under this context, what counts as a technology in our imaginations are often layered  with “Eurocentric modernity,” which is “visible in not merely the global spread of colonial  exploits but also in the spread of the notion of European domination as the natural expression of  superiority over biologically inferior and culturally primitive others” (Chan, 2013, p. 13).  Specifically, under the expansion of enlightenment values through colonialism, Harding (2011)  argued that contemporary notions of social progress are grounded in the ideology that “value neutral scientific rationality and technical expertise must replace traditional religious beliefs,  myths, and superstitions about nature and social relations” (p. 2). In effect, conceptualizations of  technology often preclude boundary objects circulating in communities of practice that does not adhere to Enlightenment values by ascribing to or labeled as factual, rational, objective, reason base, and logical, such as various fortunate-telling practices. However, in reality, scientists are  first and foremost “writers and readers in the business of being convinced and convincing others”  (Latour & Woolgar, 1979, p. 88); western science is also merely constructed and maintained by a  series of interpretative acts as other communities of practice engaged in the production of  knowledge that it delegitimizes under the label of subjective, unsubstantiated, irrational, and  illogical.  

The dominance of specific technologies that adhers to the scientific worldview being  what we’re accustomed and presumed to use culminates in the case of digital games. Digital games are often positioned as the frontier of education as they engage individuals in  computational thinking via ludic encounters that maps on easily to other relevant 21st century  literacy skills, such as coding for computer programs. Given, a key component of this evolving  collection of technologies rests on the level of writing, interpreting, and executing code, as all  digital games are simply “software systems” (Galloway, 2006, p. 6). Yet, each of our proximity  to this collection of technologies differs widely depending on where we are positioned  structurally, and the gap between our proximities lies the developmental curve for which the  epistemology of these technologies seeks to expand, colonize, and fill. As layered computer  software, various scholars have traced the dynamic military-academic-industrial complex that  extends colonialism’s totalizing expansion as the context of where digital games are situated  (Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter, 2009; Crogan, 2011; Dooghan, 2019); as Byrd (2016) argued,  digital games are the “paradigmatic media of empire” as they are “built upon networked systems  of signs, significations, languages, and platforms that have extended sovereignty into the virtual  and into the realms of the imperial that Hardt and Negri have characterized as an atemporal and  deterritorialized sovereignty” (p. 429).  In discussing settler colonialism, a specific form of colonialism that “insists on settler  sovereignty over all things in their new domain” (p. 5), Tuck and Yang (2012) emphasized that  special attention need to be paid to “the colonial apparatus that is assembled to order the  relationships between particular peoples, lands, the ‘natural world’, and ‘civilization’” (p. 21). At  the same time, Tuck and Yang (2012) reminded us that these attentions should not be conflated  with the act of decolonialization, as “decolonialization is not a metaphor” (p. 1). While Troubleshooting with Tarot is explicitly NOT a decolonial game, it can be understood as my  attempt at paying attention to the colonial apparatus as manifested in hegemonic narratives around technology and normative expectations about programming language literacy.

The Game Design Process

As an intersectional feminist game designer, I approach the legacy and ongoing practices  of colonialism as manifested through digital technologies outlined above as the “game engine”  (Nideffer, 2011, p. 175) for which I am situated in and am critically playing with (Flanagan,  2009). Instead of approaching “game engines,” such as Unity or Twine, as denoting merely the  lines of code executing a computer software for playing and making digital games, Nideffer  (2011) argued for understanding game engines more broadly to encompass “the social contexts  within which a game is produced and played” (p. 175), as the software already in it of itself  includes and manifests those contextual constraints in the form of “values, beliefs, goals, and  objectives” (p. 179). In the case of Troubleshooting with Tarot, I began by reflecting on the ways  in which beliefs and values around digital technologies as objective and rational are  manifestations of the scientific worldview as popularized and affirmed via colonialism, and I  take that as the game engine I am situated in.  

To critically play with this game engine, I operate under Flanagan’s theorization that it is  “a careful examination of social, cultural, political, or even personal themes that function as  alternatives to popular play spaces” by “critiquing the status quo” as well as “using play for such  a phase change” (p. 6). In other words, critical play involves occupying play environments to  raise questions as a player and creating play environments to raise questions as a game designer.  Here, Flanagan’s theorization aligns with Nideffer’s argument that game engines serve as  creative frameworks for game players, designers, and artists to “reframe, reposition, rearticulate  taken for granted, habitual, and often oppressive social and institutional relations of power and  privilege” (p. 176). With colonialism as manifested in assumptions about technical literacy as the phenomenon I am working against, I utilized strategies of subversion, including rewriting,  resknning, and unplaying, to “undermine an institution, event, or object” (Flanagan, 2009, p. 6).  Specifically, I mobilized knowledge produced and accumulated in communities of practice that  subscribe to a different set of epistemologies via the technology they center, namely Tarot cards,  to engage in this subversion and parody.  

The histories of Tarot are often told through tracing its development as a popular deck of  playing cards invented Italy and popularized throughout Europe during 15th century. During the  Enlightenment era, its popularity declined as it became aligned with divination practices and associated with Egyptian mythology (Gregory, 2012). In other words, though also having roots  in Europe like modern science, Tarot was delegitimized and shunned as it accrued connotations  and associations with epistemologies from the “East” that’s incompatible with Enlightenment  values, which makes it an extraordinary example of how technologies embodying competing  worldviews becomes marginalized under colonialism. 

Furthermore, my concern and interest lies in the practice of Tarot, along with other  esoteric practices such as astrology, in various BIPOC communities and spaces, such as the  Allied Media Conference. Specifically, various Tarot practitioners in these communities have  been engaging in reclaiming Tarot and its dominant histories by taking it as a game engine to  reskin, rewrite, and unplay, which by extension expands Tarot as a technology. Mattie Brice, for  example, utilize Tarot as a framework to rethink existing game design logics (Brice, 2014).  Using collage techniques, Casey Rocheteau created the Shrine of the Black Medusa deck (2014)  that “celebrates Black culture and history, queer magic & hoodoo divination.” Christy Road  created the Next World Tarot deck (2017) to tell, and help us build, the story of the next world  with 78 original illustrations of prominent figures in trans-feminist and BIPOC communities (Pérez, 2018). Mimi Khúc created the Open in Emergency tarot deck (2017) that draws on  fortunate-telling practices in Asian American communities to “reveal the hidden contours of our  Asian American emotional, psychic, and spiritual lives, as well as the systems of violence that  bear down upon them.” The list goes on.  Taking these Tarot practitioners as my interlocuters, I mobilize the epistemologies that  they are interpellating via the technology they practice to intersect with digital technologies for  which I engage with and think about in my game design practice. While their act of critical play  rests on subverting Tarot itself as a technology, Troubleshooting with Tarot attempts to critical  play with the connotations of pseudoscientific, irrational, subjective, and illogical ascribed to  Tarot by subverting the practices of writing and interpreting codes for software programs that  gatekeep the conceptions of technology. By drawing on communities of Tarot practitioners for  which I am in dialog with that assume alternative epistemologies via the technologies they  center, I consider my game design practice as an investigation into the taken-for-granted  assumption encoded in the digital technologies we use for playing and making games through queergaming (Chang, 2017) that gesture towards alternative world-building. As adrienne marie  brown reminded me in her book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (2017),  “we are in an imagination battle” (p. 18). Troubleshooting with Tarot takes as the starting and  ending point that the technologies we use to facilitate our imaginations frame what is possible  and half of the battle lies in what is framed a technology.


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