Hong-An (Ann) Wu, University of Texas at Dallas
Troubleshooting with Tarot Critical Essay [Download Link]
Troubleshooting with Tarot Game [Download Link]
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).
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.
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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