Guest Post: The Videogame and The Oracle

By Henrique Antero

Henrique Antero is a Brazilian writer who would probably have a hard time distinguishing between a bug and a message from the gods. He is trying to string words into coherent sentences—but rarely on his Twitter, where you can reach him @erniquoa.

I’ve always had a major problem making up my mind, probably because I’m a Gemini. But one day I was taught a technique that I now use regularly when a monster of a choice arises: I simply throw a coin in the air. Heads is option “A”, tails is option“B”. Flipping a coin seems obvious and plenty of people have done it at least once, but the trick is to be aware of your inner sensations while the coin is flying. To my rational mind, it seems impossible to choose between strawberry or vanilla ice cream through cold analysis and pure logicI like them both. But while the coin flips I get a very strong gut feeling that tells me exactly what my inner preferences are in that moment. Turns out I’d rather spend that money on something else right now. Even when I can’t articulate the reason I’m choosing option“C”, the feeling is there to tell me what I really want. So why don’t you take the test? Take a deep breath and ask yourself if you should continue reading this. Trust your intuition while the coin is in the air and ignore the result. If you’re still here and you weren’t scared off by the weird and unnecessary astrological reference, I have some games to show you.

But first, you may be thinking, “Not all problems are as trivial as ‘what dessert should I eat on this very hot day?”. We can’t trust gut feelings or sensations to make more important decisions for us. We should think them through, reach reasonable conclusions, and stand our ground even if we don’t feel that excited about the decisions we end up making. Sure, you’re right. Our instincts can be fooled; sometimes I want coke when what I really need is water. But sometimes we aren’t given a reasonable amount of time to think about our problem, or we just don’t have complete information. Sometimes we have to take a leap, but we must have something to guide us. And what is that guide, anyway? What’s behind the coin, or luck, or randomness, or the seemingly irrational? It’s what helps you avoid skulls in Devil Daggers, or spiders in Spelunky, before your cognitive process even acknowledges it (after you put in enough hours of practice). It’s what makes the best athletes. It’s also the source of creative genius; it allows trained individuals to make strange and uncommon connections which result in works like Ulysses. A stroke of genius. Eureka. Or we can call it “intuition”.

The great English poet, John Milton, wrote in Paradise Lost that once upon a time, the angel Raphael was lounging in Paradise when Adam greeted him and they started talking. Over the course of their conversation, Raphael states that there exists two modes of thinking: discursive, which is closer to Adam, and intuitive, which is closer to Raphael. Whereas for angels reason is intuitive and self-derived, humans reason through discourse, or in conversation with one another—dialectic, in other words. But sometimes people are given the opportunity to think like angels—and it’s not that rare. People like Einstein and Bohr supposedly had these great flashes of intuition which, along with their hard work and decades of study, led them to important scientific discoveries. Intuition can also occur in everyday life. It’s common to hit walls during the creative process (the infamous writer’s block” is one example of it), or freeze and succumb to anxiety when making an important decision. And who hasn’t overcome this situation through simple acts like taking a walk, washing the dishes, or drinking tea? When discursive thinking hits a wall, intuition can take us from “A” to “B” through a shorter path, or around it. That’s where the concept of divination comes in. In this we find technologies developed to give us access to that intuition, and which supposedly gets us closer to the angels’ mode of thinking when we look for it.

“I think that divination tools—and even more established ones like Tarot or whatever—are interesting as ways to navigate one’s own questions and insecurities,” says Pol Clarissou. He’s a French videogame artist. In his game, Wish Fishing, we see a fisherman on a space beach who throws his line, and does a little dance, while we type out a question. Press enter and the line goes to space, fishing for our answer. The answer comes back in a sequence of Unicode characters that we can decipher through the glossary provided below. For example, ❦ refers to “the Conception: an unrealized idea, an impulse, the death before life”, and ☁ means “the Shadow: a missed opportunity, a mistake, a deception, the first symptom”. Clarissou provides a compelling explanation for why divination can help solve problems: “Wording out a question, and then deciphering an answer from weird characters by putting it in context, forces you to actually think about the situation and might help you shift your perspective, see things you didn’t see (or didn’t want to)”.

Pol Clarissou's "Wish Fishing" delivers its fortunes in the form of Unicode glyphs.

Pol Clarissou’s “Wish Fishing” delivers its fortunes in the form of Unicode glyphs.

Clarissou told me that he chose Unicode symbols because they look like incomplete or obsolete remnants of the Internet,

“Unicode is this weird part of the web alphabet that is mostly utilitarian (basically letters, numbers, special characters and characters from non-Latin languages), but also has small sections that are just dingbats and pictograms selected with no apparent sense—for instance, why are there so many radial flowers and stars? (✵✶✷✸✹✺✻✼✽✾✿). It reminds me of Pythia, whose predictions were always spoken in obscure and vague language, and could be interpreted in drastically different ways—and thus, actually tell more about the intent of the person who interprets the divination than it tells about the future.”

Pythia was the name given to the priestess at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, also known as the Oracle of Delphi. The priestess was the most trusted and sought-after oracle of the time, and the highest civil and religious authority in a male-dominated society. According to legend, Croesus, the king of Lydia, decided one day to do an experiment. He consulted every oracle he knew about what he was doing on a particular day. The story goes that only the Oracle of Delphi got it right: he was cooking turtle and lamb’s meat in a bronze cauldron. And so, she became the only oracle he trusted. Later on, a real question came up. The king asked whether he should go to war against the Persians, and the Oracle replied, “If Croesus goes to war he will destroy a great empire”. He was pleased with the answer, but of course it didn’t happen the way he expected it to. He was crushed. And what other outcome was he expecting? That would make for a very uninteresting story, and, being honest, he went to war based on advice likely inspired by drug-induced visions.

From ancient Greece to cyberculture, we can safely say that divination has been present throughout the history of mankind. And everywhere, too. It seems that anywhere you go, people have believed without a shadow of a doubt that there are coded messages in nature. Humans being resourceful, we quickly developed methods to interpret these messages. The ancient Egyptians tried to decode dreams (and believed that the very ability to read and write was a divine gift from the god Thoth). The Hittites, ancient residents of what is known today as Turkey, interpreted messages from counting birds and observing the direction they flew in (Romans had a specific priest solely for this purpose too). A common practice in pre-colonial Brazil was to talk to gods through dreams, or through trances and visions induced by fasting or taking hallucinogenic drugs—usually with the help of a Pajé (analogous to a Shaman, as they are known in other cultures). Tarot was first documented around the 15th century in Italy, but could be older than that. The Jogo de Búzios—literally “Game of Cowrie-shells”—originated in West Africa and is a very common form of divination in African-American religions as well as among the Yoruba people. In ancient China, people wrote their questions into turtle shells, set them on fire, and then counted the cracks in a practice called “plastromancy”. This eventually developed into a highly complex and famous divination system: the I-Ching.

It’s possible that these methods are not just rooted in blind faith in supernatural messages. Maybe it’s more that these ancient oracles lacked a modern psychological vocabulary and ascribed visions and symbols to real-world phenomena, thus creating false associations and embedding meaning where there was none. And, maybe, something insightful came out of it now and then. In this sense, maybe artists like ceMelusine are a little bit like those guys. His game, Oracle, tries to recreate this experience. It’s the first game in a collection called “East Van EP”—East Van is a region in Vancouver, Canada, and “EP” stems from the fact that ceMuseline thinks videogames should be more like music.

Oracle places me in the middle of a clearing in the woods. I can see the stars in the open sky, as well as swords and shields scattered around on the ground—possibly to suggest a post-battle scenario. There’s a low-poly fire in front of me. I ask the fire to tell me of my fate, and then I pass out and have visions. Different symbols and images swirl all around me. Planets, animals, jars, crosses, trees—it’s pretty evocative. After I wake up, the game asks me to tell it of my visions in a few words, and generates a cryptic statement (e.g., “You will make your heart known”).

 "Oracle" by ceMuseline serves the player cryptic messages by a roaring fire.

“Oracle” by ceMuseline serves the player cryptic messages by a roaring fire.

ceMelusine told me that the most important inspiration for this game came from this cross, built in East Van in 2010 for the Olympic Games: “It has this incredibly convoluted lineage. The symbol itself was a gang sign here like 30 years ago but now is trademarked by the city of Vancouver.” He crosses it everyday on his way to work. “I wanted to make a game that captures the idea of how objects can hold these complex and varied meanings,” he says. “The oracle metaphor arose from the idea of contemplating a symbol and trying to derive its meaning. Does this make sense?”

And really, what cognitive process goes on when we try to derive complex meanings from strange symbols? According to Gestalt psychology, a German psychology school, humans have this innate need to organize and integrate the experiences we obtain from our perceptions. So, when facing something we don’t understand, we try to reconcile this new information with the bigger vision we already have of the world around us through certain rules of continuity, proximity, similarity and so on—this is a big thing in Design theory, too.

That means we don’t strictly build our perception of the world from the parts in it. We perceive a coherent whole, which we then break up into smaller parts to try to understand it. Intuition, or “thinking in Gestalts”, involves utilizing this coherent whole to decrease the gap between the known and the unknown, the conscious and the unconscious. Watch a gameplay session for a random new game on YouTube, but do it only for a couple of seconds. Try to figure out its genre without looking at the name or any previous information. Even after only two seconds, you can probably say if it was an action game (i.e., first-person camera with guns and explosions) or maybe a management game (i.e., top-down camera, big UI, lots of numbers), or whatever. None of these elements, by themselves, can inform you of what kind of game you’re looking at. But previous experience has made it easier to understand and categorize games into genres when these elements are grouped into a coherent whole, and we usually intuit this whole much quicker than we can think of actual arguments to justify it. Gestalt is intuition at work.

The psychologist Carl G. Jung always had a great deal of interest in divination methods, which he considered to be pathways to exploring the unconscious. He came up with the term “synchronicity” to explain a principle that basically doesn’t acknowledge meaningful coincidences as mere chance—thus defying one of the most important principles in science: causality. He would say that a meaningful coincidence is actually two related events—taking into consideration the psychic state of the observer—even if causality is not clear. If you dreamed of someone and on that day you turned on the TV and heard a song that reminded you of that someone, those events would be connected—not through causality, but through meaning. This is also an experience of Gestalt.

Jung states in the foreword he wrote for an English edition of the I-Ching, that the Chinese thought contained in the book is different from Western thought because it cares mostly about coincidences and chance, and not at all about causality. One of the most common ways to utilize the I-Ching system is to toss three coins in the air six times, and count the results each time. This process generates a hexagram—a column of six lines—and each line can be broken or connected depending on whether the numbers you got were odd or even. This hexagram, according to tradition, contains all the essential characteristics of the moment in which the coin toss occurred, and is considered an excellent symbol for explaining one’s mental state and circumstances at the time. All divination systems work more or less like this. Some have traditional and canonical explanations for every symbol, like the I-Ching. Others—usually the ones transmitted through oral tradition—are looser with their meanings, like the cowrie shell method. In my experience with these traditions, it’s possible to find intelligent answers to any question, through any method, if you have the written text, a honed intuition, or just the necessary knowledge.

Things like synchronicity, divination methods, and astrology all hang on one crucial element: a biased human being that can evaluate the answer on their own. The only possible proof for the validity of the system, then, is in the opinion of whoever’s using it—if, for example, the individual agrees that Capricorn is a good way to symbolically explain their personality. At best, the results are subjective, and all possible results could potentially be meaningful—any answer could be insightful, and any astrological sign could say something about your nature as long as you want to believe. There’s a well-known scientific term for this: confirmation bias. What the mind thinks, the mind seeks to rationalize. Apophenia is a related but distinct word for a really cool perception phenomenon: our tendency to derive meaning or find patterns in random strings of data. What’s the difference between finding meaning in your astrological birth chart, Tarot, or I-Ching, and finding a rabbit hidden among the clouds? None, probably.

Even if I want to overplay the history of oracles or talk about how our cognitive processes are still largely misunderstood, the truth is that none of this could survive the rigor of scientific scrutiny. I don’t even have to apologize to the rationalist reading this text because they left us on paragraph one. All of this could be characterized as escapism, or the (understandable) need to find a hidden order to the universe, something that could explain us and prove that we are more than just carbon-based life. That there is an essential meaning to reality. Or we can just not take it so seriously and laugh in the face of our petty, human concerns.

Nathalie Lawhead's "Monkey Fortunetell" is a glitchy, vibrant game about shaking a barrel of monkeys.

Nathalie Lawhead’s “Monkey Fortunetell” is a glitchy, vibrant game about shaking a barrel of monkeys.

It’s just fun! I don’t think people spend enough time thinking about themselves, and things like horoscopes, divination, etc, give us space to do this,” says Nathalie Lawhead. She developed Monkey Fortunetell with Rachel Weil, with music by Torley. “It’s a meditation in itself, and in a culture like ours, any sort of platform for meditation can help tremendously in self-discovery,“ she says. The game is simple; the guide reads, “1) Ask your Monkey Spirit for guidance, or request the answer to a question that you may have about your future. 2) Charge the Barrel of Monkeys with your intent by shaking it. 3) Cast the monkeys onto the board”. The board is divided into different zones for different effects, and it’s actually quite a complex system. In my case, the Pink Monkey, which represents the future, landed upside down—which means a problem’s on the horizon. The game tells me, “Your loss of love, lack of passion, or possible social alienation will restrain your life, growth, and positive and natural development. When the time comes, consider how this relates to the governing symbol THE STAR, which represents your destiny and divine path.”

Do I take it as truth? Well, for weeks I’ve been struggling to write this. I admit I feel very vulnerable by showing so much interest in something that can’t possibly be proven. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t have started this in the first place. It’s not uncommon to feel that you’re not good enough, but I chose ultimately to trust “the star” and believe that I could do this with conviction. Monkey Fortunetell helped me, and here is the result.

Whether you call the sensibility these divination systems evoke “apophenia” or “Gestalt” or “intuition”, human or angelic, divination methods are practical by nature. They ask for your participation, your input and feedback. So why don’t you take the test? Try I-Ching, learn Tarot, or as it happens, just play some games. Whether or not they reveal a great truth, they can be great sources of creativity, food for thought, or just plain fun.

In the end, it’s our own heads doing all the work, but there’s still value in that. I recommend divination. I recommend imagination.*

*You can check out a more traditional approach to divination within the digital world in Chelsea Sterns’ excellent and beautiful minimalist Tarot game, Tiny Tarot.