When I experimented modding Netrunner with the Tarot, I started with contrasting quantitative and qualitative relationships in card games, and in games generally. Within that, I found a deeper issue I couldn’t put my finger on for some while, and the direct analogy of the tarot to card games made it clear to me. Conventional game design often denies players the act of interpretation. Which is why simply assigning tarot cards or other interpretive practices onto play won’t yield much besides an interesting add-on; game design is meant to clearly telegraph information to the player, typically surrounding the usual stance of ‘games are a set of rules.’
What the dominant paradigm of design does is create a system for the player to uncover, and game within that system. It is ultimately a puzzle, though the creative process of moving within situations isn’t something to be disregarded. Rather, it’s not the complete picture, particularly for play experiences that don’t want to do something explicitly goal-orientated. I’m pretty much over ‘elegant’ systems because they typically don’t say too much interesting. Instead, I am curious about inviting players to interpret their experience and contextualize it in their own lives.
What separates tarot cards from playing cards, or most cards really, is the recognition of infinite interpretations. And not like inconsequential variations, but a discernable capacity to hold many different meanings and provide different contexts. Taking the difference between the five of hearts and five of cups, a visualized version of the five of heart’s ancestor, demonstrates the difference of meaningful interpretation. The five of hearts has very few meanings as it is used in playing card games; it is higher than numbered four cards, lower than the six ones, and is of the heart suit. It’s boiled down to a function, and carries with it the idea of optimization. That is, conventional game design leans on discovering optimal play, and the meaning of its parts don’t exceed much from that. When the five of cups is placed down, what ultimately determines its effect are the people involved interpreting it. There are many canonized ways to read cards, however personal style is trumped over any other sort of prescription. There is also the idea of the five of hearts and cups, that is, how they as an archetype do or don’t change over time. You can change the imagery of the five of hearts as much as you want, but it will always be cosmetic. Same with Netrunner cards; the meaning is based in the quantitative system that relies on a strict and clearly communicated ruleset. While changing the image would change it’s flavor, the meaning of the card stays the same. I don’t want to disregard the appropriation of games, much like I did with Netrunner, and that bringing in cultural context and modding does emphasize these other parts of the game object. I’m particularly concerned with play experiences being interpretable and subversive on their own and with intention. With the tarot, different images drastically change how the card is read and interacted with. Every layer of the card itself is meant to be accessed and used by the play that is interpretation. And, of course, tarot cards aren’t the only kind of imagery out there, there are many sets of cards used in similar ways that are made completely in their own context yet still work as an exploration tool. Yet the kind of interaction implied by tarot cards doesn’t completely disintegrate because of this mutability, rather it’s boiled down to the act of interpretation instead of a jungle gym of rules. There is no wrong way to read the cards; that’s not a placation, but an important aspect of play.
Really, each card is a tiny bit of experience design. Visuals can be evocative on their own, yet it their relationship to other cards, both in the same deck and in other ones, that make designing in tarot so easy. As well, the act of doing a reading with these cards is design and creative in its own right. Take just how to get the cards on the table. Are the cards shuffled? Who shuffles them? Where do you draw from in the deck, and who draws them? This sets up the tone for the entire reading and provides context for how the players can interpret what comes next. If the reader shuffles the deck and deals out from the top, it is reminiscent of gambling, so the feeling of fate or luck is stronger. Or maybe the dealer fans out the cards on the table and lets the querent pick. There’s something magician-like, it’s showy, and lets both feel like there’s some personal responsibility in what cards show up. Maybe the reader asks the other player to sift through the deck and chooses a card that resonates with them. This is more interactive and focused on the subject and their informed instincts. The cards are flexible enough to bring their own meaning to these sorts of contexts, and withstand the invention of new methodology. What happens when a card falls out while shuffling? Does the card at the bottom of the deck at the end of the reading mean something? Because these cards lend so well to the creation and manipulation of contexts, they have more mileage in playful activities outside of puzzles, which they can still be used for.
I also don’t want to get so hung up on these being cards. You can sub out cards for any object, objects being, taking a cue from anna anthropy’s work, what players interact with to further involve them in play. We are too used to instrumentality of play, or the gaming of it. Conventional design wants you to make sure objects have functions that move the player further along towards their goal, even if that goal is letting the player exercise agency over what their goal is. In contrast, interpretative objects are looking to evoke a response that will be mediated by a person’s unique perspective. This is what I’m trying to get at really, that we there isn’t enough play with symbolism, both on the creator’s and player’s sides.
Why bring up all this? The tarot might seem like a stretch, but consider how conventional games try to communicate stories and meaning. To be blunt, it’s usually hamfisted because the game is often trying to act as entertainment based more on reflexes or quantitative systems. This doesn’t mean that these kinds of games don’t bring joy or particular kinds of meaning, rather that play as a medium is severely limited to similar games unless it allows for more interpretation. Some of these games are already out there, but it’s not a surprise they aren’t featured much in mainstream coverage.
If anything, I just want to raise the question as to why there isn’t a lot of interpretation going on in games. My hunch is because of the canonized idea of games mostly being composed of rules that need to be fairly communicated to the player, vagueness is discouraged. I think game design is so wrapped up in getting players to ‘do something,’ to verb, that self-reflection isn’t really something that gets picked up very often. Or for someone to go through an experience without having or needing a goal. What would games look like if we adopted the use of tarot as we have them now instead of playing cards? I want to see that.
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