My favourite Tarot cards are The Fool and Death. They are both about new beginnings.
As we begin 2018, we at TRU LUV are starting The Fool’s Journey. Our next 22 Care Kits will be a journey through the Major Arcana Tarot cards. This month we’re looking at Card 0: The Fool. At zero, the Fool is the first card in the Fool’s Journey, but the Fool is also present at every card in the journey.
Let’s begin this journey together, shall we? Where will we end up? Where do we want to end up?
Here are some things about me: In the Big 5 personality model, I am ridiculously open to experiences, quite conscientious, right in the middle between extraversion and introversion, slightly disagreeable, and quite neurotic. In the VIA character strengths survey, my top three strengths are curiosity, bravery, and creativity, and my bottom three are humility, self-regulation, and prudence. These results have stayed quite constant as I’ve taken these tests over time.
It’s not a surprise then that my favourite Tarot card is the Fool. The Fool has strong themes of openness, curiosity, bravery, and creativity—and, comfortingly, also the safety available in those traits. In the Slow Holler Tarot deck the Fool is renamed the Fledgling, and in the Wild Unknown Tarot deck the Fool is represented by a fledgling bird. The Fool is about leaping before you look, trusting that you already have the tools and resources that you will need as you go—even though you don’t know what they are.
Here is another thing about me: I was originally a systems programmer. I learned over my formative years to think at multiple levels of abstraction, and to see patterns that can be systematized.
What do those two things mean? Thinking at multiple levels of abstraction means carrying multiple models of a system in your head at different levels of detail.
Anytime we think about a complex system, we are thinking about a simplified model of it. We don’t actually understand the stock market—we understand a simplified model of it and this is why we cannot accurately predict it. We don’t actually understand our partner—we understand a simplified model of our partner, and this is why our partner can (hopefully) still surprise and delight us over time. (It’s also why Facebook can, with enough likes, predict your partner’s Big 5 personality type more accurately than you can.)
I’m trained to carry multiple models of systems in my head at various levels of detail. I can believe in the truth of each of them simultaneously, while recognizing that none of them are true. It’s sort of like how the Fool can be both the first card and present with every card in the Fool’s Journey.
Seeing patterns that can be systematized means noticing clusters of behaviours that are similar to each other and determining simple rules that could approximate those behaviours. This is basic software design.
I’m trained to see patterns. So I see synchronicity and meaning in the universe very easily. Because I think at multiple levels of abstraction, I can find moments of synchronicity to be all of the following at once: meaningless coincidences, meaningful signs from the universe that guide me, and—most often—meaningful signs from my unconscious that guide me. I know from the science of bias that my unconscious does much of my thinking for me. I know from my life that my unconscious speaks to me in symbols that become clearer over time.
I view Tarot at multiple levels of abstraction. I see Tarot as a system for understanding people, similar to the Big 5 or the VIA characters strengths or Quantic Foundry’s gamer motivation or any other psychological framework. Tarot was defined by hundreds of years of refinement, and more modern systems are defined by factor analysis. Each of these systems describe similar truths about our values, personalities, and strengths. Each is most likely incomplete due to researcher bias and sampling error.
I see Tarot as a way for my unconscious to communicate to me. Tarot gives words to the symbolic processing in my unconscious. It speeds up realizations and deep understandings.
I see Tarot as a way to communicate with other people. My friend Evan Prodromou said to me once that he often sees sports used as metaphor in business meetings—something like, “Did you watch the game last night? That play where so-and-so did that thing, that is exactly what we have to do with our business problem.” Evan sees the symbols and metaphors easily accessible in Tarot and astrology and other similar frameworks as tools for communication and understanding in the same way that sports is for bros and Hollywood entertainment is for most of us. I extrapolate from Evan’s point to add that Tarot and astrology are strong sources of metaphor for people who are interested in running business from a place of collaboration and mutually beneficial outcomes rather than competition.
And I see Tarot as a way for the universe to communicate with me. The world is a complex system and my perceptions are so flawed and miniscule in the scale of it. I hand some responsibility to the universe. To reach my goals, I focus not on understanding and predicting and planning, but rather on channeling and refining ideas, seeing their results, and iterating. I trust in the tools and resources I have at each step of the way. Tarot helps me see these tools and resources. Maybe I am not handing responsibility over to the universe, but truly to chance, or to my unconscious, or to some combination of both. Or maybe I am handing it over to a meaningful universe. Maybe all of these are simultaneously true and not true. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
Tarot is symbolic and its interpretations are individual. To me the Fool is about new beginnings, potential, openness, bravery, curiosity, creativity, and safety. I pull the Fool from the Tarot deck often, and it reminds me that my freakish levels of openness, and my volatile mix of bravery, curiosity, and creativity that often scares my less adventurous friends, are simply parts of me that I may accept and learn to leverage rather than repress. This is how I become safe.
Our new Fool’s Journey at TRU LUV is commencing. We’ve formed our studio in Berlin, we’ve started our Patreon, and we will be releasing our first game. But I can see my journey to creating TRU LUV as a Fool’s Journey as well. I left the comfort of my old life with nothing but an intuition that there was something wrong with the way my white bro colleagues were thinking about game design. I didn't like that they were casually, brutally dismissive of the ideas of my feminine colleagues.
I went traveling outside of my little world of the AAA games industry in Montreal. I spent the first year simply absorbing information and experimenting with prototypes. Then I spent the second year speaking about what I learned about game design in that time and refining my understanding with each talk with the help of each audience. I think I learned something radical, life-changing. Then I stopped traveling and here we are. A new journey.
The Fool is often drawn with an animal companion, often a white animal. In the Linestrider Tarot it is a kookaburra. In the Rider-Waite it is a little white dog. The animal is both a companion, for comfort, and a teacher, for guidance.
My journey to founding TRU LUV began many years ago in Haida Gwaii off the coast of northern British Columbia. I was with two friends. We were halfway into a hike when we heard a very loud roar. I looked up the hill and saw a grizzly bear bigger than the SUV we’d left at the trailhead. I froze. Everything went into slow motion and I became aware of every detail of the forest around me. As I watched, the bear roared again. We turned and walked out of the trail. I remember how that walk felt. Smooth. Shiny. Everything in slow motion.
On the walk out, I turned a corner, and there, right in my face, with our eyes level, was a little white owl. It was sitting on a branch crossing the trail. The owl looked at me and I looked at it. It blinked and I blinked. Everything in slow motion. Then it spread its wings and flew away and I kept walking. That moment felt very spiritual and powerful and warm, like falling in love. It reminded me of one time years earlier when I was laying on top of a partner I was particularly in love with and I felt like we were outside of time and space. I will never forget that moment. I will never forget either of those two moments. They were unforgettable because, until recently, I couldn’t explain them. And they informed what happened later.
When I first started trying to make more feminine games, I noticed a striking contrast in the feedback I was getting. Feminine people—men and women—were excited about my concept. But the men I worked with, typical gamers, were bored by my concept. Their suggestions typically revolved around introducing more conflict and more stress. I find conflict boring.
I wrote recently: The longer I worked in these hyper-masculine environments on products that I wouldn't admit to myself I cared less and less about, the more I found that guitar solos began to grate on my nerves while electronic music continued to inspire me, and the more I found that films annoyed me while Netflix TV series charmed me, and the more I found that games left me feeling dead inside while great art became more and more valuable to me.
Until recently, I couldn’t explain that either.
Then I read Sheri Graner Ray’s book Gender Inclusive Game Design. Her chapter on stimulation leaped out at me. I didn’t know how or why, but I knew it was a key to what I was trying to understand. She presents the idea that more masculine people tend to be stimulated visually, and more feminine people tend to be stimulated by story and specifically by “scenarios that provide mutually beneficial solutions to socially significant situations”. Something in that resonated with me but I still couldn’t explain it. It resonated strongly enough though, that I quit and went traveling. My leap.
I started working on #SelfCare with Eve Thomas. We wanted to make a game about caring for a character. We were breaking a lot of game design rules with it. We were following out intuitions. We had no structure and no guidance. We only knew that it felt… good. I couldn’t explain it.
Finally, I came across the theory of tend-and-befriend. This was the key that allowed me to integrate all these experiences and intuitions into one narrative.
Tend-and-befriend is an alternate stress response to fight-or-flight. Fight-or-flight is driven by adrenaline and dopamine and it involves the desire to respond to stress by fighting or running away. Tend-and-befriend is driven by oxytocin and opioids and involves the desire to care and to connect. Furthermore, oxytocin and opioids are not only involved in stressful situations. Acts of care and connection themselves also stimulate this response.
I know now: That spiritual connection I felt with the owl that day in Haida Gwaii was my conscious mind explaining the presence of oxytocin and opioids. That was my stress response.
And I had the same experience laying on top of my most cherished lover.
Maybe if I'd had a really great day with my friends that day hiking, if we’d laughed and shared wisdom and had big realizations and maybe a bit of champagne, and then I ran into that owl in the same way, maybe I would have felt the same connection. Maybe I didn't really need the bear.
I also wrote recently: In learning about tend-and-befriend, I realized that my boredom with so many games isn't that they are too hard for me or even that I have grown out of them. It's that they don't stimulate me. They aren't my pattern. My growing annoyance with guitar solos, linear films, and games had been a gift from my subconscious, showing me that entertainment could be different.
Guitar solos are a typical masculine energy. This linear build of tension followed by one climax and a dénouement is the structure of most western forms of entertainment. But it's not my pattern. It's not my biochemistry. I notice that I always get annoyed when the plot kicks in in a movie. I'm annoyed by the predictable conflict and build-up of misunderstandings followed by the predictable climax and the end. I just want to get to know the characters and exist in their world for a while. TV series are a bit better for this. The characters all have little arcs and there is more of an ebb and a flow to the experience. Open world video games will be even better, one day soon when we fill them with interesting characters and not with explosions.
I build up stress throughout the day and I need to complete my stress response. In the evening, I need to bring home all the important books in Skyrim and arrange them in alphabetical order. I need to collect flowers and combine them into useful potions. I need to get to know characters and their stories. I need to do quests for characters that help them and help me and change the state of the world. I need mutually beneficial, socially significant situations. I need care and characters and transcendence. This is how I dissipate the stress of the day. It’s how I learn how to be a better person the next day.
What is generally considered the side content, the B-script, the mundane in our entertainment is not mundane for me. I find these things more powerful and life-affirming than conflict. These are my things. And figuring this out has been my journey.
Now that I understand this, at my studio we start a new Fool’s Journey: Building games with this understanding. We as game designers reach for frustration as a tool so frequently. But we have other tools and resources. We don’t know what all of them are yet. We have Dream Daddy and we have Bury Me, My Love and we have other wonderful games to inspire us. I think tend-and-befriend, the Big 5, and other psychological frameworks can unlock some more tools and resources. The team at iThrive thinks the VIA character strengths can unlock some more tools and resources and I do too. And I think our Fool’s Journey through the cards over the next 22 Care Kits might unlock some more too. Let’s go.
Traits: Openness to Experience
Strengths: Bravery, Creativity, Curiosity, Humour, Love of Learning
Rocks: Aventurine, Agate
Life: Cedar, Geranium, Ginseng, Rose