How Tarot Became the Trendiest Party Game

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Photo: Will & Deni McIntyre/Getty Images

In the last year, I’ve seen tarot advertised as a party trick at bottomless brunches. I’ve heard of it offered as parlor games at dinner parties; an opening gambit at gay raves (“Can I read you?”); pun-based entertainment at book events (“a close-read of your future”); and the central activity for girls’ nights in (who needs Netflix?). Tarot has become a fixture in my Instagram feed, inbox, and girly group-texting threads. My old roommate got a tarot tattoo —  and her best friend got one, too — and both appeared in a BuzzFeed listicle about “powerful tarot tattoos” that the website labeled with a yellow sticker marked CLASSIC.

Why tarot? Well, first of all, we are in the midst of an occult resurgence that has turned crystals and smudging into trendy pursuits. But more important: Tarot is a great way for friends — and, it seems, female friends in particular — to talk about themselves.

“It’s psychoanalysis for poor people,” my tarot-tattooed friend Katie once joked. “The imagery is evocative, I use readings to sort through my thoughts and gather my reactions. I’m not that great at ‘feeling my feelings,’ and for me tarot is the ideal tool.” And as is the case with other forms of modern mysticism, practitioners tend to treat the practice less as a means of fortune-telling than as a sort of tool for self-analysis and socializing. (In the premiere episode of The Affair, a casual reading between friends portends the titular betrayal.) It’s a deck of ornate, Instagrammable Rorschach blots that you can discuss endlessly with your friends. One member of Katie’s tarot circle is actually a professional therapist.

Not that the therapist endorses the metaphor: “Being a shrink makes it harder for me to have fun with tarot because it’s like, it sounds like therapy, but it’s not,” she sighed. Perhaps a better comparison, I offered, would be a card game called the Ungame that I discovered in my psychiatrist father’s home office as a child. The Ungame was a set of conversation-starting flash cards designed to invite shy children and reticent parents to open up about their feelings. But for a healthily (arguably too healthily) self-centered child like me, the Ungame served primarily as a vehicle for navel-gazing. With the power vested in that deck of cards, I could compel anyone to endure my endless narration, if only because they were waiting for their turns to draw cards and talk about themselves, too. And the best part was, because the Ungame so closely resembled an actual card game, I could sneak it into virtually any social setting. "I think that for a kid the Ungame is perfect," said Sheila, the therapist. "But it doesn't bring adults much deeper into their experience, or offer a challenging or divergent interpretation from the one you already have." Once you've outgrown your Lacanian mirror stage, self-discovery requires something more complex.

And yet the Ungame's blurring of casual games with personal revelations is not so different from the history of tarot. The oldest documented tarot decks were parlor amusements for rich Europeans, dating back to the days of the Medicis. They seem to have originated from playing cards repurposed for divinatory uses — a transition that I imagine as natural as moving from drinking tea with a friend to reading each other’s tea leaves. (Or abandoning Go Fish for the Ungame.) In an age of abundant psychotherapy, parlor-room amusements often revolve around armchair analysis of one another.

And like reading tea leaves, sometimes the whiff of magic draws out unexpected social revelations. “My friends and I started doing tarot, and it’s amazing how much insane shit comes out,” another female friend said. “Stuff we’ve never told each other before, even though we’ve been friends for years.” The cards provide a prompt for new confessions: During a drunk late-night reading, a friend who drew a series of money-centric Pentacles admitted that a recent breakup had actually been about her perpetually broke ex’s financial abuses. The cards can prompt intense honesty, surprising opinions — even attacks. Because the tarot is open to interpretation, you can use the cards as an excuse to say whatever you want: I know two women who distanced themselves from one another after a series of readings highlighted their mutual disrespect for each other’s life choices. No matter which cards they drew when they gave each other readings, the cards always seemed to offer pointed critiques.

Or, as my far more diplomatic ex-roommate put it: “It’s an easy way to share your feelings with each other without having to drink a ton of wine just to spill your guts.”

Illustrator Kim Krans, who in 2012 released a hand-drawn tarot deck called the Wild Unknown, agrees. “It’s a way to get people to open up or be vulnerable or introspective with each other in a way that we don’t usually have space for in our usual hangouts or dinner parties. It does a good job at bypassing that insecurity we have about opening up with people,” 35-year-old Krans told me by phone. Since 2012, Krans has sold 40,000 copies of the deck she designed. After graduating with a degree in art from Cooper Union, Krans found herself drawn to books about tarot — but unable to connect with any of the extant decks. “I would read about about the cards and be like, this is so cool, these meanings are so cool, these concepts are so cool, but then I would look at the cards and be like, why is this not so exciting?” So she set out to draw a deck with a “contemporary” sensibility, geared toward the modern psyche. She removed all human figures, replacing them with animals and images from nature. Tarot staples like the lantern-wielding Hermit card and the Hanged Man became a tortoise with a candle on its back and a leathery bat hanging upside down. The King and Queen of Cups became black and white swans.

Krans realized she had a hit on her hands when a friend called her the day after Christmas. “She said, ‘We opened your deck as a gift for my sister and used it on the night of Christmas, and we all started talking about things we hadn’t talked about years.’” And then she realized that a “hit” means something more intense in the world of tarot when, a year or two later, she started running into people with Wild Unknown tarot tattoos at coffee shops and parties. (That’s how I first heard about the Wild Unknown: Katie’s tattoo is Krans’s Ace of Wands.) Krans’s blog has a dedicated section for documenting the tattoos of Wild Unknown followers.

Katie and her friend's Wild Unknown tattoos. Photo: thewildunknownwildlings.tumblr.com

The visual potency of tarot certainly appeals to modern digital sensibilities. The cards tend to be beautiful and evocative, which make them catchy on social media; much like the brief boom in aura photography, seeing can inspire participating. Meanwhile, the dialectic element of tarot interpretation is particularly suited to the communication age’s current hypervisual incarnation: My tarot-enthusiast friends routinely text each other photos of spreads that stump them, and I’ve found myself reconnecting with distant acquaintances over armchair analysis of tarot Instagrams. Meanwhile, flourishing networks of tarot blogs, Tumblrs, and Instagram accounts draw cult followings. There are professionals who perform public readings on their YouTube channels, and private readings on Skype. There are hobbyists who trade free readings with Tumblr’s "Ask" messaging feature. There are card-of-the-day oracles and blogs offering an endless supply of seasonal spreads. (“Holiday tarot spread: Work out what to pack, what not to pack, what your trip is all about.”)

Tarot is, after all, a naturally social enterprise — it’s no surprise that socially focused technology would enhance it. And though the practice may be centuries old, it's driven by something like the modern impulse toward self-discovery through self-documentation: the power of laying your cards, literally, on the table.