Originally published on Friday, February 13, 2004
Taboo: The Sixth Sense (“Taboo”) for the Nintendo Entertainment System is an unconventional video game to say the least. Published stateside in April 1989 by Trade West and developed by Rare, Taboo appears to be nothing more than a silly horoscope game at first glance, but explore a little deeper beyond the opening screen’s sunburst, and you will find some unusually sinister elements unbefitting Nintendo’s library at the time.
In those days, Nintendo of America was known to remove religious iconography and macabre content from games appearing on its systems. It is not known how a title such as Taboo, which dabbles heavily in the occult, and depicts full frontal and posterior nudity, passed the company’s rigorous guidelines.
The instruction manual describes Taboo as “the Nintendo Entertainment System version of the occult and ancient tarot system of divination of future events. All that the tarot is and was has been incorporated into the depth of this cartridge.”
The manual further states, “Taboo is offered for curiosity value only, no mystical or magical claims are guaranteed or inferred. All possible care has been taken to ensure that Taboo incorporates all of the ancient magical symbolic references and traditions associated with this type of product and follows the authentic technique to our own knowledge and experience of the method of divination of the Kings. No responsibility is accepted in any form whatsoever relating to Taboo and any such effects, influences, or miracles incurred, inferred, divulged, or directly connected with Taboo whatsoever. For entertainment only.”
It goes on to warn, “USE TABOO AT YOUR OWN RISK. TABOO SHOULD NOT BE PURCHASED BY MINORS UNDER THE AGE OF 14 YEARS OF AGE.”
Taboo is completely lacking as a video game because, as the manual points out, the “cartridge is not a game, but a technique based upon the ancient art of fortune telling…”
The entire experience can be completed in less than 10 minutes.
After the player inputs his or her name, birthday, and gender, he or she is then instructed to ask a question. The tarot card deck is shuffled, and picture cards are chosen. Each card displays an ambiguous meaning that the player must try to decipher as an answer. Afterwards, the player is taken back to the title screen to repeat the process again. Repetition acts as Taboo‘s “gameplay.” Rare designed it so that the player would repeatedly ask more and more questions.
But does playing Taboo over and over begin to have a greater effect on the player’s mind? Does it take on more meaning subconsciously?
The first menu, which contains what appears to be a cross and a pentagram, is where the player initially connects to the game by providing it with personal information. Whether or not the player takes this experience seriously, he or she is still nonetheless divulging some rather intimate information to the software.
Following the player’s input, the person playing is told to then compose a question for Taboo to answer.
As a quick history lesson on tarot card reading, the first example of tarot cards dates back 500 some years to Northern Italy. A traditional deck contains 78 cards, which are divided into two groups, 22 are major arcana, and the remaining are minor arcana. Each card holds a general meaning and is translated by not only its type, but also the position in which it is drawn, either right side up or upside down.
After Taboo‘s shuffling sequence is finished, the game removes precisely 10 tarot cards from the deck. The chosen cards are either numbered, 78 major arcana, or are part of a “club” set, 22 minor arcana. Their values are combined to determine the overall final fortune at the end.
Upon learning one’s outcome, the final screen displays “lucky” fortune numbers based upon which U.S. state the player lives in and the amount of numbers that he or she has chosen.
If you have already written off Taboo as a rather hokey attempt to entertain teens, wait until you meet the “Subject.”
The Subject has agreed to share his story publicly if only his identity remained a secret. What you are about to read is an actual series of events that this person attributes to playing Taboo. I edited a few words, as seen in brackets, for clarity’s sake.
“When I was younger, I rented this game because I had seen it and I was curious about it. As I was playing it, I noticed that little devil or satyr faces with glowing red eyes would appear super imposed over the suns on the backs of the cards from time to time. Needless to say, this creeped me out immensely. Almost every time I asked the game a question, I would get a negative reading involving the Devil card and/or Death. I didn’t take any of it very seriously, though; after all, I was young and just shrugged it all off as a silly video game. Within the next few following months, my dog Tippy died, my parakeet died, and then the worst thing all happened my father died of lung cancer. My parents were split already and I lived with my father because my mother was deemed unfit due to her alcoholism. He was my best friend.
“Anyway, years passed and I never really blamed the game for any of those things because logically it is just silly to think that an 8-bit video game cartridge can cause someone to lose everything that they care about.
“I got married and moved out of town. I finally got a computer and Internet access and as a result I discovered emulation. (I did not have my NES anymore because I gave it to one of my best friends before I moved.)
“So I [played] the Taboo [game] to give the game another try. My wife thought it sounded cool, and we asked it a few questions. The Devil/satyr faces with their creepy red glowing eyes appeared again, and my wife saw them too.
“Needless to say, it creeped her out too. Again, I got negative readings. Over the course of the next few days, both me and my wife became terribly ill. She got over her illness quickly, but I had a fever of nearly 104 off and on for about five days straight. I was delirious with fever for a bit. I finally went to the doctor and I was told that I had an unidentifiable flu-like illness. He prescribed me some strong antibiotics (the same kind that they give people who have contracted Anthrax), and he threatened to hospitalize me if my fever did not go down soon. I got better but the antibiotics caused me to have internal bleeding.
“Needless to say, I have never played the ‘game’ since this happened.
“I am not saying that I believe that Taboo was responsible for anything that happened in my life, but I do feel like it is not worth the risk to find out.
“Is anything really worth that?”
I have a healthy skepticism about a lot of things in this world, evil Nintendo games being one of them, but after speaking with him at length, I was convinced that he truly felt this way.
A little startled by this person’s traumatic account, and his seemingly deeply held belief that this game was cursed, I reached out to Rare directly to see if the company had ever heard of any stories like this before. I never received a response back, which didn’t come as too much of a surprise.
Psychology may be able to help in unraveling the Taboo mystery. We can use psychophysics to understand how undetected sensory stimuli, below the level of the absolute threshold, fits into subliminal perception. From here, we can begin to theorize a possible explanation of the Subject’s situation.
First this cognitive approach, which suggests that one controls the subconsciousness of one’s behavior through subliminal memories or false perceptions of such things like a video game, may best suit this case. Could the Subject’s case translate into nothing more than a “mind game” trick, or an object to blame unfortunate events on that played out in his life? Was it all simply a case of coincidence?
“If it were a psychological phenomenon, it would have to be primarily subconscious [on] my part because I never took the game seriously,” he told me.
In an experiment on the effectiveness of subliminal perception, psychologist Carol Fowler provided evidence that human beings can process information below their conscious awareness. Participating groups were shown words on a screen so rapidly that they were unable to perceive what they were seeing. Later in the experiment, the participants were shown two words and asked which was most like the subliminally presented word. The majority of participants answered the majority of the questions correctly, proving that stimuli we faintly dismiss or ignore or barely even process may actually leave a lasting effect on us whether we think they do or not.
The signal detection theory states that detection of stimuli depends on more than the intensity of which it is computed but rather on the individual’s contextual variations (i.e. boredom, fear, fatigue). The person sets a criterion for him or herself to determine whether or not a stimulus is in effect; however, other emotional or physical factors could override that criterion.
Another term of psychology that may fit the Taboo situation is a person’s selective attention, focusing on a specific portion of an experience while ignoring others. Assume that you are reading this article while a car radio blasts outside; you are using selective attention to directly focus your brain power on reading these written words despite the loud backdrop of music. That is not to say you cannot hear the sound; it is that your immediate mental abilities have shoved the noise to the side. Could Taboo play a similar role? A player experiences the video game by reading the tarot cards in a darkened, eerie environment. This argument would underline the subliminal long-term effect that the game may have on the player’s mind.
While discussing the matter over an e-mail with the Subject, he told me of his past experimentation in so-called otherwordly “communicators” that go beyond Taboo.
“I am not a religious person. I am not a Christian.
“I do consider myself a spiritual person, though, as I practice different forms of meditation and I consider myself to be an extremely aware individual. I am also vegan. And as such I have an intense compassion for all living things.
“I have used tarot cards in the past with no ill effect and I practice rune reading.
“After my father passed away, I began to have precognitive dreams, and my abilities have continued to develop from that point on into the present. I feel that things like Ouija boards, tarot cards, and runes are merely tools that help us tap into the broader normally inaccessible part of the subconscious mind where we are more aware of our environment than we could ever possibly imagine.”
Scientists say that we perceive the primary colors in all objects because they reflect our consumable environment, our basic natural needs for us to survive (i.e. air, water, grass, trees). Psychologists insist there are many more colors that cannot be accurately seen. The same can be said in terms of sounds that we cannot hear.
Which brings up the point, if scientists in the field claim that we do not see nor hear truly much of what exists beyond our basic everyday lives, and that we use only a portion of our brains, there may exist more powerful and undeveloped areas that could process things which fall below the threshold of our five immediate senses. (It is also believed by some that children who are not yet “developed” in the sense of only exercising the portions of the brain for mathematics, language, and colors can more willingly feel or understand this part of the mind.)
Then again, maybe it is our own subconscious doing all the dirty work. How many times have we told ourselves to mentally “shake off” something, whether it is a failure or an upset in our lives, and we do manage to erase it consciously, only for it then to spring out at us in the form of nightmares. Psychologists say that dreams and nightmares have meaning in that they may express our repressed concerns, thoughts, and emotions. Simply put, placing things in the back of our minds does not make them go away.
“I have had a great deal of unexplained experiences throughout my life, and this is just one of those instances that seems to be more than mere coincidence,” the Subject told me.
He continued, “The human mind is an amazing thing. The brain is full of electrical impulses that create patterns that exist and indeed quite possibly originate at the quantum level. At the quantum level, linear time begins to melt away into a more non-linear cyclical reality. Future influencing past and so on. So why can’t we be aware of the future or at least our future perceptions of it?”
Putting aside the psychological and quantum theories, we now arrive at the spiritual argument. According to parapsychologists, many recorded paranormal cases have been caused by the abuse of “communication tools” like Taboo. The use of the Ouija is the most common of the spirit world communicators.
(Image source: Amazon.com)
The idea of the Ouija originated as far back as ancient Egypt. The year 1853 was when the first design of a “planchette” was developed in Europe before it was imported to America. E.C. Reiche from Maryland altered this method of communicating with the unknown, and his later revisions became the board that we all know today. A man named William Fudd in Baltimore marketed the concept of the “talking board.” After Fudd’s death, the heirs continued selling the Ouija until 1966 when Parker Brothers obtained the company.
Similar to the idea of the subconscious altering a person’s mind, the Ouija requires another kind of mental awareness from its user. When someone places a hand on the planchette, scientists say that his or her own mental and nervous system is addressing repressed information through a process called the ideomotor effect, which then moves the pointer and spells out words. True believers of the Ouija, on the other hand, say that it is the person’s heightened awareness which allows for actual contact with outside forces. Whether you view the board as a harmless activity or a portal to another world will depend on which camp you fall into, the scientific or the spiritual.
Does Taboo represent something of a force to be reckoned with that beckons an undeveloped segment of the brain to unconsciously control the destiny of our lives? Or has it always simply been a poorly-made Nintendo game all along, and the meanings that we ascribe to it are merely our way of dealing with complex emotions of the human condition like grief and loss?
The Subject made it clear that he did not want to risk it either way. After hearing his story, I can’t say that I blame him.
“Respect the Taboo, that is what I say.”