“Explore the world you never knew existed“, says the welcome message on the Randonautica website. Now, that sounds like fun! But, is it…?
In this article, I will explore the psychological and social implications of an app that caught everyone’s attention back in June 2020, when a group of teenagers discovered two bodies in a travel suitcase near a shoreline in Seattle, USA, while traveling to a location suggested by Randonautica.
WHAT IS RANDONAUTICA?
According to its creators, Randonautica is “the world’s first quantumly generated Choose Your Own Adventure reality game“.
Available as a smartphone app, Randonautica is a rather simple game: you install the app, allow it to access your location, you set what they call an intention and a goal for the session, then a random physical location is generated, and directions on how to get there are shown on the screen. You are supposed to go to that place and discover something linked to the intention you’ve set.
I will explore the pseudoscience behind it in a second, but for now, all you need to know about Randonautica is that it generates a random physical location and encourages the user to go to that location in real life. The result is supposed to be a manifestation of the person’s thoughts.
Stupidly simple and yet, so complicated when it comes to the real-life implications that may result from agreeing to use the app.
THE PSEUDOSCIENCE BEHIND IT
What is not visible right away to the average user is that Randonautica is actually a research project. It does not meet, at least at this point, academic standards, and its creators acknowledge this reality, but the whole movement, as they call it, is one big, curious research project.
Drawing from a variety of scientific theories and premises – for example, Chaos Theory, cognitive psychology, and the simulation hypothesis – Randonautica moves into the parapsychological realm by breathing new life into the Mind-Matter Interaction concept and by incorporating cultural and social elements on the go, and well, randomly.
Far from me to discourage research, regardless of the direction it takes, as long as it complies with ethical guidelines. However, considering the social effects this app triggered since its creation last year, I believe it is worth noting that the whole pseudoscientific context of the app may make it seem more reliable and trustworthy in the eyes of a vulnerable audience. And people shouldn’t trust a game with their physical safety or with their psychological well-being.
There is no doubt in my mind that in the way it presents itself right now, Randonautica holds absolutely no scientific relevancy and that the random part is the only thing about it. No influence of one’s mind over the coordinates generated on the map, no answers provided to the user by the unseen forces guiding the app, etc. The creators say that the project can be placed “somewhere in the middle between a game, science, and art”. I would say game and cultural symbolism. A potentially interesting, cool project, but that’s about it.
RANDONAUTICA EXPLAINED: WHY DOES THE APP SEEM TO “WORK”?
Even though Randonautica is, in the end, just a game, regardless of how many sciency-sounding words the creators decide to use in an attempt to generate credibility for their project, many users claim that the things they’ve discovered while using the app hold meaning for them and that the place they were guided to provides an answer to their spiritual search. Let’s explore some of the main reasons why that may happen.
1. SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a mental process through which a person’s expectation or belief regarding a situation or a person leads to the fulfillment of those expectations or beliefs.
When it comes to Randonautica, many of the people who try it believe it works. Some of the users believe in the fact that one’s thoughts can influence their reality. They believe the mind gives rise to matter. So they will strongly expect that the app will put those principles into action and that the experience that comes from using Randonautica is a manifestation of their own mind. Lo and behold, that is exactly what they get. A person who is grieving and craving some sort of contact with or sign from a lost loved one will somehow find themselves in a context that seems to provide that connection.
The explanation is that their mind provided the meaning for the physical reality. It did not create it.
The app asks the users to set an intention before generating the random location on the map.
Some want to experience something “happy”, while others ask for a “scary”, “weird”, or “mysterious” adventure. In general, people’s intentions range anywhere from “death” to “puppies”.
Then they drive or walk to the location and, once again, lo and behold, they find flowers and they think “happy”, cryptic writing on a wall and they think “weird”, or an actual dog and they think “puppies”.
It’s truly interesting how the app manifested those exact things they were hoping for. Right?
Well… Priming is a psychological phenomenon in which exposure to one stimulus influences a person’s reaction to a subsequent stimulus. Among other things, priming influences the way we perceive the world around us. It is like we put on a lens that makes us select from the environment things that are linked to the initial stimulus. In Randonautica’s case, the intention acts as a first stimulus.
When you think “scary”, a bunch of things come to mind. When the randonaut arrives in a location suggested by the app, they will be more likely to first observe those elements connected to their initial intention. Therefore, their collection of things experienced in that location is mainly made out of the ones that belong to the universe they’ve created in their mind just minutes before.
3. CONFIRMATION BIAS
We like being right. For us to be or at least think that we are right, even when we might be wrong, we need to carefully select from the wide range of evidence around us, only those elements that confirm our beliefs or initial hypothesis.
We search for, give meaning to, favor, and remember mainly those things that say we were right all along.
Randonauts pay attention to those objects or environmental elements that make their expectation valid. And if those elements are not in the exact spot the app indicated, well, they make their search area bigger, until they find what they were hoping for.
And when they later tell the story or make a video about their experience, they will, more often than not, conveniently omit the things that were part of the adventure but did not support their initial expectation. Or they fully fake the video, but that’s another story, and I will address it later in the article.
4. CHERRY-PICKING FALLACY
Cherry-picking fallacy is a broader version of confirmation bias. It means that we not only choose the evidence that we like and which confirms our prior beliefs and expectations, but we may also select an entire set of data to make sure it fits our initial view.
When it comes to Randonautica, believers in the phenomenon may only consider valid those accounts that validate the app and present successful results.
Algorithms on social media platforms help that fallacy by suggesting content that is similar to the one you’ve just interacted with. So, you end up in a world made of similar stories, from people with similar views. It’s easy to be right when you only verify your assumptions with those who think in the same way you do.
THE DARK SOCIAL PHENOMENON AND ITS DANGEROUS FUTURE
Randonautica is not a new concept. In fact, many games and apps use similar software architecture and goals. Back in 2016, I wrote about what I called the dark psychology behind the game Pokémon Go. In that article, I addressed the social dangers that software similar to the game pose, and how they may gradually shape society. I will not repeat all my observations and arguments, the article is available on the website and you can read it entirely, but I would like to add here those ideas that can be applied directly to Randonautica.
1. It promotes an external locus of control
Locus of control is a concept that refers to a person’s self-perceived center of control and responsibility. An internal locus of control is related to the person thinking that they are in charge of their own life. An external locus of control refers to the fact that the individual considers his or her life as being directed by external forces, such as fate or other people.
2. It gradually teaches social obedience
Apps that make you perform certain tasks without giving you the full information regarding the reasons why a specific task must be performed, it’s just training you into being an obedient follower.
You do things simply because you were told to do those things. Obviously, self-agency is more active in some users, and they decide to go on their own path and break the link between themselves and the app, but many seem to simply follow indications from people they do not know, in an environment, they are not familiar with, and that they cannot control.
This element is, in my opinion, the darkest predictor of a dangerous future shaped by apps such as Pokémon Go and Randonautica. They’re only games, you may think, but after you’ve used them enough, you’ve been changed.
3. It numbs instincts and critical thinking
Once they embark on the journey, many Randonauts act almost as if remote-controlled. It’s almost like they experience tunnel vision and only see the adventure ahead of them. They are fully immersed in the experience, and many times, this results in several undesirable psychological effects.
While randonauting, a person may often act against their better judgment, in ways that stray significantly from their usual behavior. They may ignore safety measures – sometimes even those suggested by the app creators: don’t go randonauting at night, don’t go alone, don’t trespass, etc. – and instead may engage in activities that put them in danger.
Irrational behaviors may be witnessed as well while people randonaut. Among them, a heightened level of anxiety and elements of paranoid thinking. The user may start to believe that random people on the street are dangerous or somehow linked to the app, that these persons are a threat to them, that they are being watched and followed, etc. And the app creators perfectly understand that they are doing this to their users, it’s in their description of the research project.
A special mention here, in the “dark phenomenon” segment, refers to the fake randonauting videos that have flooded social media platforms such as YouTube and TikTok.
Creating a community for people who share an interest is, in general, a great idea. But, when that community promotes potentially dangerous activities, it becomes less book club and more cult-like.
The content creators who staged randonauting videos, even if only for the likes and monetization, may do more harm than good, socially speaking. Portraying Randonautica as a positive or interesting and worthy experience-generating app, especially via manipulation of the experience, plays a significant role in the amplification of the phenomenon and the promotion of all-things-wrong that stem from it.
The creator faking the experience is, most likely, in a safe environment that they themselves control, all the time. This may not be the case for those who simply believe the video to be real and decide to attempt to replicate the results. As it is almost always the case with pseudoscientific environments, they prey and thrive on the vulnerable. I don’t care what the pretty description says. I don’t care about the alleged higher purpose of the so-called research project. This is one of the apps that knowingly put people in physical and mental danger.
I believe we should be more vigilant about regulating and monitoring things that get easily labeled as games but which can ultimately shape the society we live in, for the worse.
P.S. And yes, the app can be hacked. And that’s yet another grim perspective regarding its and our future.