'Randonauting' might get you killed, but it’s better than doomscrolling

The real-life choose-your-own-adventure game for adults started as a project to check if we're living in a simulation. Now it's taken on a life of its own.

Hi. My name’s Craig. And I’m a Randonaut. It’s been approximately 34 hours since my last excursion. On that trip, I was thinking of “rabbits.” I found a porcelain dog, a soccer ball, a potted phalaenopsis, and a lightbox with “The animals♥” written on it, and I saw a woman with carrot-orange hair. How are these things linked? Through an app called "Randonautica."

Randonautica started life as a chatbot — called the Fatum bot — on messaging service Telegram. The service takes a user’s GPS coordinates and assigns them another set of random coordinates in their vicinity based on different variables the user inputs. The idea is to take them off their usual beaten track. To break their own patterns. To shake up “the simulation” various thinkers — and Elon Musk — suggest we might be living in.

Of course, if we are living in a simulation, Randonautica is part of it. An in-joke, really, but still just another layer and a red herring. A red herring that, as of last week, is also available as a standalone app for Android and iOS. Which means the app is taking off. It’s also gotten a bump from a teenage TikTokker who — in something straight out of a Scandinavian crime drama — was given coordinates that lead her and her friends to a suitcase containing human remains.

As with all experiences inspired by the internet, your mileage with Randonautica may vary. Dead people and TikTok notoriety aren't guaranteed. Especially when it comes to the "intentions" you're asked to set for each trip. In the chatbot version, you're offered randomly selected words from the dictionary as intention suggestions. In the app, you're prompted to think of a word or phrase — intently — when requesting a location.

The certainty of chance

Simulation-breaking aspirations aside, there are some — like me — who are skeptical about Randonautica's rationale. The app’s makers claim it uses quantum number generators to come up with its outputs, and that users alter those outputs by keeping the aforementioned “intentions” in mind during the coordinate-selection process. There's an inescapable contradiction in suggesting intentionality and randomness are compatible. And there's the problem of quantum theory increasingly pointing to unpredictability being the only thing we can meaningfully be assured of. But whether or not you subscribe to the more esoteric parts of the service, you're destined to have an interesting time using it regardless.

In addition to being warned against engaging in dangerous or illegal activity while trying to get to an assigned waypoint, Randonauts are encouraged — but by no means obliged — to document their findings. One of the most popular places to do so outside of TikTok is on Reddit. And, looking at the posts, there’s a common thread: Randonautica is making people see the world around them with fresh eyes. For some, it’s escapism. For others, therapy. Some people see it as an exercise in “being present.” But overwhelming the reported experiences are positive. That’s not something you can say about a lot of apps these days.

A snapshot of the r/randonauts subreddit.Reddit

The first time is always awkward

My wife first clued me into Randonautica’s existence after she saw posts on TikTok from people who’d tried it. On May 28, 2020, we mounted our bicycles and followed Telegram’s directions to a street corner in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The app had assigned us five, randomly selected "intention" words, the most interesting of which was "costocentral," which refers to the articulations on the head of the ribs.

At the allotted intersection we found a mural promoting Ingrid Michaelson’s album “Stranger Songs,” lightly defaced with a mustache and an eye patch. Incidentally, that album came out exactly 11 months earlier, on June 28, 2019.

My wife, a Randonaut, on her first mission.Craig Wilson / Input

I also spotted a sticker on a lamppost that read “Bushwick eats okonomiyaki at Okiway.” I love okonomiyaki. I had it in Tokyo, two months before we moved to the U.S. Pre-pandemic. Pre a lot of things.

Mmm, okonomiyaki.Craig Wilson / Input

A few blocks later we saw an empty billboard space where someone had spray-painted the words “I can’t breathe.” George Floyd had died three days earlier, so as the graffiti that greeted us a few blocks later proclaimed, “There was nothing abnormal about it.”

"I can't breathe."Craig Wilson / Input
"There was nothing abnormal about it."Craig Wilson / Input

If at first you don't succeed

Weeks went by, and I forgot about Randonauting. Life in lockdown was tricky enough. But as the mercury continued to climb and more stories arose about the app, I was tempted to try again. On a sweltering July morning, we saddled up once more and followed the Android app’s directions, with the intention "new experiences" firmly in mind. We were guided to a corner in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where the only objects of interest were a burnt-out Roman Candle and a withered slice of orange on the sidewalk. So, we rolled the dice again.

A sweaty mile-and-a-half later and we found ourselves beneath a sign for “Atlantis Wash & Lube.” Trying to follow the precise coordinates was impossible — the destination was a construction site, boarded up and inaccessible. Our chosen intention was "how far we'd come," and that was easy to read into. We'd been led eastward, past the first apartment we'd sublet in Brooklyn a few months earlier. It also took us past a flat-tired hearse outside a repair shop getting the side-eye from a Yoda mural — an ominous omen even if omens aren't your thing.

Craig Wilson / Input

So, instead, we opted to investigate the cemetery across the road. Cemeteries are inherently more interesting than either repair shops or car washes. They’re simultaneously romantic and sobering. They remind a person of their mortality, while also making them nostalgic for times before their own birth. The first thing we noticed was a headstone for someone named Edinburg. Coincidentally, Edinburgh was the last city we visited before New York. Spooky? Not really. Because that’s just how coincidence works.

"Edinburg."Craig Wilson / Input

Next, we saw a milestone for Asia, then one for Africa. We come from Africa. More coincidence. Above J.M. Linz’s headstone hung a purple, three-sided tunnel of cardboard suspended from a rope. Purple is my favorite color. A few steps away, a double headstone for Robert and Alexana Wilson. My surname is Wilson. My middle name is Alexander.

What's the suspended purple cardboard thing about?Craig Wilson / Input
Not kin, I don't think.Craig Wilson / Input

On the way out we saw a small mausoleum with “Ventura” engraved on the top step. Ventura means “fortune” in Italian and Spanish, or “happen” in Latin. Coincidence? You betcha.

Fortune, and happenstance, favor the brave.Craig Wilson / Input

Third time's the charm

Last Saturday I decided to try again. After getting it in my head my living room needed a new hanging plant and heading to a nursery to procure one, I opened the Randonautica app and asked for a location. I was directed to a street in Clinton Hill, but before I could get there I wound up pushing my bike through a block-long street party. People of all ages were dancing in the street while someone blasted EDM from a club-sized sound rig. Most of them were wearing masks. Many had children or dogs with them. An elderly man wore a shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Spectacular Times” in a heavy, Gothic typeface meant to resemble the title on the front page of a newspaper.

Craig Wilson / Input

I’d chosen “rabbits” as my intention. I’d thought about it intensely while Randonautica assigned me the coordinates. When I got to the spot in question there wasn’t a buck or doe in sight. A suburban street lined with parked cars, there was only a low fence around a tree, presumably to stop wayward hounds from soiling it. Inside the fence sat a porcelain dog, a soccer ball, a phalaenopsis in a dirty pot, and a lightbox with ‘The animals♥” written on it.

Craig Wilson / Input

At the next tree down, two teenagers sat waiting for something, or someone. One of them had carrot-orange hair. “Ah, carrots! Rabbits! That's it!” I thought, before adding to myself, “Wow, you’re really reaching now.” My phone rang, it was my wife telling me she’d gotten a storm warning text message and wondering where I was. I snapped some pictures, got back on my bike, and started peddling home.

Craig Wilson / Input

Is this the real life?

Thinking about the experience as I peddled home I was struck by how diametrically opposed to most other apps Randonautica is. TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, are designed to prompt engagement. You can contribute to them, but you’re incentivized instead — often through dark patterns — to just keep scrolling. The more time you spend watching others live their lives, the more money the service makes. That incentive drives its design. Because that's how capitalism works. Online shopping apps and digital games meanwhile are similarly consumptive.

But, no matter how much or little you buy into Randonautica’s schpiel, it forces you to get out there. To go places. To be aware of things. To look for meaning. And you’ll find it. Because pattern recognition is one of our species’ defining traits. It’s why we see faces in inanimate objects, animals in clouds, or Mary Magdelene in a slice of burnt toast. We may be living in a deterministic universe, or we may be living in a random one, but it's never going to seem random to us. We're simply not wired that way.

Randonautica is the perfect antidote to doomscrolling. In what increasingly feels like the darkest timeline, that’s invigorating, whether or not it breaks "the simulation." And, unlike social media, Randonautica guarantees you a novel experience, because even if all you find is a new alley, a street corner you've never visited or an artfully arranged pile of trash, that discovery is happening to you, in real-time, without anything performative about it. It's called "real life." Trust me, you're going to love it.