(Yes, in 2001 Google was so new you had to spell out its web address.)The Google results began with Jeanine Salla’s homepage but led to a whole network of fictional sites. Some were futuristic versions of police websites or lifestyle magazines; others were inscrutable online stores and hacked blogs. A couple were in German and Japanese. In all, over twenty sites and phone numbers were listed.By the end of the day, the websites racked up 25 million hits, all from a single AICN article suggesting readers ‘do their research’. It later emerged they were part of one of the first-ever alternate reality games (ARG), The Beast, developed by Microsoft to promote Spielberg’s movie.
“Type her name in the Google.com search engine, and see what sites pop up…pretty cool stuff! Keep up the good work, Harry!! –ClaviusBase”
This blog post expands on the ideas in my Twitter thread about QAnon and ARGs, and incorporates many of the valuable replies. Please note, however, that I’m not a QAnon expert and I’m not a scholar of conspiracy theories. I’m not even the first to compare QAnon to LARPs and ARGs.But my experience as lead designer of Perplex City, one of the world’s most popular and longest-running ARGs, gives me a special perspective on QAnon’s game-like nature. My background as a neuroscientist and experimental psychologist also gives me insight into what motivates people.
It’s Like We Did It On Purpose
“Our fans/viewers would build elaborate (and pretty neat) theories and stories around the stories we’d already put together and then we’d merge them into our narrative, which would then engage them more. The one I think about the most is we were shooting something on location and we’re run and gunning. We fucked up and our local set PA ended up in the background of a long selfie shot. We had no idea. It was 100% a screw up. The fans became convinced the character was in danger. And then later when that character revealed herself as part of the evil conspiracy — that footage was part of the audiences proof that she was working with the bad guys all along — “THATS why he was in the background!” They literally found a mistake – made it a story point. And used it as evidence of their own foresight into the ending — despite it being, again, us totally being exhausted and sloppy. And at the time hundreds of thousands of people were participating and contributing to a fictional universe and creating strands upon strands.”
If you’re first to solve a puzzle or make a connection, you can attain local fame in ARG communities, as Dan Hon, COO at Mind Candy (makers of the Perplex City ARG), notes. The vast online communities for TV shows like Lost and Westworld, with their purposefully convoluted mystery box plots, also reward those who guess twists early, or produce helpful explainer videos. Yes, the reward is “just” internet points in the form of Reddit upvotes, but the feeling of being appreciated is very real. It’s no coincidence that Lost and Westworld both used ARGs to promote their shows.Wherever you have depth in storytelling or content or mechanics, you’ll find the same kind of online communities. Games like Bloodborne, Minecraft, Stardew Valley, Dwarf Fortress, Animal Crossing, Eve Online, and Elite Dangerous, they all share the same race for discovery. These discoveries eventually become processed into explainer videos and Reddit posts that are more accessible for wider audiences.
“ARGs are generally a showcase for special talent that often goes unrecognized elsewhere. I have met so many wildly talented people with weird knowledge through them.”
“[W]hen you’re reading (or watching) a summary of an ARG? All of the assumptions and logical leaps have been wrapped up and packaged for you, tied up with a nice little bow. Everything makes sense, and you can see how it all flows together. Living it, though? Sheer chaos. Wild conjectures and theories flying left and right, with circumstantial evidence and speculation ruling the day. Things exist in a fugue state of being simultaneously true-and-not-true, and it’s only the accumulation of evidence that resolves it. And acquiring a “knack” for sifting through theories to surface what’s believable is an extremely valuable skill—both for actively playing ARGs, and for life in general.And sometimes, I worry that when people consume these neatly packaged theories that show all the pieces coming together, they miss out on all those false starts and coincidences that help develop critical thinking skills. …because yes, conspiracy theories try and offer up those same neat packages that attempt to explain the seemingly unexplained. And it’s pretty damn important to learn how groups can be led astray in search of those neatly wrapped packages.”
Interviewer: Why [did you make a puzzle about] cicadas?
Clearly this was all just in fun – I knew it and the interviewer knew it. That’s why I agreed to take part. But does everyone watching this understand that? There’s no “SPEC” tag on the video. At least a few commenters are taking it seriously:
These are helpful beliefs when playing an ARG or watching a TV show designed with twists and turns. It’s fun to speculate and to join seemingly disparate ideas, especially when the creators encourage and reward this behaviour. It’s less helpful when conspiracy theorists “yes, and…” each other into shooting up a pizza parlour or burning down 5G cell towers.Because there is no coherent QAnon community in the same sense as the Cloudmakers, there’s no convention of “SPEC” tags. In their absence, YouTube has added annotated QAnon videos with links to its Wikipedia article, and Twitter has banned 7,000 accounts and restricted 150,000 more, among other actions. Supposedly, Facebook is planning to do the same.
“According to Michael Barkun, emeritus professor of political science at Syracuse University, three core principles characterize most conspiracy theories. Firstly, the belief that nothing happens by accident or coincidence. Secondly, that nothing is as it seems: The “appearance of innocence” is to be suspected. Finally, the belief that everything is connected through a hidden pattern.”
But even QAnon needs some specificity, hence their frequent references to actual people, places, events, and so on.
“For every ARG I’ve been involved in and ones my friends have been involved in, communities always consume/complete/burn through content faster than you can make it, when you’re doing a narrative-based game. This content generation/consumption/playing asymmetry is, I think, just a fact. But QAnon “solved” it by being able to co-opt all content that already exists and … encourages and allows you to create new content that counts and is fair play in-the-game.”
A brief aside on designing very hard puzzles
“What QAnon has that ARGs didn’t have is the claim of factual truth; in that sense it reminds me of the Bullshit Anecdotal Memoir wave of the 90s and early 00s. If you have a story based on real life, but you want to make it more interesting, the correct thing to do is change the names of the people and make it as interesting as you like and call it fiction. The insight of the Bullshit Anecdotal Memoirists (I’m thinking of James Frey and Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris) was that you could call it nonfiction and readers would like it much better because it would have the claim of actual factual truth, wowee!! And it worked! How much more engaging and addictive is an immersive, participatory ARG when it adds that unique frisson you can only get with the claim of factual truth? And bear in mind that ARG-scale stories aren’t about mere personal experiences—they operate on a world-historical scale.”
We don’t have to wonder what happens when an ARG community meets a matter of life and death. Not long after The Beast concluded, the 9/11 attacks happened. A small number of posters in the Cloudmakers mailing list suggested the community use its skills to “solve” the question of who was behind the attack.The brief but intense discussion that ensued has become a cautionary tale of ARG communities getting carried away and being unable to distinguish fiction from reality. In reality, the community and the moderators quickly shut down the idea as being impractical, insensitive, and very dangerous. “Cloudmakers tried to solve 9/11” is a great story, but it’s completely false.Unfortunately, the same isn’t true for the poster child for online sleuthing gone wrong, the r/findbostonbombers subreddit. There’s a parallel between the essentially unmoderated, anonymous theorists of r/findbostonbombers and those in QAnon: neither feel any responsibility for spreading unsupported speculation as fact. What they do feel is that anything should be solvable, as Laura Hall, immersive environment and narrative designer, describes:
There’s truth in that feeling. There is a vast amount of information online, and sometimes it is possible to solve “mysteries”, which makes it hard to criticise people for trying, especially when it comes to stopping perceived injustices. But it’s the sheer volume of information online that makes it so easy and so tempting and so fun to draw spurious connections.That joy of solving and connecting and sharing and communication can do great things, and it can do awful things. As Josh Fialkov, writer for Lonelygirl15, says:
“There’s a general sense of, ‘This should be solveable/findable/etc’ that you see in lots of reddit communities for unsolved mysteries and so on. The feeling that all information is available online, that reality and truth must be captured/in evidence somewhere”
That brain power negatively focused on what [conspiracy theorists] perceive as life and death (but is actually crassly manipulated paranoia) scares the living shit out of me.
What ARGs Can Teach Us
Conspiracy theories thrive in the absence of trust. Today, people don’t trust authorities because authorities have repeatedly shown themselves to be unworthy of trust – misreporting or manipulating COVID-19 testing figures, delaying the publication of government investigations, burning records of past atrocities, and deploying unmarked federal forces. Perhaps authorities were just as untrustworthy twenty or fifty or a hundred years ago, but today we rightly expect more.Mattathias Schwartz, contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, believes it’s that lack of trust that leads people to QAnon:
So the goal cannot be to simply restore trust in existing authorities. Rather, I think it’s to restore faith in truth and knowledge itself. The COVID Tracking Project and Bellingcat help reveal truth by crowdsourcing information. They show their work via hypertext and open data, creating a structure upon which higher-level analysis and journalism can be built. And if they can’t find the truth, they’re willing to say so.QAnon seems just as open. Everything is online. Every discussion, every idea, every theory is all joined together in a warped edifice where speculation becomes fact and fact leads to action. It’s thrilling to discover, and as you find new terms to Google and new threads to pull upon, you can feel just like a real researcher. And you can never get bored. There’s always new information to make sense of, always a new puzzle to solve, always a new enemy to take down.QAnon fills the void of information that states have created—not with facts, but with fantasy. If we don’t want QAnon to fill that void, someone else has to. Government institutions can’t be relied upon to do this sustainably, given how underfunded and politicised they’ve become in recent years. Traditional journalism has also struggled against its own challenges of opacity and lack of resources. So maybe that someone is… us.ARGs teach us that the search for knowledge and truth can be immensely rewarding, not in spite of their deliberately-fractured stories and near-impossible puzzles, but because of them. They teach us that communities can self-organise and self-moderate to take on immense challenges in a responsible way. And they teach us that people are ready and willing to volunteer to work if they’re welcomed, no matter their talent.It’s hard to create these communities. They rely on software and tools that aren’t always free or easy to use. They need volunteers who have spare time to give and moderators who can be supported, financially and emotionally, through the struggles that always come. These communities already exist. They just need more help.Despite the growing shadow of QAnon, I’m hopeful for the future. The beauty of ARGs and ARG-like communities isn’t their power to discover truth. It’s how they make the process of discovery so deeply rewarding.
“Q’s [followers] … are starving for information. Their willingness to chase bread crumbs is a symptom of ignorance and powerlessness. There may be something to their belief that the machinery of the state is inaccessible to the people. It’s hard to blame them for resorting to fantasy and esotericism, after all, when accurate information about the government’s current activities is so easily concealed and so woefully incomplete.”