In 2019, the F.B.I. cited QAnon as one of the dangerous conspiracy theories posing domestic terrorist threats to the United States and cited past incitements of violence from its adherents. Despite its fringe origins, the conspiracy movement continues to grow in troubling ways. QAnon-supporting candidates are running for office in surprising numbers (Media Matters’ Alex Kaplan reports that “at least 14 candidates made it out of primaries to the ballot in November or to primary runoffs.”) The movement has been tacitly embraced by President Trump and his re-election campaign, who’ve amplified QAnon accounts and even some of their memes.
For those who haven’t paid attention to the community since the early days, the movement’s growing popularity is alarming and often confusing. Some have compared it to a budding religion. Personally, the phenomenon has always struck me as a dark iteration of vigilante investigations that grew popular on message boards in the 2010s — citizen journalism gone wrong.
Perhaps the best explanation I’ve heard for the movement’s popularity comes from Adrian Hon, the chief executive of the gaming company Six to Start and a designer of alternate reality games or ARGs. Unlike video games, alternate reality games aren’t played on a console — they use the world as their storytelling platform. There’s no one particular medium. The story takes place in real time and seems to exist in the world. So game designers hide clues and puzzles in websites, apps and even newspaper advertisements. It’s a bit like a networked treasure hunt that turns the world around you into a game.
For Mr. Hon, that phenomenon resembled the dynamics governing QAnon. In a viral Twitter thread and follow-up post, he argued that “QAnon pushes the same buttons that ARGs do, whether by intention or by coincidence. In both cases, ‘do your research’ leads curious onlookers to a cornucopia of brain-tingling information.”
I spoke to Mr. Hon about why QAnon is so popular, if it can be stopped and what, if anything, we can learn from the movement’s rise. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some of the most striking similarities you see between alternate reality games and QAnon, besides being sprawling and complex?
Alternate reality games incorporate the internet and websites, real world interactions, advertisements in newspapers, smartphone apps, any medium we can get ahold of in order to produce the most immersive story possible. I saw the parallel with QAnon for two reasons. QAnon is a uniquely 21st century conspiracy theory. There have been others but QAnon was born on forums like 4chan and 8chan, and the way that people interact with it initially is so purely online. But the effects bleed into the real world much like an alternate reality game.
But specifically what caught my eye is that almost everyone who discovers QAnon uses a phrase like, “I did my research.” I kept hearing that and I couldn’t get it out of my head. This research is, basically, typing things into Google but when they do, they go down the rabbit hole. They open a fascinating fantasy world of secret wars and cabals and Hillary Clinton controlling things, and it offers convenient explanations for things that feel inexplicable or wrong about the world. It reminded me specifically of how people get to alternate reality games. Through these research rabbit holes.
There’s a phenomenon you mention in these games called “This is Not a Game.” Can you explain that?
“This is Not a Game” is the idea that the game is more enjoyable for players if we try and avoid to break the suspension of disbelief as much as possible. This came to the fore with a game called, The Beast. Microsoft was behind it but nobody knew for a long time in. It started with a cryptic message on a movie poster, which, if you Googled it, led you a fake blog, which led to other websites and email addresses and more. Those playing knew it wasn’t real but the design made every effort to seem like it was.
And you note that, in order to prolong the suspension of disbelief, you never admit any designer error, you just add to the story line with more complexity like it was the plan all along?
Sometimes as a designer you will change something in the game on the fly based on how people are playing it. Sometimes their instincts and suggestions add depth to the game and so you quickly rewrite. You can see that happen with QAnon. New theories and tangents appear at dead ends.
In your piece you suggest that alternate reality games “reward active discovery, the drawing of connections between clues, the delicious sensation of a hunch that pays off after hours or days of work.” How does QAnon do that?
There are a certain type of people who are attracted to alternate reality games and they are quite devoted. They like puzzle solving in the same way people like murder mysteries or crossword puzzles. As game designers we encourage that mind-set. We provide extremely difficult tasks that only 1 in 1,000 people could solve. And we do that because that one person who can solve it will feel like a hero because this weird talent they have is put to use. Alternate reality game designers like to reward its community for niche skills.
This is at play in QAnon. Many people feel alienated and left behind by the world. There’s something about QAnon like ARGs that reward and involve people for being who they are. They create a community that lets people show off their “research” skills and those people become incredibly valuable to the community.
Unlike lots of immersive games, QAnon blurs the lines between the writers/creators/players. Why is that important?
In a classical game or story you have a very distinct difference between those writing or designing and those playing. With QAnon you have this figure [Q] who has a stable identity and plants the seed frequently. But there’s just so many theories involved in the greater QAnon universe that are only tangentially related to the figure of Q. And you see this — QAnon has absorbed every other conspiracy theory. What would happen if Q stopped posting content forever? Would it die out? Maybe. But maybe not. And the reason it’s unclear is because so many people in the community have essentially built out their own theories and story lines and generated their own massive followings.
Do you think that this feeling of community makes QAnon that much more resilient?
There’s a real Darwinian process in these communities. Just tons of people with ideas and so many forums with up-voting and sharing. Nine hundred and 99 out of 1,000 theories are utterly bonkers but one might hit, maybe because it is slightly harder to disprove or a bit more compelling and it will immediately win out. It’s a collaborative fiction built on wild speculation that hardens into reality.
Trying to moderate online communities likely won’t stop QAnon from spreading in social media comments or private chat groups or unmoderated forums. And the only way to stop people from mistaking speculation from fact is for them to want to stop. This isn’t really a question but that strikes me as very, very dark stuff.
Don’t get me wrong, it is good thing that Twitter is trying to ban accounts and viral conversations around QAnon. It helps reduce the spread. But the reason this is so dangerous is that the little rabbit holes that take you deeper into QAnon are everywhere. A YouTube video might lead you to a Wikipedia page that takes you to another video. Each one is maybe harmless but the combined effect might draw you into the world. And it’s already so robust as a community that if people want to talk about QAnon they’ll find the ways.
You write: “QAnon fills the void of information that states have created” and that the choice to go on vigilante truth missions is rooted in a decline in trust in institutions. Can we reverse that?
This isn’t new but if you look at the roots of why people are drawn to conspiratorial thinking, it’s because people have reason to believe there is a conspiracy behind how the world works. They feel lost. That lots of information is hidden from them or that important decisions have been made in ways they don’t understand. They’ll prefer to believe something from a forum that caters toward their biases and is easier to read and consume than news coverage or from reading a dull 1,000 page pdf from a government website explaining complex policy decisions.
But lots of conspiracy “researching” draws upon complicated primary sources — it’s just often a misguided or dangerous interpretation.
That’s true. And that’s where the collaborative, investigative ARG element comes in.
Specifically you mean that, because so many people have access to unbelievable amounts of information online, there’s an expectation that all information ought to be discoverable, if you just search hard enough?
Exactly. A lot of it is about a lack of trust. But also a lack of comfort with ambiguity. In reality, the answer to most hard questions is, ‘It’s complicated.’ But people want definitive answers. Many of these theories provide that feeling for people. When really everyone needs to be a bit more comfortable with ambiguity.
Where do you think QAnon goes from here? Some have suggested it feels more like a nascent religion than a conspiracy theory. Does that sound right to you?
I am not sure. I don’t know if QAnon is quite comparable to a religion. What concerns me is that right now it is quite easy for bad actors to see what has worked with QAnon and try to copy it. There’s a playbook now. Any groups can hijack it. It wouldn’t take a lot to try and replicate it.
But, despite all this, you still say you’re hopeful for the future? Why?
The reason I’m optimistic is not that I think QAnon will disappear in a year but that something like QAnon is proof that people care and people like being involved in pursuit of truth. In QAnon that care and pursuit are dangerously twisted. But it gives people who feel unwelcome in lots of places a sense of purpose. You can make projects and build community that harnesses that positively. The same way bad actors can look at QAnon and find a playbook, so can good actors. We can find similar ways to motivate alienated people in a more constructive way. At least I hope so.