Possibly the one thing that brought me into media science the most was David Cronenberg’s 1999 movie „eXistenZ„. The movie discusses the risk of not being able to distinguish between immersive game and reality anymore. With more and more layers of different realities lapping over each other, gamers start to get paranoid and are finally transformed into killers.
Ever since, I was intriguied by Alternate Reality Gaming – the way of blending real life with gaming. I actually have created some ARGs myself whenever I felt it was reasonable to illustrate topics that are somewhat connected to the real world – especially with Serious Games. But the effects of using ARGs on the player can be pretty intense, so we always knew we need to make it safe enough for everybody to always have an exit from this rabbit hole, if paranoia would set it.
What happens if ARGs don’t offer safe exits back to reality, became first clear to me with the amazing Cicada 3301 project. I talked about it here. So when I heard within the ARG community that possibly both Cicada 3301 and QAnon had been highjacked by a man named Thomas Schoenberger, it called my attention. Until then, my impression was that QAnon was something that has been growing by accident.
QAnon players from the early days were pretty much aware, that it was a game and that it played with the usual fact-fiction principles, with puzzle solving, researching, rabbit holes, conspiracy theories and so many other gameplay mechanics that ARGs use. But something changed during the course and it slowly got out of hand. And one thing is for sure: The ruling class knew it and they fed it.
Nowadays, we see people believe in that storyline. They’re in a gaming world without knowing it – and without finding a way out.
When social media came, we started to create filter bubbles and different realities. Companies like Cambridge Analytica used it to their advantage, brought people like Trump into power and achieved the Brexit result. Are gamplay methods the new thing for political gain and propaganda?
In my eyes, the media often misrepresent QAnon as purely a „conspiracy theory“, ignoring the fact that there are more mechanics at play here then just posting and sharing information. Mechanics that are very well known in the world of alternate game creators. And the huge question now is: Is it deliberate?
This is probably the only larger coverage of the topic that I could find in the mass media:
(There was also a summary of the whole QAnon evolution at the #rc3 congress visible here (German)).
ARGs are little bit like the secret service of games. As it relies heavly on distrust, misinformation and unreliable narration, the puppetmasters in the game nearly always have ways of plausible denialation. We know that governments look into ARGs as a principle to influence people for sure, but we’ll probably never know, whether QAnon was blown up on a larger scale to achieve paranoia, propaganda and considerable amount of people stuck in a game mechanics – because that’s just how these ARGs work.
When the US capitol was stormed on January 6th, I was reminded of a LARP event, a gameplay mechanic closely linked to ARGs.
And people investigating QAnon were talking about this coup within the QAnon world since months.
Many don’t get why so many have fallen for the nonsense that QAnon represents. But if you look at how immersive game worlds can be, how large the game industry has grown and then consider that many of these users might not be trained enough to distinguish the line between reality (fact) and game world (fiction), it’s not so hard to understand anymore. If gameplay mechanics are abused to mobilize mobs, destabilize society, disconnect people from realities and even kill people, eXistenZ is here. And in this case, we need to talk about it much more.