QAnon: the ARG that Nearly Destroyed Democracy

Alternative Facts Gone Wild

The Internet has given us some really spectacularly good and equally spectacularly bad things. On the one hand, most people can reasonably quarantine without being cut off from the outside world. On the other hand, the internet has opened a whole new genre of criminal activity. But, being a communicative species, it is relatively predictable that we use the internet primarily for communication.

And one of the things we use communication for is to entertain ourselves and each other with stories. We’ve told stories to one another for hundreds of thousands of years. We write them down in book form, we put them in plays and operas so we can act them out for an audience, we dance stories, we have games in which we play through stories or create stories with our friends, and now we even film and stream stories. Our species will never get tired of a good story. We just won’t.

But the internet, particularly an internet with social media where normal people can create accounts for different parts of their lives or even anonymous collaborations, allows for a whole new mode of storytelling in which the audience may influence the outcome and even plot. Collectively this type of story is referred to as an Alternative Reality Game (ARG).

ARGs are a bit hard to explain because they take so many different forms. Usually the audience participates, virtually always there is a necessary buy-in where the audience understands it to be a fiction, but behaves as if it were real, there are often puzzles which drive the story forward, and audience participation and success with the puzzles often drives progression of the story. Discord servers are often set up so that the audience can work together to crowdsource a puzzle solution or decide on a consensus for how they want to interact with the story being told.

The puzzles themselves can be simple to intricate. ARGs will often utilize Morse code, binary, or ciphers sometimes stated directly in messages or in videos and sometimes in source code, embedded audio, or inclusions that seem to be the result of poor quality images. Occasionally there might be clues left in the real world at a set of coordinates.

Obviously, this sort of thing can be quite fun and challenging. The audience is being told a story, but they also get to participate in it and have a chance to decipher clues at various levels of difficulty as they go. You’re entertained, but you also get a degree of control and often comradery as you are usually solving puzzles and figuring out the mystery with other people.

The gamemaster may even call out specific members of the audience in some context or another and make them a canonical part of the story. This gives a sort of ownership of the story where you watching and responding to the story unfolding become a special part of it.

All of this is fun and games until someone takes it too seriously. In a few cases, particularly in regards to horror genre ARGs the game wasn’t fully understood as a game and either the police were called or a member of the audience broke the fourth wall. In one case the gamemaster themselves got tangled in his own game and ended up ending it after calling out and threatening members of his audience.

The problem is with suspension of disbelief and how to signal that a set of posts, videos, files or threads are an ARG and not something else. For pretty clear reasons the plot of a lot of ARGs can be conspiratorial. There’s always a question of how much of it is real, what clues are actually clues, and sometimes whether the gamemaster does or doesn’t have plants in the discord community. When ARGs come out of r/nosleep and are clearly a creepy pasta then they’re fairly obvious as ARGs with the trade-off that they cannot be as immersive as posts on youtube or tweets. Given that a lot of the material is readily available to casual viewers, not clearly fictional, and often a bit disturbing it is easy for someone unfamiliar with the idea of ARGs to believe what’s happening within the game is actually real.

Enter Authoritarian Psychology

In a world devoid of political ideology or the potential for populism, fascism, and authoritarianism ARGs would be largely safe diversions. Even in a world where these things exist as long as you yourself are not either fighting or part of one of these systems the suspension of belief or the immersion required for an ARG is perfectly acceptable.

The issue arises when Alternative Facts lead to Alternative Reality.

Populism, fascism, and authoritarianism work basically the same way an ARG does. The gamemaster proposes a world and a set of facts which the audience accepts and works within. If a character is trapped within a padded room where the only exit is a door with a keypad then probably the only way out will be finding the code to the keypad. Within the game. In reality there might be something behind the padded walls, you may be able to break down the door or through a window, or you might be able to unscrew the hinges. Likewise in an authoritarian system people within the system agree — usually by some form of coercion overt or covert — to rules imposed by the ruler.

Just as perfectly normal and intelligent people can enjoy an ARG perfectly normal people can be sucked up by authoritarianism or its psychological trappings. In fact “groupthink” reared it’s ugly head within President Truman’s cabinet and staff leading to political and military blunders primarily in the Korean War but also in the handling of a dangerously insubordinate General MacArthur.

Important components of both ARGs and authoritarian psychology is in-group attitudes and sublimation of critical thought to perform within the defined confines either of the game — where such behaviour is acceptable — or the regime — where it is not.

Gamification of Conspiracy and Authoritarianism

Crucial to any form of authoritarianism is mythic identity. The identity is both rigid and malleable depending on who is being included and excluded or what is being justified. So for Nazis, Jews couldn’t possibly be German or belong to any European state at all even though they had been German or European for as long as anyone else. Jewish culture is an integral part of the wider European cultural traditions and while distrust and hate throughout the medieval centuries was sufficient that Jews often formed or were forced to form communities and neighbourhoods separate from their Christian counterparts Jewish cultural influence pervades every aspect of European history. Separating German Jews from German Christians or any other group was arbitrary and a distinction which existed only with the authoritarian context of Nazism (and the pre-existing prejudice which allowed it to form.)

Yeah man, I was surprised too.

People will align themselves with something that seems powerful or exciting or which convincingly promises them things they want or particular to authoritarian movements confirms their resentment. North Koreans who defect will often say that until they escaped they thought that Kim Jong-un was the most attractive man alive. Said Koreans are usually rather quickly disabused of this notion, but for those still in the country it remains.

Trump managed to get the Republicans to eliminate any negative statements regarding Russia from their platform. That alone was alarming, but as further evidence emerged that Russia had interfered with the 2016 election in Trump’s favour rather than denouncing Russian interference or even denying the evidence some Trump followers suggested that Russians committing actual international crime and undermining democracy were better than having Democrats with no history of criminal activity and of high moral standing in office.

For a Party which widely denounced Russia and took a hard-line stance in all negotiations with Russia this was a significant departure.

Significant but not surprising.

Republicans who took this stance had bought-in. Russia had helped them succeed so even though Russia is bad and interference in our election is bad because winning the election is good, Russian interference resulting in a Republican win is good. It doesn’t make any logical sense and it’s why I and my partner tried (and failed) to write code to represent it last night, but as long as you are buying into a narrative despite the fact that it’s clearly irrational you’ll accept it as — again — part of the narrative.

In the alternative reality gaming world there exist games which put the audience in morally ambiguous or fully malfeasant roles and encourage replies and behaviour that put the fictional protagonist in the ARG in danger. Participants engage as a form of harmless play-acting. The protagonist that they’re endangering is not real and exists in a somewhat determinist alternative reality where — even if they were real — the audience’s actions would have no real impact upon the ultimate outcome. As long as the audience is participating as part of the story the moral implications are irrelevant because this is a game and no one is going to get hurt.

When the Game Becomes Real

Wrong umbrella. (YouTube/The New York Times)

ARGs can pull inspiration and even “evidence” from real world conspiracy theories. If we’re positing that QAnon is an ARG gone horribly wrong through enlistment of ARG unsavvy “players,” who don’t understand this is ultimately a game, a lot of the pieces to it make considerably more sense. QAnon is described as an “umbrella conspiracy theory,” and it tries to draw a common thread through deep state conspiracies, the JFK assassination, illuminati, 5G, flat earth, pyramid schemes, and even essential oils. If we assume this is an ARG those points appeared because it’s part of the narrative. If not it was to draw in people who were subject to irrational speculation.

QAnon features posts from the intentionally mysterious “Q,” who is supposedly someone in the “deep state” or an intelligence agency — but loyal specifically to and working directly with Trump. The “Q-drops” often include jumbled information or nonsensical ramblings often about things like, “bloodlines,” which players are meant to decode. (One of the conspiracies is that Angela Merkel is secretly Adolf Hitler’s daughter or granddaughter which is pretty easily debunked. The evidence for it is that supposedly they look alike which what with the prosopagnosia I really cannot judge, but I’m going to imagine that that too is bunk.)

The main conceit of the narrative is that Trump is actually a six-pack sporting super genius who will use fascism to defeat the Democrats who have been using blood harvested from frightened children using the codeword “pizza” during demon worship to win elections except of course elections which they did not win. And if that seemed illogical to you it’s because it is.

Everyone’s entitled to a little diversion and their own opinion — provided they don’t hurt anyone — but the reason QAnon became a problem whether it’s just a conspiracy or an actual ARG is because it convinced a lot of gullible people that there was a dangerous conspiracy where there wasn’t.

Well, actually, it’s much worse than just that.

I mentioned that the QAnon conspiracy claims that Democrats and the deep state are kidnapping, molesting, and then murdering children for their blood. Firstly, one doesn’t joke about child abuse. It’s not funny. It’s not entertaining even in the abstract and if this was a game it was a horribly irresponsible premise. Because of this belief people who believe in QAnon have interfered with efforts to protect children from abuse, to recover lost children, and in a few cases members of QAnon have themselves kidnapped children and then put them in danger believing that police or their actual legal guardians were part of the conspiracy. When children disappear it is difficult to circulate their picture without QAnon hijacking the discussion and drowning it out with inaccurate and useless information.

And then there’s the kids on the border that the Trump administration separated from their parents.

But besides directly endangering children QAnon players have also endangered democracy. Again, this requires buy-in to a narrative very close if not identical to fascism. So the idea that Trump wouldn’t “succeed,” however success is defined for them does not really work within their headspace. The endgame — according to the narrative — is that there will be a “great awakening” during which everyone will either start agreeing with them and Trump and supporting fascism or any and all dissenters will be purged possibly in wide-spread and public executions.

QAnon has faced previous setbacks. According to the conspiracy Trump was supposed to immediately purge all Democrats from office imprison both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and … honestly I really don’t want to read too far into this because it’s insane but there was more stuff and I really just can’t. When this didn’t immediately happen that caused some concern amongst players or believers of QAnon. When Trump was impeached that further shook their belief system. And due to these, “setbacks,” either Q or his adherents came up with the phrase “trust the plan.”

“Trust the plan,” is sort of a conspiracy inception. Basically the idea is that the deep state is so deep and labyrinthine and the conspiracy so vast and complicated that six-pack hiding genius Trump big boy man had to play a form of chess which apparently grows in dimensionality throughout the game. (I’m actually not joking. The phrase is “three dimensional chess,” which to me is stupid because chess is inherently three dimensional and a chess game exists in four dimensions if you consider time a dimension, but … I saw a QAnon video where they claimed Trump was playing “six dimensional chess.” I dunno maybe Trump’s secretly really good with R and Python.) The point is they’re saying it’s taken time to put all the pieces in place to bring down the deep state and to be patient.

I mean … they think this is good so … sure six dimensional chess. (Source)

Of course, my mom who oversaw ethics and wrote regulatory law to protect humans (mostly, I think she did work on a few things to look out for animals in animal models) in medical research was part of the “deep state,” and the way she ended up leaving the actual Pentagon was by being offered a more lucrative post closer to home. So, for one I don’t understand why these people think the “deep state” is scary and for another all you have to do to get rid of most of them is offer them better pay elsewhere.

But yes, Trump has lost the election. States are currently certifying or already have certified the count and the Electoral College votes will be submitted in 33 or 34 days depending on exactly when I post this. So while a few adherents have demonstrated the mental gymnastics necessary to believe that somehow Trump is still going to win despite having lost by 5,985,406 votes in the general and either 38 or 74 depending on whether you’re subtracting from Biden’s total or total needed to win in the Electoral College.

On top of this, whoever is playing “Q” in all of this has not posted recently and adherents are losing their minds. Repeating “trust the plan,” works as long as Trump stays in office, but now that he’s lost it should be pretty clear that either “the plan,” failed or did not ever exist in the first place.

Reality is now in direct opposition to the narrative of this alternative reality constructed around Trump as somehow “heroic” and “competent.” QAnon probably drove some of the Republican turnout in this election which in and of itself is fine. I’m not going to get upset with people for voting even if I would vote the other way. And if an ARG is what it takes to get people to be healthy or involved in politics or whatever it is then that’s perfectly fine. I actually downloaded the app “Zombies, Run!” in order to get more runs in and do better on them.

But the difference between me running to an app and QAnoners is that when “Sam” tells me that there’s a zombie nearby and I quicken my pace I don’t actually believe there’s a zombie nearby and my life is in danger. I believe I’m pretending there’s a zombie nearby and in the game I’m going to outrun it. This may have disastrous consequences for me if we ever do face a zombie apocalypse.

QAnoners seem to believe that their alternative reality is actually real. Some of them will realize they went down the rabbit-hole a bit and will hopefully return to reality, but a few might be further radicalized.

The responsible thing for whoever is pretending to be Q to do is come out and explain that it was a game or a joke or whatever it was meant to be. Unfortunately, I don’t think the people who bought into this are going to suddenly become responsible rational citizens — they did buy into a fascist, white supremacist, and deeply anti-Semitic conspiracy after all — but both for their mental health and for democracy they need to be told that this wasn’t real.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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