(2020-08-02) Hon What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon

Adrian Hon: What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon. 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. It’s hard to create these communities. They rely on software and tools that aren’t always free or easy to use. 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.

See prior (2020-07-11) Hons QAnon As ARG.

QAnon’s followers always seem to begin their journey with the same refrain: “I’ve done my research.”

I’d heard that line before. In early 2001, the marketing for Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, A.I., had just begun.

Ain’t It Cool News (AICN) posted a tip from a reader: Type her name in the Google.com search engine, and see what sites pop up…pretty cool stuff!

The Google results began with Jeanine Salla’s homepage but led to a whole network of fictional sites

By the end of the day, the websites racked up 25 million hits

It later emerged they were part of the first-ever alternate reality game (ARG), The Beast, developed by Microsoft to promote Spielberg’s movie.

consider how much work it required to understand the story and it begins to sound less like “watching TV” fun and more like “painstaking research” fun. Along with tracking dozens of websites that updated in real time, you had to solve lute tablature puzzles, decode base 64 messages, reconstruct 3D models of island chains that spelt out messages, and gather clues from newspaper and TV adverts across the US.

there’s always been another kind of entertainment that appeals to different people at different times, one that rewards active discovery, the drawing of connections between clues, the delicious sensation of a hunch that pays off after hours or days of work. Puzzle books, murder mysteries, adventure games, escape rooms, even scientific research – they all aim for the same spot.

What was new in The Beast and the ARGs that followed it was less the specific puzzles and stories they incorporated, but the sheer scale of the worlds they realised – so vast and fast-moving that no individual could hope to comprehend them. Instead, players were forced to co-operate, sharing discoveries and solutions, exchanging ideas, and creating resources for others to follow.

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.

ARGs never made it big. They came too early and It’s hard to charge for a game that you stumble into through a Google search. But maybe their purposely-fragmented, internet-native, community-based form of storytelling and puzzle-solving was just biding its time…

I’m writing a book about the perils and promise of gamification.

No-one would mistake the clean lines of my flowcharts for the snarl of links that makes up a QAnon theory, but the principles are similar: one discovery leading to the next. Of course, these two flowcharts are very different beasts. The QAnon one is an imaginary, retrospective description of supposedly-connected data, while mine is a prescriptive network of events I would design.

Except that’s not quite true. In reality, Perplex City players didn’t always solve our puzzles as quickly as we intended them to, or they became convinced their incorrect solution was correct, or embarrassingly, our puzzles were broken and had no solution at all. In those cases we had to rewrite the story on the fly.

a public correction would shatter the uniquely-prolonged collective suspension of disbelief in the story. This was thought to be so integral to the appeal of ARGs, it was termed TINAG, or “This is Not a Game”.

We had a saying when these diversions worked out especially well: “We meant to do it all along.”

Every ARG designer can tell a similar war story. Here’s Josh Fialkov, writer for the Lonelygirl15 ARG/show: 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.

Conspiracy theories and cults evince the same insouciance when confronted with inconsistencies or falsified predictions; they can always explain away errors with new stories and theories.

ARGs and QAnon (and games and fandom and so many other things) demonstrate there’s an immediacy and scale and relevance to online communities that can be more potent and rewarding than a neighbourhood bake sale.

Good ARGs are deliberately designed with puzzles and challenges that require unusual talents – I designed one puzzle that required a good understanding of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs – with problems so large that they require crowdsourcing to solve, such that all players feel like welcome and valued contributors. (meaningful)

Needless to say, that feeling is missing from many people’s lives. (DisEngagement)

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. (Status)

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.

The same has happened with modern ARGs, where explainer videos have become so compelling they rack up more views than the ARGs have players (not unlike Twitch). Michael Andersen of ARGN is a fan of this trend, but wonders about its downside – with reference to conspiracy theorists: when 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.

Not long after the AICN post, The Beast’s players set up a Yahoo Group mailing list called Cloudmakers, named after a boat in the story. As the number of posts rose to dozens and then hundreds per day, it became obvious to list moderators (including me) that some form of organisation was in order. One rule we established was that posts should include a prefix in their subject so members could easily distinguish website updates from puzzle solutions.

There were no limits on what or how much you could post, but you always had to use the prefix so people could ignore it.

Other moderated communities have similar guidelines, with rationalists using their typically long-winded “epistemic status” metadata.

Absent this kind of moderation, speculation ends up overwhelming communities since it’s far easier and more fun to bullshit than do actual research.

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.

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.

The only way to stop people from mistaking speculation from fact is for them to want to stop.

The downside of being too mysterious in Perplex City is that cryptic messages often led players on wild goose chases such that they completely ignored entire story arcs in favour of pursuing their own theories. This was bad for us because we had a pretty strict timetable that we needed our story to play out on, pinned against the release of our physical puzzle cards that funded the entire enterprise. If players took too long to find the $200,000 treasure at the conclusion of the story, we might run out of money.

QAnon can favour cryptic messages because, as far as I know, they don’t have a specific timeline or goal in mind, let alone a production budget or paid staff. Not only is there no harm in followers misinterpreting messages, but it’s a strength: followers can occupy themselves with their own spin-off theories far better than “Q” can.

It can feel crass to compare ARGs to a conspiracy theory that’s caused so much harm. But this reveals the crucial difference between them: in QAnon, the stakes so high, any action is justified. If you truly believe an online store or a pizza parlour is engaging in child trafficking and the authorities are complicit, extreme behaviour is justified. Gabriel Roth extends this idea: What QAnon has that ARGs didn’t have is the claim of factual truth. (RealWorld)

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 describes: 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.

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.

Can we make “good ARGs”? Could ARGs inoculate people against conspiracy theories like QAnon? The short answer is: No. When it comes to games that are educational and fun, you usually have to pick one, not both

No ARG can heal the deep mistrust and fear and economic and spiritual malaise that underlies QAnon and other dangerous conspiracy theories, any more than a book or a movie can solve racism. There are hints at ARG-like things that could work, though – not in directly combatting QAnon’s appeal, but in channeling people’s energy and zeal of community-based problem-solving toward better causes.

Take The COVID Tracking Project, an attempt to compile the most complete data available about COVID-19 in the US.

If you applied ARG skills to investigative journalism, you’d get something like Bellingcat, an open-source intelligence group that discovered how Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was shot down over Ukraine in 2014.

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

Mattathias Schwartz believes it’s that lack of trust that leads people to QAnon: Q’s [followers] … are starving for information. Their willingness to chase bread crumbs is a symptom of ignorance and powerlessness.

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. (Englightenment)

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. It’s hard to create these communities. They rely on software and tools that aren’t always free or easy to use. 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. See also (2017-08-29) Winning Is For Losers Zero Sum Girard College.

Aug04 follow-up: Opinion | How QAnon Creates a Dangerous Alternate Reality. 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. 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.

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.

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 (alienation) people in a more constructive way. At least I hope so.

So my working theory is: if we can create structures that people to work together to build intrinsically interesting/meaningful bits and/or atoms, not only does humanity get that benefit of that creation, but those people get the benefit of being constructively engaged co-creators of civilization/enlightenment. Here's a tweet with an image and a click-through miro board.


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