What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon

The far-right QAnon conspiracy theory is so sprawling, it’s hard to know where people join. Last week, it was 5G cell towers, this week it’s Wayfair; who knows what next week will bring? But 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. YouTube wouldn’t launch for another four years, so you had to be eagle-eyed to spot the unusual credit next to Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, and Frances O’Connor: Jeanine Salla, the movie’s “Sentient Machine Therapist”.

Close-up of the A.I. movie poster

Soon after, 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! Keep up the good work, Harry!! –ClaviusBase

(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 the first-ever alternate reality game (ARG), The Beast, developed by Microsoft to promote Spielberg’s movie.

The way I’ve described it here, The Beast sounds like enormous fun. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by a doorway into 2142 filled with websites and phone numbers and puzzles, with runaway robots who need your help and even live events around the world? But 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.

This purposeful yet bewildering complexity is the complete opposite of what many associate with conventional popular entertainment, where every bump in your road to enjoyment has been smoothed away in the pursuit of instant engagement and maximal profit. But 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. I’d know: I wrote a novel-length walkthrough of The Beast when I was meant to be studying for my degree at Cambridge.

QAnon is not an ARG. It’s a dangerous conspiracy theory, and there are lots of ways of understanding conspiracy theories without ARGs. But 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.

In other words, maybe QAnon is… fun?

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…

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