Games, Mysteries, and the Lure of QAnon
QAnon is so sprawling, it’s hard to know where people join. One week, it’s the false rumor that 5G cell towers spread disease, another week it’s Wayfair.com trafficking children inside unusually expensive furniture; who knows what next week will bring? But QAnon’s millions of followers often 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 new movie, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, had just begun. 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!! –ClaviusBase5
(Yes, 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 and lifestyle magazines, like the Sentient Property Crime Bureau and Metropolitan Living Homes, a picture-perfect copy of Metropolitan Home magazine that profiled AI-powered houses. Others were inscrutable online stores and hacked blogs. A couple were in German and Japanese. In all, there were over 20 sites and phone numbers to investigate.
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 that they were part of the first-ever ARG, nicknamed The Beast, developed by Microsoft to promote Spielberg’s movie.
The way I’ve described it, 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? It was a game played on a board so wide, across so many different media and platforms, players felt as if they lived in an alternate reality—hence the name. But consider how much work it required to understand The Beast’s 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, players had to solve lute tablature puzzles, decode messages written in Base64, reconstruct 3D models of island chains that spelled 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 than the sheer scale of the worlds they realized—so vast and fast-moving that no individual could hope to comprehend them. Instead, players were forced to cooperate, sharing discoveries and solutions, exchanging ideas, and creating resources for others to follow. QAnon is not an ARG, or a role-playing game (RPG), or even a live-action role-playing game (Larp). It’s a dangerous conspiracy theory, and there are lots of ways of understanding conspiracy theories without games—but it 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.
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