Aug 18, 2020 - Technology

How QAnon works like a video game to hook people

Animated gif of an old video game start screen that reads QAnon

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

QAnon, the sprawling conspiracy theory that includes a vast galaxy of false claims involving everything from coronavirus to 5G to e-commerce, is seen by the FBI as a domestic terror threat. For some Republican lawmakers, it's a danger to be repudiated; for some candidates, a rallying cry. For its many followers, it's a great deal of fun.

The big picture: For all its real-world impact, QAnon hooks people by working like a video game. Game designer Adrian Hon has argued that Qanon is a lot like an alternate-reality game, in which players follow a trail of clues online and off, to solve mysteries or just discover more clues to chase.

  • But QAnon also echoes other game genres, mashing them together to become an all-encompassing, highly addictive experience. Intentionally or not, it has rolled up gameplay components from the past several decades of game design.

It's an adventure game.

  • Adventure games are built around puzzle solving, with players using exploration and trial and error to discover secrets and backstory and progress through the game. Many classics of the genre have the player unravel a sinister conspiracy.
  • At the center of QAnon are cryptic messages posted online by "Q," who claims to be a Trump administration official with high-level clearance. QAnon adherents pore over these posts, often written in phony spy jargon, to divine clues and secret messages and make fresh links in the grand conspiracy aligned against Trump.
  • "Do your own research" is a mantra for many QAnon followers. The idea is that QAnon helps freethinkers break from the hive mind — though their research leads them all ineluctably to the conclusion that most Democratic politicians and celebrities are cannibalistic pedophiles.

It's an MMORPG.

  • That stands for "massively multiplayer online role-playing game," in which players link up to go on quests, dispatching adversaries and discovering loot together. There's no end goal, just an opportunity to socialize online and to hone your own skills and status as a player. Raids — missions where groups of players coordinate an attack on an enemy — are commonplace.
  • QAnon gives many believers a sense of community and belonging, and many spend hours daily talking to each other and sharing discoveries over social media. They often swarm the online profiles of figures like model Chrissy Teigen — a frequent target of QAnon theories — with warnings of a reckoning to come.
  • QAnon is also friendly to newcomers. Most Q posts are intentionally enigmatic, but videos and other content from believers are often understandable to any dabbler, presenting claims about some discrete piece of the broader conspiracy, like coronavirus misinformation.

It's a roguelike.

  • Roguelikes send players through a game world of procedurally generated levels. That means the gameplay potentially never ends, as there's always some new piece of the map to explore and some new configuration of characters to encounter.
  • QAnon "intelligence" isn't generated by a computer — though algorithms have certainly helped spread it widely throughout social media and the internet at large.
  • But QAnon's scale and its followers' dedication to perpetually spinning out new claims and targets of attack creates a sort of crowdsourced simulation of procedural generation that ensures there are always more paths to go down, more clues to follow, more public figures to accuse.

The bottom line: People like solving mysteries and they like feeling privy to secret knowledge. QAnon gamifies those sensations at massive scale. And although tech giants are starting to crack down on it, there's no indication that its spread is slowing any time soon.

  • The Voynich manuscript is a book from the 15th century filled with strange drawings and writing in an unknown language. The simplest explanation is that it's just nonsense — either an intricate hoax or total gibberish. That hasn't stopped scholars, linguists and cryptographers from spending centuries chasing its mysteries.

Go deeper: QAnon's 2020 resurgence

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