Aug 18, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

To all the other parents out there enduring their first week of distance learning, I can commiserate and there is a little treat for you in After you Login. Non-parents can enjoy too — and stand a better chance of making it that far.

And, just a reminder, you can have Login read to you here.

Today's Login is 1,416 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: How QAnon works like a video game to hook people

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

QAnon, the sprawling online conspiracy theory, is causing real-world damage and threatens to leak into Congress. But for its many followers, it's a great deal of fun, Axios’ Kyle Daly reports.

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.

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.

Go deeper: QAnon's 2020 resurgence

2. Epic's battle with Apple ratchets up

Epic Games said Monday it will lose access to Apple's developer tools later this month and is asking a court to stop that from happening, in an escalation of the already high-stakes battle between the two companies.

Why it matters: The revelation could draw more developers into the issue, beyond those who were already opposed to Apple's 30% cut on digital goods sold through the App Store. Epic is warning the move threatens not only its own games, but also others' titles that use the company's popular Unreal Engine.

Flashback: Last week, Epic baited both Apple and Google into booting Fortnite from their app stores by adding an in-app payment system. Epic then sued both companies.

  • Attention around the fight has centered on Epic's beef with Apple, as being dropped from the Google Play store doesn't stop Epic from getting Fortnite onto Android phones by other means. (Not so for Apple's more closed ecosystem.)

The big picture: Many experts believe Apple is on decent legal ground to win a lawsuit, noting that such commissions and restrictions on in-app payments are common. (Video game consoles, for instance, have long done business in this manner.)

The real risk for Apple is the larger antitrust scrutiny that this and other heavy-handed techniques will draw, especially given that regulators and lawmakers in the U.S. and Europe have already been looking at the company's practices.

  • Apple said in a statement that Epic's problems would go away if would just take out the new in-app payment option: "We won't make an exception for Epic because we don't think it's right to put their business interests ahead of the guidelines that protect our customers."

Epic, too, faces big risks. The company can still distribute Fortnite directly on Android, but has no way to get the game to new iOS users. Plus, if Epic does lose the ability to update Unreal for iOS, much of that business could go to rivals, including Unity, maker of an eponymous competing game engine.

What's next: The first big court ruling will likely be on Epic's request for an injunction to maintain access to Apple's developer tools, though there could be more shoes to drop before even that happens.

3. Scoop: Snapchat lets users share more off-app

Snapchat is testing a feature to let users share Snapchat content that they didn't create, like original programming and celebrity Snaps, outside of the platform, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: Snapchat had previously announced a push to get users to share "Stories" outside of its app. It's now taking that a step further.

Details: The update will allow Snapchat users to share "Snap Originals," "Shows" and "Publisher Stories" with their friends off the platform using easily shareable links.

  • Snapchat users can also share "Our Stories," photos and videos submitted from different Snapchatters within a certain community that are collected and categorized by Snapchat. These can be valuable during breaking news events, like hurricanes or protests.
  • The links will take users back to watch the videos in the Snapchat app or on the web, according to a source familiar with the plans.
  • A Snapchat spokesperson confirmed the experiment, telling Axios: "We're always exploring ways to make it even easier to view Snapchat's engaging and topical content and share it with your friends."

Snapchat is also testing a rebrand of its personalized content feed called "For You," according to a source familiar with the plans.

  • The new feed will be called "Spotlight," and will feature content from Snap creators, curated Snapchat stories and premium content, including "Discover" shows and "Publisher Stories."

The big picture: Both new tests are part of efforts to expand Snapchat's audience.

  • Snapchat now has 238 million daily active users — up 17% year-over-year, as social media use and streaming consumption rise amid the pandemic.
  • Nevertheless, it's still much smaller than rival platforms like Instagram and Facebook.

Go deeper: Snapchat to push user content outside app

4. U.S. adds fresh sanctions aimed at Huawei

The Commerce Department restricted Huawei even more in the U.S. today, Axios' Ashley Gold reports, adding to its export blacklist 38 Huawei affiliates the Trump administration says the company used to evade its own earlier blacklisting.

Why it matters: The Trump administration is escalating its technological battle with China broadly, and Huawei in particular. Monday's announcement makes it even harder for Huawei to get chips it needs for its hardware from American companies.

Details: The Commerce Department says Monday's action will "prevent Huawei's attempts to circumvent U.S. export controls to obtain electronic components developed or produced using U.S. technology."

  • This May, the department amended a rule to go after Huawei's acquisition of semiconductors that use U.S. technology and software. Monday's announcement tightens that rule.

What they're saying: The trade group representing U.S. chipmakers blasted the latest move.

  • "We are surprised and concerned by the administration's sudden shift from its prior support of a more narrow approach intended to achieve stated national security goals while limiting harm to U.S. companies," Semiconductor Industry Association chief John Neuffer said in a statement.

My thought bubble: The battle against Huawei is now effectively an effort to stop the company from being able to do any kind of business anywhere.

Go deeper: The great tech decoupling is here

5. Take Note

Trading Places

  • Pinterest added Skywalker Holdings president Andrea Wishom to its board as the company faces allegations of racial discrimination and retaliation.
  • Sonos named Microsoft chief product officer Panos Panay to its board of directors.


6. After you Login

Yesterday was the first day of distance learning for many, including our family. Rather than share our story, though, I thought I'd offer up this cautionary tale.

Ina Fried