QAnon, immersive gaming, and the impending nihilistic collapse of civic life

When you dissolve the boundary between politics and entertainment, things start to get weird.

That’s what I found myself thinking last night, as I read the latest story of how the dumbest-possible conspiracy theory, #QAnon, has climbed out of the darkest recesses of the internet.

Stories about QAnon have been percolating for months. (Rosanne Barr is a QAnon supporter.) If you don’t feel like diving headfirst into the feverswamp, just imagine a rightwing conspiracy theory that looked at #PizzaGate and said “hold my beer.” And just as PizzaGate supporters eventually moved offline and started showing up armed at local pizzerias, demanding that they release the child sex slaves, QAnon supporters are now turning out in force at Trump rallies. (Because it’s 2018. And of course they are.)

The striking thing about QAnon is that we’ve celebrated mass behavior like this for years, just in a very different context.

Take a look at this WIRED story from December 2007. The article, by Frank Rose, is titled “Secret Websites, Coded Messages: The New World of Immersive Gaming.” It describes an intricate alternate reality game (ARG) that was designed around the release of Nine Inch Nails’s 2007 album, Year Zero.

Here’s how Rose defines an ARG:

…a complex game played out over many months, both online and in the real world, in which millions of people across the planet had collectively solved a cascading series of puzzles, riddles, and treasure hunts (...)
…A new kind of interactive fiction. These narratives unfold in fragments, in all sorts of media, from Web sites to phone calls to live events, and the audience pieces together the story from shards of information. The task is too complicated for any one person, but the Web enables a collective intelligence to emerge to assemble the pieces, solve the mysteries, and in the process, tell and retell the story online. The narrative is shaped — and ultimately owned — by the audience in ways that other forms of storytelling cannot match. No longer passive consumers, the players live out the story. Eight years ago, this kind of entertainment didn’t exist; now dozens of such games are launched every year, many of them attracting millions of followers on every continent. (emphasis added)

Nine Inch Nails’s Year Zero was a concept album, telling the story of revolutionary dissidents fighting against a mind-controlling government in an alternate history. The Year Zero ARG spanned months, engaging several thousand fans, dropping clues that could be scavenged at live shows or found online — A USB drive hidden in a bathroom stall, random boldface letters on a t-shirt revealing a web address or a telephone number. By the game’s end, about 50 die-hard fans were loaded onto buses with blacked-out windows, deposited at a large warehouse… and treated to a private live show by the band!

Fan communities dissecting clues are a central part of what Henry Jenkins celebrates as Convergence Culture. Think Lost discussion boards, or the way avid fan bases have combed through Mr. Robot and Westworld in recent years. Part of the reason we’ve entered a new golden age of television is that creators have realized that they can tell more complex stories that reward an intense, connected fan base.

QAnon fans are applying this same participatory behavior that we have celebrated in fiction fandom to real-world political drama. And why not? The boundaries between politics and entertainment have been collapsing for years. The entire Trump presidency operates like Reality TV, completely divorced from any real stakes or substance.

That’s what makes this all so terrifying. Do these people really believe that Tom Hanks and Hillary Clinton are personally running a massive pedophilia ring? Really???

But consider this: Trump announced at a rally this week that the farmers being harmed by his stupid trade war had told him “we can take it.” No actual farmers said that to him. We all know that. But it’s a little thing, just part of the story we are all interacting with.

The pulsating heart of the QAnon theory is not a lunatic fringe denying the real consequences of a failing presidency. The heart of it is a devoted fan base constructing elaborate theories to make the story more fun and engaging. And if you start from the premise that nothing government does matters, then it’s easy to come along for the ride. There’s no real difference between Hillary Clinton and the Smoke Monster. They’re both just characters on the television.

That’s what alarms me most about the growth of QAnon. It’s not that these people are unhinged and possibly armed. It’s that we’ve lost the capacity to treat civics, governance, and public affairs as though they have actual stakes with actual consequences. The premise of the Trump presidency is that nothing matters, so you should root for your side and heckle the opposing team. He encourages his supporters to treat Democrats and journalists like a rival fan base. And if politics and government are just another game with winners and losers, then why not boo and threaten Democrats as if they were Duke basketball fans?

QAnon is that natural endpoint of treating politics as entertainment. If its all just storytelling, then the big fans will group together online, immerse themselves in the story, and try to make it more fun.

If we want to step back from the brink, if we decide we don’t want the entire country to end up like this, we’re going to have to start acting like the things that government does actually matter.