If QAnon Is a Game, How Do You Stop Playing?

Justin Wolske
Feb 17, 2021 · 11 min read
How do you end a game designed to go on forever? (📷: Internet Archive)

This is Part II of our look at QAnon. Click here for Part I. As part of the NYU/StartEd New Media Accelerator, we are joining with faculty from the NYU Carter Journalism Institute to talk about QAnon Friday, Feb. 19 on Clubhouse. Join us!

Ever hear of Ong’s Hat? Not the charming little town in New Jersey that we all know and love, but the internet conspiracy. Actually, Ong’s Hat is most likely the first internet conspiracy, which is interesting because it started well before the internet was even in the hands of the average citizen. Today, many credit the sprawling, transmedia experiment — and its foundational documents known as The Incunabla Papers — as the first Alternative Reality Game (ARG), creating the template for massive experiential mysteries underwritten by sources as unlikely as Brigham Young University, Microsoft, and the rock band Twenty-One Pilots. Ong’s Hat was a much less coordinated affair, beginning as crude Xeroxed pamphlets, then skipping around on zines delivered in the mail, radio, bulletin boards, CD-ROM, and back to the internet. While the ghost town that gave the game its name is real, the science fiction tale that lurched around for years, involving Princeton scientists, quantum theory, multi-dimensional travel, and much more, is a work of collaborative fiction by a small group of outsiders and pranksters. But this long-forgotten experiment has become relevant again because it gives us clues into what’s going on with some of the most politically and socially radicalized people in the world.

The U.S. Capitol was just another part of the gameboard. (📷: LA Times)

The January 6 deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol was energized by many people who follow QAnon to varying degrees. Last month, we wrote that understanding the movement in religious or cultish terms was a seductive mistake, and that it’s best understood as an ARG that has a found purchase with huge swaths of alienated and postmodern Americans. While most games are harmless, Ong’s Hat turned quite dark before its chief storyteller shut it down, and we’d argue that the real-world violence coming from QAnon disciples is following that same arc. Hopefully, there are some lessons in previous experiments like Ong’s Hat that can help us blunt the destructive force of this movement, avoid more violence, and bring people back to a shared reality and basic set of facts.

When the inauguration of Joe Biden rolled around on January 20, many of us joined together in schadenfreude to see what Q-people would do. The story of Q had simply not calculated that Donald Trump would lose the election; it was inconceivable that the Christ-selected savior of unborn babies and trafficked children would be kicked from his perch by evil liberals who are known to drink the blood of newborn infants. Q-adherents are not exactly quiet online, and even on the morning of January 20, there were fully confident proclamations that the military would be putting Biden and associated ne’er-do-wells in handcuffs while Trump would descend from the skies on Marine One to reclaim was what rightfully his.

Many followers of Q have no choice but to quadruple down. (📷: Twitter)

What happened was…not that. In a relatively sedate affair, Joe Biden took the oath of office, and Donald Trump — kicked off Twitter and twice impeached — flew Air Force One to Florida one last time and slid behind closed gates. For a brief moment, many were hopeful that the spell would break for the Q-obsessed who had broken family bonds and risked unending ridicule for their commitment to this bizarre fantasy. And to be sure, there were some quite honest and searing posts from people who seemed to be genuinely confused and heartbroken. “It’s like being a kid and seeing the big gift under the tree thinking it is exactly what you want only to open it and realize it was a lump of coal,” a poster wrote on a forum. Major QAnon hubs on 8kun and Telegram shut off comments after Biden was sworn in, and some of the biggest leaders of the moment capitulated, telling people to “go back to their lives as best we are able.”

But that mood is so January 2021. In the modern world, many Q-folks have doubled down. Now, March 4 is the day when Trump will return to power, taken from a byzantine theory lifted from the racist and anti-Semitic “sovereign citizen movement,” that the United States was turned into a corporation in the 1870s, making all presidents after Grant illegitimate. The specifics are unimportant (believe me), but the point is that, many people are not willing to let this go. The QAnon movement provides community, serves as a retainer for rage, and is a badge of outsider honor. But most importantly, refusing to admit the obvious is a way to keep the other side — the elitist, condescending know-it-alls — from claiming their smirking victory.

Joseph Matheny not only created the first ARG, but a template of how QAnon is likely to behave (📷: Incunabla)

But even though you will see this same reaction in cults and other conspiracy theories, I still think the mechanics of the ARG most accurately describe what’s going on. And the fate of Joseph Matheny, founder of Ong’s Hat, is a good template for what I think will happen with QAnon, or actually, what is already happening. Matheny ran the project into the 2000s until it really stopped being fun, as followers of the story began to treat him as a sort of prophet. “I’ve woken up to people peering through my windows,” Matheny told Willa Paskin on the indispensable Decoder Ring podcast. “This got weird.” Matheny had always left clues through his work that the project was fiction, but the true believers blew right past those signposts, making the entire experience unpleasant and threatening. As he wound the story down in 2001, Matheny himself was turned into a villain by his most hardcore audience.

As Matheny admits, the project’s downfall was that it professed over and over that it was not a game…even though it clearly was a game. Unlike the more polished ARGs that were created by a staff of people at Microsoft¹, the Incunabla Papers led nowhere, there were no answers, no real story structure. It was open-ended to the point that it felt utterly real. He both overestimated his audience — by assuming they were all in on the artifice — and underestimated them — believing they had a limit to how much effort they would put forth in solving these unsolvable mysteries he concocted. There was no story agreement, and so the players did not know how to interact with the material. In Paskin’s phrasing, these players had “slipped off the board.” It took Matheny forcefully shutting the project down, the events of September 11, and the rise of other, better funded ARGs for Ong’s Hat to slide into internet oblivion, but not before its maker became completely disillusioned with the entire project. “I’m so over it,” he said, convincingly.

So we return to the original question: how do we get people to stop playing QAnon? People should be free to play any stupid game they wish, except when other non-consenting people are getting hurt in the real world. That’s clearly happening. I would argue there’s a forceful communal case to mute its impact. While I don’t think it’s as dangerous as some do, I also don’t think it’s just going to evaporate. March 4 will come and go, and the game players will invent a new date to convince themselves that “the plan” is still in effect. I doubt the U.S. Capitol is in mortal danger, but some small statehouse or government office building (and the employees inside) certainly could be. Donald Trump not being in office is a mere inconvenience; in fact, I think Trump will be “written out” after a while anyways, as he’s a powerless protagonist by this point. So the threat remains real, but here are some things that technology companies and regular people can do to blunt the effects of this and future games.

QAnon violence is now worldwide, and this is a global issue. (📷: Philadelphia Inquirer)

QANON WILL DIE, AND SOMETHING ELSE WILL BE BORN.

Just as most Ong’s Hat followers cast about aimlessly toward the end of the game’s life, I’d argue that QAnon, as we currently understand it, is in its end stages. As we’re seeing with the sovereign citizen theory appropriation, the QAnon game rules aren’t solid enough to stay stable over the long term. And with its banishment to the most fringy parts of the internet, it’s already becoming more radicalized. Without Facebook and Reddit and wellness mom groups, QAnon doesn’t scale. It likely won’t die completely, but will melt into something barely recognizable, heavy and inaccessible, with constantly changing rules and hardcore players. It will be like trying to talk about a band you’re sorta into with the nerdiest, most obsessive and maladjusted superfans who followed them way back when they played the club circuit. I would bet that the movement becomes one of the thousands of toxic, bubbling bogs just off the beaten paths of the web.

And that’s all fine, because QAnon itself is not that important. Folks forget, but there was also an FBIAnon, CIAAnon, WHInsiderAnon, and other online posters who dropped information breadcrumbs, even before Trump won in 2016. These figures were subsumed by QAnon’s exploding popularity. In the bareknuckle message boards of 8kun and Telegram, something new like Frazzledrip will eat QAnon, just as QAnon absorbed Pizzagate. It will likely be more divorced from reality and more at ease with IRL violence. So the goal for the rest of us should be to focus less on a specific game or conspiracy theory, and more on the mechanisms that spread them to vulnerable people battered by a pandemic, beset with racial angst, and alienated from their communities. That’s the real work.

DEPLATFORMING WORKS.

I think we’ve all received an abject lesson deplatforming over the past month. Impeachment articles were drawn up over Donald Trump’s ability to incite a riot using Twitter as his main bullhorn. Once he was kicked off the platform, his ability to control the narrative has been obliterated, leaving him to desperately suggest tweets for others to post in his stead. But there’s a greater lesson in QAnon itself. In the last months of 2020, major social media platforms began purging groups, chatrooms, and other spaces devoted to it. On top of that, its two stars Donald Trump and “Q” himself have gone silent. There are places like Gab and Telegram that freely traffic in Q-talk, but the runaway virality of 2020 has been larged blunted. For the most part, Q-people are talking to themselves, and there are fewer gateways through mommy blogs, crypto, MMA, and anti-vax spaces.

Deplatforming works. And to be honest, platforms should exercise it more. There is not a First Amendment issue of any substance to be had: these are private companies and there remains many places where this speech can be aired. There is no right to “go viral.” But beyond the politics, social platforms should be trying to cultivate communities that add value instead of just bringing volume. Having nihilistic, violent communities or millions of bots does not do that, not in the year 2021. The hope is that major platforms are realizing the kind of business these communities drive away far outweighs the business they bring in, and it’s those communities that create valuable content, buy things, and create good network effects. I’m actually optimistic about QAnon wreaking less havoc because I think the most important step has been taken. They have, in a major way, been contained.

If you don’t think deplatforming works, ask Milo Yiannopoulos how he’s doing these days. (📷: Toronto Star)

SUPPORT SUBSCRIPTION-BASED SOCIAL MEDIA & PUNISH AD-BASED SOCIAL MEDIA.

This point is connected to the one above it. From 2003 to now, social media has largely been judged by engagement metrics. How long is the user on, how much is he watching, what does he share? Active Users. This is because they are selling your attention to advertisers. Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram are so powerful because they bottle up the digital attention of so many millions of people, and they are by nature reluctant to give up that attention to another platform, no matter how obnoxious the users’ activity is. But I’d argue that the last half of this decade has proven the hollowness of the advertiser-based attention economy, from both a future growth and social good perspective.

Simple Question: Would you pay $4.99 a month for a Twitter account that was free from bots, connected only with verified users, and very strict with obvious bad-faith actors? Would a lot of women pay a small subscription to a general audience space that evicted users who repeatedly photobombed them with their genitalia? It’s not that there shouldn’t be a free Twitter or Facebook, but there can also be a space for people who still want to have community without their attention being commoditized, or who just don’t have time to deal with the worst human traits that social media regularly brings out. If you’d like start contributing to ecosystems that don’t reward these outcomes, consider spending more time and attention in subscription-based social media. I’d wager it’s a growth area.

STOP ENJOYING THIS.

I think back to myself on January 20…and I was crowing, constantly clicking back to Twitter to get a dispatch on the front lines of the QAnon retreat, from the despondent Gab posts to the hyperventilating YouTube videos. Like millions of Americans, I was deeply offended by what happened on January 6, was fully confident the security response would have been different if the mob was, say, Black Lives Matter, and was in general repulsed by the proud no-nothingness of QAnon. I remain completely alienated by the elective victimhood of this movement and the incoherence of postmodern conservatism in general.

But I have to admit that my attitude is not helping things. Watching people as if they’re in a digital zoo and dunking on them just confirms their worst suspicions, furthering the entrenchment. The fact is that you simply cannot have a huge swath of radicalized antagonists of basic truth and democracy and a functioning Western society at the same time. QAnon is heavily male, heavily white, and we are constantly asked — especially marginalized groups — to “feel their pain.” But this is pain, whether one is sympathetic to it or not. White, financially secure mothers do not play the lottery, and QAnon does not attract players who feel they are on the come up. It attracts players who are abandoning the larger game completely. As of this writing, 4 in 10 Republicans believe that violence may be justified in our political system. That information is not a game or a joke in any way, but the games that we do play are pretty indicative of where we’re at as a society. Well, this ain’t Dungeons & Dragons, and this isn’t a time for smirking.

¹ A compelling side mystery in this story is why ARGs didn’t take off. After a lot of excitement in the early 2000s, they kind of fizzled out. The answer is that ARGs are super expensive and labor-intensive to make, and the audience is so smart that game creators have to produce huge amounts of content to stay ahead (which also happens to intimidate and alienate casual players). ARGs still exist of course, but their mid-00s moment was fueled by major companies who saw them as viral marketing opportunities. There just became a lot of ways to create less calorie-intensive opportunities.

I wanted to thank everyone who’s read, commented, and connected with me from reading In Media Res. After next month, we will go on an indefinite hiatus as we focus on building the next major curricula with our learning partners. (though we will keep the old stories up and available). Thanks so much and see you one last time in March 2021!

Justin Wolske runs CASEWORX, co-founded GRID110.

In Media Res

Closing the “Last Mile of Learning” Through Story

In Media Res

CASEWORX uses story as a teaching and learning tool to build complex skills. Our blog In Media Res covers the intersection of learning, media, technology, and entrepreneurship. We serve the Workplace and Higher Ed markets.

Justin Wolske

Written by

Justin is a film producer, entrepreneur and educator. He runs Caseworx, co-founded GRID110 and teaches at Cal State LA. He lives in Long Beach, CA.

In Media Res

CASEWORX uses story as a teaching and learning tool to build complex skills. Our blog In Media Res covers the intersection of learning, media, technology, and entrepreneurship. We serve the Workplace and Higher Ed markets.