Having personally created a number of commercial alternate reality games myself for clients like Dimension Data and Woolworths - a headline in the New York Times this morning about the rise of a very powerful movement that uses elements of alternate reality gaming theory to promote itself - really grabbed my attention.
QAnon is a movement which is growing rapidly in the US.
What is QAnon?
QAnon is a movement, it's an ideology which combines many of the world's most infamous conspiracy theories into one, giant philosophy.
Here's a quick BBC documentary to get you up to speed:
What we find interesting is that many of the real world gamification elements that make alternate reality games so fun and compelling to many people, are also to be found in the rapid growth in numbers of QAnon.
The New York Times reporter who wrote this article interviewed legendary alternate reality game designer and founder of the company Six to Start, Adrian Hon to unpack how QAnon is going about this and why it's working so damn well.
'There are a certain type of people who are attracted to alternate reality games and they are quite devoted. They like puzzle solving in the same way people like murder mysteries or crossword puzzles. As game designers we encourage that mind-set. We provide extremely difficult tasks that only 1 in 1,000 people could solve. And we do that because that one person who can solve it will feel like a hero because this weird talent they have is put to use. Alternate reality game designers like to reward its community for niche skills.
This is at play in QAnon. Many people feel alienated and left behind by the world. There’s something about QAnon like ARGs that reward and involve people for being who they are. They create a community that lets people show off their “research” skills and those people become incredibly valuable to the community.'
Why is this phenomenon becoming so wildly popular?
'This isn’t new but if you look at the roots of why people are drawn to conspiratorial thinking, it’s because people have reason to believe there is a conspiracy behind how the world works. They feel lost. That lots of information is hidden from them or that important decisions have been made in ways they don’t understand. They’ll prefer to believe something from a forum that caters toward their biases and is easier to read and consume than news coverage or from reading a dull 1,000 page pdf from a government website explaining complex policy decisions.'
Do governments then have a serious communication problem?
Well, yes it would seem so.
And perhaps the world has a common sense problem, but when things go wrong - like with this pandemic - and people feel scared, and have a lack of trust in institutions and authorities, then you get this perfect storm, where a QAnon type narrative fills that void.
If there's no thing that authorities in most places around the world [other than New Zealand] have seriously sucked at, during this very trying and frightening time in human history, it's reassuring people's fears.
Fear is not a rational thing; it doesn't respond well to government gazette updates, or graphs, or academic language that makes you sound important.
Fear is reduced and eased far better by credible leaders that speak simply and clearly and make decisions that make sense.
In the absence of strong and caring leadership - you get the rapid rise of conspiracy theories and complex campaigns like QAnon.