President Trump and his allies, including former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, are waging a covert campaign to root out an elite child-sex-trafficking ring. Mass arrests are imminent. John F. Kennedy Jr. is about to reveal that he has been alive all along so he can take Vice President Pence’s place on the 2020 Republican presidential ticket. And a mysterious government official using the handle “Q Clearance Patriot” is recruiting soldiers to the cause.
To most of us, these statements are almost too bizarre to be fathomed. But, for believers in the conspiracy theory known as QAnon, which the FBI recently identified as a domestic terrorist threat, they are important truths. I understand the temptation to dismiss anyone who believes in this wild concoction as merely easily misled. Such disdain makes it easier to believe that QAnon and beliefs like it remain at the fringes of American life. But to focus merely on QAnon’s content and not the form it takes is to miss why the conspiracy theory has spread so widely — and why similar ideas may prove incredibly difficult to combat.
The best way to think of QAnon may be not as a conspiracy theory, but as an unusually absorbing alternate-reality game with extremely low barriers to entry. The “Q” poster’s cryptic missives give believers a task to complete on a semiregular basis. Even more so than conventional video games such as “Fortnite Battle Royale,” which rolls out new seasons with new scenarios roughly every 10 weeks, QAnon is open-ended — or it will be as long as the revelations continue.
You don’t need a game console or a special keyboard to engage with QAnon, and you don’t need fast reflexes or a knowledge of keyboard shortcuts to be an active and successful participant. The initial posts from “Q Clearance Patriot” appeared on 4chan, and QAnon discussions migrated from there to Reddit and then on to 8chan. YouTube video creators have found that QAnon content is a lucrative niche; there are active QAnon Facebook groups. And apps such as QDrops, banned from the Apple store but still available for Android, can deliver news of fresh Q pronouncements straight to a user’s phone.
Once a person has started consuming QAnon content, the actual gameplay is relatively simple. Participants concoct their own interpretations of Q’s gnostic “bread crumbs,” or share those dreamed up by others.
If this were a conventional game, the play might end there. But QAnon players have shown an increasing tendency to enlist the rest of us as unwilling participants in their fantasies, sometimes with violent consequences.
QAnon jumped into the public eye when believers began appearing at Trump rallies with Q-related shirts and signs in an attempt to thrust their message into public discussion. They have been successful: The president has amplified Twitter accounts that promote the theory, invited prominent believers to the White House and the Trump reelection campaign recently released an ad in which QAnon signs are visible. In 2018, a man used an armored truck to block traffic at the Hoover Dam while holding a sign demanding action on a QAnon priority. And earlier this year, a man allegedly killed reputed mafia boss Frank Cali while attempting to perform what he apparently described as a QAnon-inspired citizens arrest.
If QAnon functions like a puzzle game, other extremists are borrowing from the aesthetics of video games to stylize their massacres — and to challenge potential imitators to new heights of violence.
The gunman who killed 51 people and wounded another 49 in shootings in March at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, live-streamed the attack from his own perspective and scored it to a soundtrack, noted Robert Evans at the news site Bellingcat. A man who allegedly attacked a San Diego synagogue during Passover used similar production techniques. And on the message boards where racists lionize the killers, they often speak of these events in the competitive language of body counts.
While most QAnon believers will never engage in violence, part of the appeal of QAnon for participants is that the conspiracy theory assigns enormous significance to even relatively minor acts such as posting on message boards or sharing Facebook posts.
“It is addictive in the same way that a game is,” says Travis View, a researcher who studies QAnon. By contrast, “conventional political participation” is oriented toward far more mundane processes, and “That all has the impact of what, hopefully getting a state assembly member elected that you feel at best ambivalent about?” View suggests that “Q offers something a hell of a lot more. You can sit at your computer and search for information and then post about what you find, and Q basically promises that through this process, you are going to radically change the country, institute this incredible, almost bloodless revolution, and then be part of this historical movement that will be written about for generations.”
This promise of world-historical significance also justifies the time that QAnon believers spend deciphering posts and promoting Q. Even as the game-like qualities of QAnon draw in believers, they vigorously deny that they are participants in live-action role play: After all, if they were, why would the media and the government pay so much attention to them?
It’s one thing to try to debunk QAnon and white-supremacist ideas, whether by trying to prove that John F. Kennedy Jr. is definitively dead or to combat demographic narratives of “replacement.” It’s quite another to figure out how to offer adherents of QAnon and other distorted worldviews experiences that will be as thrilling and fulfilling as conspiracy games have become. As View put it, we’re living not in a marketplace of ideas but in a “marketplace of realities.” And the tools of gaming have given disaffected people the ability to bend our reality to theirs, whether we like it or not.