When the QAnon movement began garnering more widespread attention a couple of years ago, a number of game designers pointed out the similarities between the ‘Q drops’ – and the associated community puzzle solving in regards to those – and the techniques used in alternate reality games (ARGs) (see here and here, for example). Not necessarily that it was an ARG, but that it (knowingly, or unknowingly) used the methods found in ARGs to hook in new players, and to blur the boundaries between reality and fiction.
So I was fascinated to listen to a recent interview with Joseph Matheny, creator of the now-legendary Ong’s Hat – described by many as the world’s first ARG – in which he discussed QAnon from his own viewpoint (see video embedded below). Matheny notes that he feels obligated to talk publicly about QAnon and Ong’s Hat, because “they’re using my methods and I don’t like that”, and also because people have been comparing the two, which upset him. “I mean…it follows the formula,” Matheny says, “but content-wise, and intention-wise, it’s definitely nothing like it.”
“This is something that follows the strategy of an ARG, but it’s weaponized,” he warns. Which is similar to what I was saying a few years ago (though in terms of conspiracy theories, rather than ARGs).
The entire interview is fascinating, providing insights from the history of Ong’s Hat (if unfamiliar with it, see this article) through to where we are now with technology enabling the spread of things like QAnon. I’ve posted a couple of fascinating grabs below, but be sure to watch the entire thing (embedded at the bottom of this post).
On how the development of QAnon mirrors the thinking of how an ARG developer might set things up – and how a background in Discordianism and the writings of Robert Anton Wilson might prepare you to not be fooled by your own confirmation bias:
It’s basically asking you to suspend common sense, to throw critical thinking out the window and believe these ideas which are unsubstantiated… so I could say somebody’s name and I could say that they’re a Satan-worshiping pedophile who’s killing children to extract adrenochrome…if i’m smart I probably wouldn’t do it with my real name attached to it because I could get sued, so I would be anonymous.
On top of it what I would do is I would get a bunch of people interested in searching for clues in material that really doesn’t have any clues, but it’s nebulous material – kind of liminal – so it could mean anything it wants to mean to anybody who wants it to mean something to them. So they’re looking for patterns; they’re going to find them, right? We know this as Discordians, it’s called ‘Starbucks pebbles’: if you’re looking for fives you’re going to find fives, if you’re looking for 23s you’re going to find 23s. But unfortunately most people have not read Cosmic Trigger, most people have not read Principia Discordia, most people have not read Illuminatus! trilogy.
On how QAnon has the attributes of a cult – and once again how familiarity with RAW can help protect you against falling for their tricks:
…These days I’m not really sure that the Q people who were puppet-mastering it even knew what they were working towards other than selling merch, but in the beginning at least it was to build a belief system around the cult of Donald Trump, which is a cult of personality. And they were there to build his reputation as some sort of do-gooder, like you know Donald Trump’s going to ride in on a white horse, he’s going to take all these people and what they call the ‘Great Awakening’ and then ‘The Storm’ is coming, and they’re going to round all these people up like Hillary Clinton and her friends, are going to put them in prison and there are going to be public executions and blah blah blah blah…basically just like any cult they were promising something that that was never going to happen, there was no way to substantiate that. If you were using your common sense you could say probably not, but most of these people weren’t using common sense, they were looking for something to believe in.
So just like a cult, you find damaged people that are looking for parental figures, they’re looking for love, they’re looking for a community, they’re looking for all these different things that they feel like they don’t have, and instead of looking in the right places – right around them – they look in the wrong places…so they end up hooking up with some person who’s charismatic or enigmatic. In the case of Q, enigmatic…because if you’ve read these drops, they’re pretty uncharismatic but they’re very enigmatic. But they do hit the high points of repeating the slogans – again, another quality of a cult, to have simple, digestible slogans. Doesn’t matter if they really make that much sense, but there’s something that’s repeatable and they seem to make sense because they simplify complex issues to a sentence, so they’re bumper-stickerisms right? And so they can repeat them to each other they can repeat them in large groups and in rhythmic shouting and chanting – all the things that make a cult, which is basically a giant brainwash that’s happening to a bunch of people. Mostly doing it to themselves, because a cult can never be successful unless the cult members are participating willingly in this brainwashing.
So it’s partly the bad intention of a bad actor, i.e the cult leader, but mostly I would put the blame for what happens with a cult on the shoulders of the cult members, because they’re participating – they’re not questioning, they’re not practicing ‘Maybe Logic’. I don’t think we can expect them to, to be honest with you, because I don’t think the ideas of somebody like Robert Anton Wilson…most people have not been exposed to that.