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QAnon: Bizarre Conspiracy Theory? Alternate Reality Game? Huge Social Experiment? Or Worse?

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

Most of us by now have heard of the right-wing phenomenon known as QAnon. We spotted Q T-shirts at Trump rallies and read articles about them in the popular press. All of a sudden, QAnon became a thing. Now, there’s been a surge of interest again with HBO’s recent 6-part series Q: INTO THE STORM that purports to reveal the identity of the person who is Q.

Photo Credit: Marc Nozell

For any who might need catching up: Q is supposedly a secret high-ranking official with “Q” clearance who drops puzzling bread crumbs on the fringe message board 8chan (now 8kun). According to this insane theory, the government has been infiltrated by an international cabal of Satanists, pedophiles, cannibals, and child sex traffickers.

According to Q, on the day of the Storm, Trump would declare martial law, and the military would round up all the members of the celebrity sex-trafficking cult and pack them off to Gitmo. It was first scheduled for November 3, 2017, but postponed again and again. Many had focused on January 6, 2021, as the big day. Finally, Trump’s fake inauguration on March 6 passed without incident. By then, even Q had long stopped leaving bread crumbs, so a lot of believers had begun to wonder whether the Storm would ever come.

Safe Space for Losers

All this is so preposterous that you really must wonder how so many people could have gotten into it. I think it starts with a willingness to depart from mainstream reality for the sake of emotional comfort. They’re running away from a changing world.

Let’s face it, there are some loopy religions out there that have lots of devoted believers. So when politics has no direct bearing on your everyday life and voting is just a civic ritual, why not go for something that makes you feel better about yourself? QAnoners feel they’re in on something and sticking up for their beliefs: Where We Go 1, We Go All is their motto. They have cool chants and T-shirts and hey, you might get on TV.

For the Trumpies, QAnon is their thing, a way to set themselves apart from the mainstream. It’s also a way to attract the liberal derision they thrive on.

And there has been plenty of that. I’ve read article after article attempting to explain the QAnon phenomenon and to psychoanalyze the believers, coupled with dismay that so many have been taken in. These speak of alienation, now leading to disillusionment.

Quoted in Wikipedia:

People in the QAnon community often talk about alienation from family and friends. ... [t]hough they typically talk about how Q frayed their relationships on private Facebook groups. But they think these issues are temporary and primarily the fault of others. They often comfort themselves by imagining that there will be a moment of vindication sometime in the near future, which will prove their beliefs right. They imagine that after this happens, not only will their relationships be restored, but people will turn to them as leaders who understand what's going on better than the rest of us. (Weill, Kelly (December 23, 2018). “Christmas Is the Loneliest Time for QAnon Fans.” The Daily Beast

But I wonder if there might be more to it, and so we now take a turn into the bewitching world of conspiracy and speculation. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Photo Credit: Marc Nozell

QAnon is a Global Internet Game

Being a gamer, one day I came across an article by Reed Berkowitz of Curiouser Institute, A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon, that convinced me QAnon is really a game.

In particular, QAnon is an alternate reality game (ARG), or at least it started out as one.

An ARG presents a puzzle to be solved by a massive cloud-sourcing scavenger hunt. A community of solvers searches for clues distributed across multiple sites created especially for the game. These have often been done for movies, the most famous being The Beast, which was created to promote the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The TV show Lost operated in the same fashion. ARGs can be lots of fun.

Q presented its followers with a massive community project aimed at solving the meaning of Q’s cryptic messages. Every drop of a bread crumb would spawn a hurricane of Google searches and speculations. Followers were urged to “do your own research,” which for most amounted to visiting QAnon sites where others presented their (non-scientific) findings.

QAnon operates like a massive multiplayer game. As Q bread crumbs are parsed, analyzed and deciphered, the findings are culled by a set of influencers known as bakers, who compile the speculation and then scrutinize it for synchronicities. The bakers’ interpretations seek to draw commonalities out of the chaos, proving a focal point for members that do their own “research” and creating an orthodoxy for the cult faithful. By delivering aha! moments and a sense of being in the know, they give members a sense of con