A game designer explains the success of QAnon, in terms of game design

Reed Berkowitz is the director of the Curioser Institute, which explores the structure and psychology of storytelling through interactive experiences — largely using games, particularly with augmented reality. As a professional game designer, he's been fascinated by QAnon, and the ways it seems to have exploited and subverted the tools of interactive gaming with almost frightening efficiency and deliberate intention. As he explains in new post on Medium:

When I saw QAnon, I knew exactly what it was and what it was doing. I had seen it before. I had almost built it before. It was gaming's evil twin. A game that plays people. (cue ominous music)

QAnon has often been compared to ARGs and LARPs and rightly so. It uses many of the same gaming mechanisms and rewards. It has a game-like feel to it that is evident to anyone who has ever played an ARG, online role-play (RP) or LARP before. The similarities are so striking that it has often been referred to as a LARP or ARG. However this beast is very very different from a game.

It is the differences that shed the light on how QAnon works and many of them are hard to see if you're not involved in game development. QAnon is like the reflection of a game in a mirror, it looks just like one, but it is inverted.

In the piece, Berkowitz talks a lot about apophenia — the psychological tendency to eagerly seek out patterns where none actually exist. This can be a wild card in game design, he explains, because sometimes players will project and ascribe value onto the wrong things, wasting their time on non-existent patterns, and ultimately blaming the designers on their disappointing gaming experience.

QAnon is a mirror reflection of this dynamic. Here apophenia is the point of everything. There are no scripted plots. There are no puzzles to solve created by game designers. There are no solutions.

QAnon grows on the wild misinterpretation of random data, presented in a suggestive fashion in a milieu designed to help the users come to the intended misunderstanding. Maybe "guided apophenia" is a better phrase. Guided because the puppet masters are directly involved in hinting about the desired conclusions. They have pre-seeded the conclusions. They are constantly getting the player lost by pointing out unrelated random events and creating a meaning for them that fits the propaganda message Q is delivering.

Berkowitz also goes into detail about Q as the obligatory plot device character. The entire point of Q is to deliver exposition that makes the player act — not to divulge information, but to create the fictional world of the game. He also explores the psychological impacts of the "Do your own research!" self-fulfulling prophecies — how a few breadcrumbs can lead someone to the right YouTube video, which cryptically alludes to enough things to spark a dopamine fix that mimics a genuine "Eureka!" moment, which is often all it takes to get the player hooked into the game.

It's a fascinating examination of gaming psychology. But also a horrifying look at the efficiency of conspiracy theories like QAnon.

A Game Designer's Analysis Of QAnon [Curioser Institute / QAnon]

Image: Tony Webster/Flickr (CC 2.0)