This is not a game

Constructed Realities: QAnon and Transmedia Alternate Realities

On Jan 6, 2021, supporters of then-President Donald Trump swarmed the US Capitol building in Washington, DC. The crowd wore t-shirts, flags, and hats with the words “#WWG1WGA” and “I am Q’’, “The Storm has Arrived The Great Awakening #taketheoath” emblazoned on them. The mob, summoned by social media posts, fumed with righteous anger. Their anger stemmed from a variety of beliefs: that members of Congress were part of a secret cabal of pedophiles who harvested the blood of children; that John F. Kennedy Jr is still alive; and the 2020 election was illegitimate and had been stolen from Donald Trump, who they believed was a “lightworker” chosen by Jesus to expose the deep state-among other improbable things.

This unlikely and unruly mob of right-wing groups, white supremacists, anti-government militias, anti-vaccinators, and small business owners (Pape & Ruby, 2021) occupied and trashed Congressional offices. As the mob stormed the building, members of Congress hid, terrified, in secret safe rooms.

The crowd wandered through the halls of the center of our government, with confused and bewildered looks on their faces, like actors on stage, unable to summon their lines. “Okay, we are here, now what are we supposed to do? ”

This horrific event was not random or spontaneous. Indeed the rhetoric of President Trump empowered the angry, misinformed crowd, misinformed of a stolen election. The elements leading up to this event happened years leading up to it. News media and political pundits dissected the perpetrator’s actions by tracing the social media they consumed, and an alarming picture began to emerge. The earliest posts and communications that led up to that day had a familiar sensibility to people who have designed alternate reality games (ARGs). The use of symbols and “in-group” sayings, the costumes’ details, and the beliefs that seemed too outrageous and ridiculous to take seriously. What we were seeing was the largest and most successful alternate reality narrative in recent history.

The QAnon conspiracy fantasy has all of the mechanics of an ARG) that went very wrong and created a real-life danger. By learning to recognize the mechanics of an alternate reality transmedia narrative, we can hopefully mitigate violent mobs fueled by disinformation from committing acts like this in the future.

Blurring the lines with transmedia

Alternate Reality Games, known as ARGs, are clue-finding mystery games. ARGs usually begin with clues placed in easy-to-find places in public or on online forums and social media. The majority of the action takes place on the internet. They create a community of game players who work together online and in person to find and decode additional clues. Generally, this gameplay culminates in a series of in-person meetups and events that build up to a more significant event taking place in a predetermined location.

The alternate reality genre is a relatively new phenomenon that began in the mid-2000s, the early days of online social media. The games employ what’s known as transmedia storytelling. Transmedia storytelling is a term first coined by media scholar Henry Jenkins as:

“A new aesthetic that has emerged in response to media convergence…that places new demands on consumers and depends on the active participation of knowledge communities. Transmedia storytelling is the art of world-making. To fully experience any fictional world, consumers must assume the role of hunters and gatherers chasing down bits of the story actress media channels, comparing notes with each other via online discussion groups, and collaborating to endure everyone who invests time and effort will come away with a richer entertainment experience.” (Jenkins, 2006, 21)

In short, transmedia narratives are stories and experiences that blend online gaming with real-life and allow the consumer of the story to become a participant in the story.

We can categorize transmedia narratives into three distinct categories based upon their believability. First are immersive theatre experiences in which the audience is free to wander around the set and interact with the actors. In these experiences, the audience knows going it the story is fiction.

A second transmedia genre is reality TV shows. These shows now tend to have viewer communities that create content and interact with the reality show participants. Unlike immersive theatre, the lines between the “characters” of the show and the audience can blur. In social media channels, some audience members engage in parasocial (one-way relationships) with the characters and create online gossip and reaction content. Occasionally, these content creators can become part of the main storyline as they interact with the reality show characters through social media. Since the 2010s, viewers congregate on online message boards like Reddit and Facebook groups to discuss, and gossip about reality show personalities. And in the last few years, the ability to penetrate the fourth wall has reached a new level. Audience members obsessed with reality television shows can contact reality show participants via social media like Instagram, Twitter, and Tik Tok or through paid services like Only Fans and Cameo to interact with them directly. This intermingling of the fictional and what happens in real life can make a world where it is hard to distinguish reality from fiction and create real-world events from fictionalized information.

The Secret Lives of ARGS

ARGs combine all of the above transmedia narrative elements. They are immersive, involve generative content creation, and create parasocial connections. In addition to reality stars having the attention of entertainment media and platforms, the shows’ viewers can now get into the action and sometimes inform what happens in the main storyline in the last few years.

ARGs start with game designers, called “Puppet Masters.” The Puppet Master(s) is/are the core team that runs the game both in the online and offline channels. Games usually start with a basic storyline containing elements of real-world events, places, or people. A fictional organization or mysterious person will seek help from the general public to uncover a mystery. They will solicit assistance to decode a series of clues to discover “secret” knowledge.

There are many examples of social groups that blend fact and fiction and involve participatory narratives. The Dadaist art movement, fringe historical societies like eClampus Vitus, is self-described as “popular because it afforded the young men at the mines with a perfect excuse for horseplay. Furthermore, as in the East, it ridiculed the stuffy secret fraternal, benevolent, and political societies, such as the Masons, Odd Fellows,” (E.Clampus Vitus, n.d.) and 1980’s bohemian art group, the Cacophony Society, which describes it’s a group as: ”a randomly gathered network of individuals united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society through subversion, pranks, art, fringe explorations, and meaningless madness.” (The Cacophony Society, n.d.)

Groups that blend fact and fiction and participate in acting out narratives and uncovering clues are not new, but the internet-enabled participation by a wider audience is. Cyberculture started in the mid-1990s, fueled by the wide adoption of home computers with internet connectivity. ARGs began as a non-commercialized, fun, social activity. Cyberculture and internet forums are still primarily dominated by college-educated males 18–34. They are into technology, gaming, comics, and pranks, as evidenced by the user data gathered for these forums’ advertisers. (4Chan)

In the mid-2000s, advertising agencies jumped on “dark marketing,” defined as “a relatively new form of marketing that adopts the mantra, “less is more.” Dark marketing advertisements don’t use any information directly from the brand or the company, unlike traditional advertising methods. “ (Guler, 2019) Major brands that were new to social media began experimenting with new ways to reach younger audiences. Creative Directors and ad agencies created several ARGs to tie into video game releases; These included: Eagle Eye Freefall created for the release of Steven Spielberg’s movie Eagle Eye; I Love Bees made for the release of Halo 2; Year Zero, which tied in with the Nine Inch Nails released by the same name’ and The Lost Ring created by AKQA for McDonald’s and the International Olympics Committee as a tie in for the Beijing Olympics and to promote the availability of WiFi in McDonald’s restaurants.

Most ARGs do not have a relationship with a brand and were meant for intelligent, benign fun, and socializing. For example, The Jejune Institute by Nonchalance did not have sponsorship. Nonchalance is self-described as “as an “art collective,” “a situational design agency,” or an “immersive entertainment company.”, Really though, it is a castle built in the sky, one whose foundation never actually existed.” (About NonChalance, n.d.).

Two other ARGs, 11B-X-1371 and Cicada 3301, are notoriously esoteric and mathematically challenging, requiring a significant amount of knowledge of computers to participate. Both 11B-X-1371 and Cicada are rumored to be a recruiting tool of the Central Intelligence Agency (Hern, 2014), although there is no evidence of this being the case.

This transmedia genre is not limited to games. It also manifests as odd performances with fictitious characters that appear on multiple media channels, such as That Poppy, by Titanic Sinclair, that gain traction and following because of their mysterious purpose and origins.

When fact and fiction collide

ARGs tend to follow similar principles:

  • Begin with multiple entry points into the “game” found in prominent places
  • A “character” solicits help in a quest
  • There will be a series of secret codes that participants decipher
  • The story will combine some confirmed, factual information or historical evidence with actual real-life events or places.
  • The “play” requires audience participation, and the audience generates more content for the narrative.
  • They typically culminate in a large real-world event.

“The story of QAnon is a story with lots of chapters. People got involved in 2018 because it was a sort of game on the internet where they got to decode clues.”

- Brandy Zadrozny, Investigative Reporter Interviewed on CNBC Shepard Smith CNBC Nightly News Jan 21, 2021

If we follow this logic and accept that QAnon may have begun as an ARG, it will help us understand the subculture in which it started.

4Chan is an anonymous internet message board started in 2003. Described as “a hub of Internet subculture, with its community being influential in the formation of prominent Internet memes, such as lolcats, Rickrolling and rage comics, as well as hacktivist and political movements, such as Anonymous and the alt-right.” (Wikipedia, 2021) 4Chan has a self-described audience of 70% Male 18–34 from the United States and the U.K with interests in Japanese culture, anime, manga, video games, comics, technology, music, and movies (4Chan)

An audience is familiar with and predisposed to playing games and gamer culture.

QAnon first appeared on 4-Chan in 2017, with a cryptic, anonymously posted message:

First known Q-Anon post

4Chan Archive, first known Q-Anon post-


HRC detained, not arrested (yet).

Where is Huma? Follow Huma.

This has nothing to do w/ Russia (yet).

Why does Potus surround himself w/ generals?

What is military intelligence?

Why go around the 3 letter agencies?

What Supreme Court case allows for the use of MI v Congressional assembled and approved agencies?”

4Chan Archive, the first known Q-Anon post

The format and structure are similar to a transcript of the first I Love Bees ARG message posted as a .wav file in 2004 and on an online message board.

Survive, evade, resist escape.

Wipe the system

Like water hitting the ground

Sinking bin

Wake you up, wake up, stay awake

Survive, evade, resist escape

Input buffer

I like to find things; I want to find things out.

Mother, Bermuda, 41 waitresses. “

I Love Bees archived recording from Halo

Both of these messages have an odd, almost poetic structure, employing repetition and referencing government terms and information that one can quickly look up and verify on the internet to reinforce their plausibility.

Shortly after this first missive, other messages followed regularly, and the posts gained a small following on 4Chan. But it was not until former President Donald Trump made a speech in October 2017 that QAnon was so named and began to build massive popularity with its fictitious conspiracies based on anti-Semitic tropes.

In a 2017 speech, former President Trump said, “You guys know what this represents? Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.” (New York Times, 2017)

Shortly after, someone began posting a series of cryptic messages in a 4Chan thread titled “Calm Before the Storm.” The poster claimed to be a high-level government insider with Q clearance. “tasked with posting intel drops — which he, for some reason, called “crumbs” — straight to 4chan to covertly inform the public about POTUS’s master plan to stage a countercoup against members of the deep state. It was, in short, absolutely insane. However, thanks to some rather forced coincidences — like Q kind of, sort of guessing that Trump would tweet the word “small” on Small Business Saturday, and this one time the internet decided that Q was “totally on Air Force One” because he posted a blurry picture of some islands while Trump was on his trip to Asia — and a whole heck of a lot of wishful thinking, people believed he was the real deal.” (Martineau, 2017)

From then on, the online phenomenon started to expand into other online message boards. Later called “Q-Drops,” these online messages began to reference even more outrageous predictions about what actions the then-President would take and escalating accusations about celebrities and politicians. Eventually, message posters began to believe that an event called “The Storm” would occur. They claimed members of the Democratic party would get arrested as part of a “Great Awakening” movement.

Subsequently, a Reddit SubReddit channel called “The Great Awakening” appeared. This conspiracy fantasy emerged in mainstream social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook, seen by people with no exposure or understanding of the online gamer message board culture.

“Even some of Q’s most avid students say they do not know if Q is, as the anonymous author of a book compiling Q’s missives put it, “either the most long-lasting Live Action Role Playing, a.k.a. prank, on 4chan, or indeed the biggest intelligence drop from the U.S. government to the public ever.” One regular QAnon follower wrote on Reddit that “Reading and diving into Q had me occupied for many hours. Definitely better than watching mindless TV programs. Even if it was all a lie, the entertainment value is real :)” (Fisher & Stanley-Becker, 2018)

As QAnon’s content grew, the channels in which it flourished changed as well. 2018 saw Qanon message content move from 4Chan and its successor, 8Chan and Reddit, all of which had similar user demographics, to broader social media channels. For example, QAnon community-produced video content started appearing on YouTube, which is the second most visited website globally and appeals to a dramatically different audience. According to HootSuite, the social media marketing platform, “YouTube is most popular with users 35 and under, but only slightly. 73% of Americans aged 36 to 45 use YouTube, along with 70% of those aged 46 to 55 and 67% of those 56 and older. Usage of these channels is a very different pattern from other social platforms, where use drops off sharply in the older age groups.” (HootSuite, 2021)

This is not a game: new media aesthetic.

“It was enabled by the infrastructure that was built in the Silicon Valley.”

- Donie O’Sullivan CNN Business Reporter interviewed by Don Lemon CNN, Feb 4, 2021

This is not a game is a refrain used by puppet masters in an ARG. This denial that the game is not a game keeps the players engaged in the mystery. And this statement is more poignant when we consider the implications of what happens when cultures collide, misunderstandings occur, and what evolves becomes something else entirely.

QAnon may have started as a narrative gone out of hand. However, it has now evolved into an entity with a life of its own. It is an example of what can happen when social media meets conspiracy. If one applies the same framework to an ARG’s mechanics, an alarming possibility emerges. An ARG usually ends with a significant event, and then it spawns other games.

While there may be a temptation to excuse this event as driven by manipulation for a specific political end, the danger is that the manipulation works. And because of the ease with which misinformation and fiction disguised as truth flood the internet, the public must become more active and aware, discerning what is real and what is not. As Thomas DiZengotta wrote in his 2005 book, Mediated, “Media, cultures, and individuals are no longer bound by predetermined limitations. With modern design culture, the means of production have fallen into the hands of the workers, who now possess the power to mold media, society, and self.”

The emerging aesthetic is moving into the meta-modern with transmedia at the center. In 2021 we have a society with four generations of people active on the internet that have a completely different understanding of the medium. The Baby Boomer generation is the last of these to have experienced news coming solely from news organizations. GenX pioneered cyberculture and cynical pranking. Millennials grew up with social media, and Gen Z is the first generation of individuals raised in post-social media with a high degree of ability to generate content.

We live in a world where we are no longer content to consume news but need to be the news. Phenomena like Q-Anon may not be something we can eventually leave in the past but is likely a harbinger of things to come. This is not a game.


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Aynne Valencia

Aynne Valencia

Designer, Professor, Force for Good