QAnon is like that spread out, it’s hard to know where people are connecting. One week it’s the false rumor that 5G cellphone towers are spreading disease, another week it’s Wayfair.com selling children in unusually expensive furniture; Who knows what next week will bring? But the millions of QAnon followers often seem to start their journey with the same refrain: “I’ve done my research.”
I had heard that line before. In early 2001, marketing for Steven Spielberg’s new film, AI Artificial Intelligence, had only just begun. Soon after, Ain’t It Cool News (AICN) published a tip from a reader:
Type their name into the Google.com search engine and see what pages come up… pretty cool stuff! Keep it up Harry!! – Clavius Base5
(Yes, Google was so new you had to spell its web address.)
The Google results started with Jeanine Salla’s homepage, but led to a whole network of fictional pages. Some were futuristic versions of police websites and lifestyle magazines, like Sentient Property Crime Bureau and Metropolitan Living Homes, a beautiful copy of it metropolitan home Magazine that profiled AI-powered homes. Others were inscrutable online stores and hacked blogs. A few were in German and Japanese. In all, there were over 20 locations and phone numbers to investigate.
By the end of the day, the sites had 25 million hits, all from a single AICN article urging readers to “do their research.” It later emerged that they were part of the very first ARG to be nicknamed The beastdeveloped by Microsoft to promote Spielberg’s film.
as i described it The beast sounds like great fun. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by an entrance to the year 2142 filled with websites and phone numbers and riddles, with runaway robots that need your help and even live events around the world? It was a game played across such a broad board, across so many different mediums and platforms, that players felt like they were living in an alternate reality – hence the name. But consider how much work it took to understand it The beast‘s story and it’s starting to sound less like “television” fun and more like “meticulously researched” fun. In addition to tracking dozens of websites updated in real-time, players had to solve lute tablature puzzles, decode messages written in Base64, reconstruct 3D models of island chains spelling messages, and gather clues from newspaper and television advertisements across the United States .
This purposeful yet bewildering complexity is the complete opposite of what many associate with traditional popular entertainment, where every bump in your path to pleasure has been smoothed out for instant engagement and maximum profit. But there’s always been a different kind of entertainment that appeals to different people at different times, one that rewards active discovery, making connections between clues, the delicious sense of a hunch that pays off after hours or days of work.
Puzzle books, crime novels, adventure games, escape rooms, even scientific research—they all point to the same place.
What was new? The beast and the ARGs that followed were less the specific puzzles and stories they built than the sheer scale of the worlds they realized – so vast and fast-moving that no single person could hope to comprehend them. Instead, players were forced to work together, sharing discoveries and solutions, sharing ideas, and creating resources for others to follow. QAnon is not an ARG or role-playing game (RPG) or even a live-action role-playing game (larp). It’s a dangerous conspiracy theory, and there are many ways to understand conspiracy theories without games — but it pushes the same buttons as ARGs, whether intentional or accidental. In both cases, “research” leads curious viewers to a cornucopia of mind-boggling information.