Ep. 1: Conspiracy Plays with guest Hugh Davies

Show notes and references made in the episode:

Davies, Hugh “The Gamification of Conspiracy Theory, QAnon as Alternate Reality Game”, 2022, Acta Ludologica

The Darkest Puzzle, ARG, 2011, Hugh Davies

Jane McGonigal, “Ubiquitous games”, game designer and researcher

Ian Bogost, game designer and researcher

The Beast, ARG, 2001, Microsoft

Cicada 3301, ARG, 2012-14, hosted on 4Chan

Blast Theory, collective of artists, 1991-present

Forced Entertainment, theater experience, 1984, Tim Etchells

Full Transcript [time stamps rounded to the sentence for ease of reading]

Max Haiven: Hello and welcome to “The Exploits of Play,” a podcast about the strange and unexpected roles of games and play in our age of capitalism that just keeps getting weirder. My name is Max Haiven. I’m Canada Research Chair in the Radical Imagination. 

Halle Frost: I’m Halle Frost with the platform Weird Economies and we’re presenting this podcast.

Today our interview is with Hugh Davies. Hugh Davies is an artist, curator, and researcher working across digital media, academic scholarship, and creative practice. He explores the social, cultural, and political dimensions of art and technology. He’s written two books on game culture and ethnographies of play, and is currently a research fellow with a focus on Chinese platform studies at RMIT in Melbourne.

[00:01:00] We interviewed Hugh about his article, The Gamification of Conspiracy Theory, QAnon as Alternate Reality Game. Max, can you tell us a little bit more about how you Hugh’s work, and why we’re having him on the cast today?

Max Haiven: Yeah, Hugh’s work was introduced to me by our mutual colleague Aleena Chia, who teaches at Goldsmiths University.

When Aleena learned that I and some of my collaborators had been becoming increasingly curious about and also making a game about QAnon, the conspiracy fantasy that began in the United States and has spread worldwide. Hugh had also been doing a lot of research, and as he reveals in the interview, became quite fascinated with QAnon and the strange culture that emerged from it as a alternate reality game, and I’ll describe what an alternate reality game is in a second, but for those listeners who haven’t somehow are not aware of QAnon.

It is a meta conspiracy fantasy believed by millions of people around the world. By some estimates, if it were classified as a religion, it would be the fourth or fifth most popular religion in the United States. And it basically holds that there is a conspiracy of blue chip CEOs and A-list celebrities and very well known politicians who are running a secret conspiracy to abduct, torture, and steal the bodily fluids of children.

[00:02:00] And the QAnon conspiracy fantasy, and I’m using that term from the work of a very fascinating thinker named Wu Ming Wan, who wrote an excellent book in Italian called The Q in Qonspiracy.

He makes the distinction between a conspiracy fantasy and a conspiracy theory. He says that QAnon is a conspiracy fantasy because it brings together dozens and dozens of conspiracy theories from throughout western history and combines them into a super fantasy or meta fantasy that increasingly involves anyone and everyone that people can think of.

Now when this conspiracy fantasy first began to circulate on the internet in more mainstream circles, a number of game designers started to speak out that the way in which this conspiracy fantasy functioned looked a lot like an alternate reality game.

[00:03:00] The QAnon conspiracy fantasy circulates around this mysterious person codenamed Q who travels the nether regions of the internet sharing strange cryptic messages about this horrible conspiracy.

And apparently Q is a secret agent, or was a secret agent within the Trump government doing holy battle with the evil conspiracists. And what this looked like increasingly to alternate game designers was something that they would create. And Hugh has designed alternate games for a couple of decades now, and was really thinking about this in this interview and in his work.

So briefly, an alternate reality game is a game that people play not just sitting around a table with a board and cards, not just a role playing game where you choose a character and you pretend to be them, but actually something, it’s a game that you play with real world elements. So some examples of this might be people who go around the neighborhood and look for various items or find and leave each other clues in neighborhoods.

The game that Hugh is going to talk about is one that he developed to try and think through conspiracy theories in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

[00:04:00] There are games that you basically play inside of reality and that change you and fellow players perceptions and engagements with reality. So Hugh in this interview is going to speak a little bit about his own history as an alternate reality game designer and how the QAnon conspiracy fantasy and conspiracies more generally and the cultures of paranoia that they introduce are reminiscent of these games and what these games have to teach us about this strange moment we find ourselves in when such conspiracy theories seem to run rampant.


Max Haiven:
So Hugh, I want to begin by asking you what we ask all of our guests on this podcast, which is to start by giving us an anecdote or telling us a story about an experience of games or play from your childhood or adolescence that you felt like really shaped you. And then walk us forward from that moment of childhood play to the present and what you’re researching and thinking about and making today.

Hugh Davies: I think growing up, hide and seek games were always pretty fun for me, like the physicality of them. I had a friend when I was a kid who had a Commodore 64, and I remember we played The Hobbit, which was a Commodore 64 game, which I actually later learned was, was designed and made in Melbourne but it was a text based game with images.

And I think that, for me, was a bit of a precursor to the games that started to emerge in the 1990s with things like Myst and Riven and those things were a bit texty, a bit point and clicky, but definitely spatial. I guess with all of these games, they were quite spatial. There was a spatiality to them that I really enjoyed, and even in the 90s playing things like Doom, just from the idea of like, moving through space, which to me was always a lot more interesting than the sort of shooting part of them.

[00:06:00] And when I went to university, I didn’t go into university until my late 20s, and I studied sculpture. And was always very interested in space and architecture and spatial practice. And I’d worked in film and television before going to university. And I was always very interested in screen space because a lot of what I had done as a sculptor before going to university was actually sort of doing scenography, like making props and sets. And this idea of making physical objects that would only be seen in a screen space. This idea of the spatiality of the screen I think was always very interesting to me.

And when I finished studying sculpture, I exhibited for a while and then I ended up studying media design or digital media design. I think it was called multi-media design or new media design at that time. This is around 2000 and this is when all of that digital stuff had stabilized in film and television.

[00:07:00] And there were all these editing suites and different brands and one thing and another, but by about 2000, like Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Flash, these were like the agreed upon programs. Premiere was around, Final Cut Pro was around, and there was sort of a bit of a competition between them.

But moving into digital at that time was a fairly Safe time to get into it, I suppose. Everything was WYSIWYG interfaces. It was all pretty easy and straightforward. And so that led me pretty seamlessly into games and into making games. But for me, games were never entirely digital.

They always had this physical element to them as well. And so when getting into games, the first thing that really inspired me was pervasive games and things like the work of Blast Theory at that time.

[00:08:00] And some of the theater groups, things like forced entertainment, this idea of gaming and playable space as performative and physical and pervasive and games as expansive and not. Just restricted to the screen, but the fact that play itself is pervasive and so are games and games are of course a potent metaphor for anything in the world and, and so these ideas are sort of blurring. And I guess that was around sort of the first decade of the 2000s was really just sort of exploring a lot of those ideas in how games complicated physical and digital space.

I’d been knocking around in pervasive and alternate reality games from around 2004, 2005 onwards, and it was an extension of like kids games in a lot of way. Physical treasure hunts, and I had the opportunity, I think it was like 2006, I flew over to come out and play a festival in New York where I was presenting some of playable practice.

[00:09:00] Ian Bogost and Jane McGonigal had a game that was being played as part of Come Out and Play, and I was presenting something in the Conflux Festival there, Festival of Psychogeography, that was happening at the same time. And that was a really fascinating global movement, where a whole lot of people got together and mobile phones had been out for about 10 years, but smartphones hadn’t been released and wouldn’t be for another sort of year or two, but they were on the tips of everyone’s tongue. The idea that phones were going to be really important in terms of playable space.

So, and alternate reality games were like featured as part of that. That event and I had made a couple and I just sort of really felt like these are these are a very important body of practice.

[00:10:00] So when I got back to Australia, I continued making them just sort of at a very local and domestic scale and then in 2008, sorry in 2009. I studied a PhD studying alternate reality games. So games, which I should sort of give a bit of a definition to alternate reality games, games that are a little bit without limits, which is to say they typically begin in internet spaces, which is to say that the internet will set out how to get into a game, like invite you into a rabbit hole or something like that, give you a clue, you identify what sort of ostensibly hidden clue, and that might lead you to clues in the real world and I guess that a couple of the key defining features of alternate reality games is that expansiveness.

[00:11:00] Probably the biggest thing is that they deliberately try and blur the line between what is game and what is real life, more than most experiences. That should raise a whole lot of red flags, but I think that edginess was what really was a lot of their appeal at the end, in that period, this idea that you could create these experiences that were a little bit boundary-less.

I suppose as well, what they inadvertently did was pointed to the gameness and the playfulness of all of everyday life by sort of introducing this gameness to things. So I began studying them as part of my PhD, and I was really interested in the work of a lot of U.S and Canadian designers predominantly, and people like Jane McGonigal, who had done her own PhD on alternate reality games, or “ubiquitous games” as she called them.

And I was really interested in what often gets called the first alternate reality game, which was The Beast.

[00:12:00] Which had taken place in the year 2000 as part of the movie AI, artificial intelligence. What appealed to me most of all out of that was the the online community that formed around that, which was a whole lot of groups of collective detectives and problem solvers.

People who only knew each other through online spaces, who assembled online to solve the, the puzzle of that game. I don’t really know that we know accurate numbers around how many there were, but we, I think we can say thousands, in that there were distinct groups. And when the game wound up in, I think it was July 2001, There was this sense of inertia in a lot of these groups because they’re devoted all of this time and skill and collective energy into solving this huge alternate reality game puzzle.

[00:13:00] And on the other side of the curtain, so to speak, the people who were making the game, people at Microsoft, they had also been furiously making the game ad hoc because they built this whole game and it was solved, I think, within the first three days or something of them publishing it. And they’re like, Oh no, this wasn’t supposed to happen.

So they had to completely build this game a few steps ahead of the people playing it. It was information which was found on the internet, on, in online spaces, but also found in physical spaces, and it was clues and sort of answering mysterious phone calls and faxes and getting information and it required sort of deep knowledge in a whole lot of different directions.

The idea being that no one person would have been able to solve the whole thing. The teams needed to assemble we were all as, as players and designers and typically the two went in hand in hand, people who were players would go on and make their own games and people who designed them would play others.

[00:14:00] But this community, and there was a community of cloud makers, one of the communities who had been involved in this game called themselves the cloud makers. And two months after the game had wound up and 9/11 happened, there was a small amount of discussion on the forum about should we apply our skills as collective detectives to this horrific act.

And I should caveat this by saying, because I’ve spoken about this before and other people have as well, and people who are in that community haven’t enjoyed. That that has become their legacy. With all of the work that they did, there are a couple of errant posts in their forum discussing should we apply our skills to this terrible event.

And I mean, the self appointed moderators in the forum shut down that thinking fairly quickly. But for a lot of people, and myself included, it really preempts a lot of the things that we have now.

[00:15:00] People will quickly say QAnon, but I would also say Bellingcat. I would also say things like Wikileaks. A whole lot of these movements of applying collective discovery skills to real world crises. That particular moment was really sort of at the thrust of a lot of my PhD, was exploring how people had come to that idea. And I suppose more than anything, the sort of perceived agency in a gamification context.

And so in my PhD, I did a lot of study and writing around that, and I made my own game, which launched 10 years after 9/11 to the day, and that game had presented an alternate history. Of the past 10 years, following on what would have happened if a group like that had sought to solve the mystery of the 9/11 attacks. And in creating that game, I didn’t really need to make any content. All I really did was make a frontend website, which every week represented a year. And I just had some sort of discussion narrative between some players, which the players of my game could uncover. But more than anything, it just pointed to existing conspiracy theories, of which there was just such an explosion, as you’ll remember, of conspiracy theories.

Max Haiven:
So in your academic work and also in your work as a game designer, you’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between alternate reality games and conspiracy theories.

I wonder if you can unpack that a little bit for us as we move towards. the subject that we really want to get to in this podcast, which is QAnon and the politics of conspiracy and play in this moment.

Hugh Davies: I was a bit concerned in creating this game, because I didn’t want to create more conspiracy theories. But I guess the key point is that, and we’re sort of drifting into conspiracy theory here, but one thing I’ve noticed about conspiracy theories is that they have a bit of a lifespan, which is to say a conspiracy really has traction for like maybe two years.

[00:17:00] And then it just sort of starts to dissolve in the face of competing conspiracy theories, or the people who get caught up in it drift off into something else, or one thing or another. And I’d seen that previously with conspiracy theories, and I wasn’t quite sure if that would be the same online, because as I’ve talked about in a lot of places- the internet is perfect for conspiracies. It is a conspiracy theory. Through the internet, everything is connected. But after 10 years, or after sort of 8 years of watching the conspiracy theories about 9/11, everything had sort of shifted. The whole mood of not just sort of the U.S, but the world had really changed and done quite an about turn in terms of conspiratorial thinking about 9/11 and war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan.

[00:18:00] So, I think it’s fair to say that they had lost their flavor. is probably a fairly accurate way of putting it, where people were aware that there were all of these conspiracy theories, but they’d very much just sort of become part of the landscape. So what my own game did was just point it to all of these conspiracy theories.

So players of my game would be revisiting all of these conspiracy theories that already existed. But of course to a lot of people it was all familiar territory because I wasn’t actually creating any more conspiracy theories. I was just pointing to all of the ones that existed. So, the reasoning for me, the reason I wanted to create the game, was to really sort of critique the idea of gamification, which was really gathering traction at that time.

[00:19:00] This idea of gamifying work, or things in the real world, as an effective labor or management technique which to me at that time, and still today, just seemed horrifying. And so I wanted to point to the problems with that. And I thought those problems had been really beautifully illustrated a decade earlier in the idea of what if we gamify discovering who the attackers of 9/11 are.

I think the moderators did a really good thing in closing it down, because I think it was a nightmare problem to begin with. I think the people that would have played that game probably would have ended up in like Guantanamo or something like that. I just think that it was quite a dangerous exercise to be undertaking. And so for my own game, I really wanted to target people in the alternate reality games community to have this conversation about gamifying real world tragedy. And gamification in general.

[00:20:00] So what I did was I posted a whole lot of them, a whole lot of these players, and I managed to get hold of them through sites like Unfiction, and I knew a lot of these people as well just through having met them in person more online.

And I posted them floppy disks and zip disks with clues on them, like with photos and then with time coded information embedded into photos and handwritten notes in Urdu and Arabic and Chinese dialects and one thing or another, knowing that, again, no one was going to be able to solve all of these things individually, but collectively people would be able to sort of begin putting clues together. Which they did, and the game sort of made it, I think it went on to Unfiction, which was the sort of ARG site at the time.

[00:21:00] I don’t even know if Unfiction still exists to be honest, but there was a discussion around it there. There was also discussions in another forum, and each week I would update the Darkest Puzzle’s site.

to represent sort of another year passing, so for 10 years, so it went for 10 weeks, and there was no resolution at the end, no sort of, oh this is who did it, or this is how you solve the game. It really was just a way of getting people to engage with the conspiracy theories, or the conspiracy play that had already taken place around 9 11, and ideally to sort of, provoke a bit of a critical discussion of gamification and of alternate reality games.

And that did happen. A couple of people came out pretty angry about the game, which I thought was good, and I thought they made really valid criticisms. It was a weird moment, though, as well, I have to say.

[00:22:00] By which I mean, alternate reality games at that point, as a genre, had sort of fallen away. They were very exciting and new, probably from about, I don’t know, 2004 until about 2008 2009. By about 2010 or 2011, I think they’d just sort of gotten a little bit passe. They just had lost a lot of their momentum. And the whole terminology around them had changed all the nomenclature was different, a lot of concerns had been raised about them. I mean, I was one of the people raising those concerns that they were a form of play that was available to essentially an upper middle class that had the time and had the technology to engage with them, that it was mostly white people in, in Europe and the U.S. and Canada and Australia who were really able to engage.

[00:23:00] And I tried to destabilize some of that in my own game by deliberately distributing information in Urdu and in Chinese and in Arabic and in Languages outside of what this ARG community was sort of traditionally operating in the languages that people were usually given to decode.

Well, like programming languages. Yeah. They generally sort of were based in the U. S., like, There’d be telephone booths ringing in different places in the U.S. or in Canada or in Australia, and I sort of made a point of hiding clues in Istanbul and Shanghai and Mexico City, and I suppose outside of those centers, because I sort of wanted more than anything people to realize there was a larger world of people not engaging in these experiences. But as I say, it was a weird moment because the interest in these games had begun to die away and other things were becoming more interesting and other modes of play. Pervasive games were starting, mobile gaming had become much bigger because of course iPhones had been released and and that changed everything.

Max Haiven: Right, okay, so before we get to QAnon and the idea that QAnon in some ways is an alternate reality game or somehow appropriates some of the techniques of an alternate reality game, I wonder if you could just walk us through through how we get from this early days of alternate reality gaming that you’ve already described to the moment when QAnon sort of emerges onto the global stage.

And I wonder, especially if you could talk a little bit about the role of gender in this movement, and specifically sort of take us by way of the Gamergate scandal which occurred, which saw sort of male gamers take umbrage at what they imagined to be a feminist conspiracy to undermine masculine game culture. And the way that this enfolded a dark or sadistic play with these kind of patriarchal and conspiratorial tropes as well.

Hugh Davies: In this sort of period between my own game and QAnon, I was quite concerned about the militarization of alternate reality games. And I suppose there were festering discussions around the ethics of alternate reality games at this time. A lot of rationale had come in and different, different modes of thinking about accessibility and and race and gender and, and ethnicity and all of, all of these sort of things had come into that ARG space, which was all really important and really welcome, like a bit more diverse thinking around these games and also between 2010 and 2015 the Snowden papers were released.

[00:25:00] And one of the things that came out of that was that a military contractor had looked at how various game types could be applied in military contexts.

And there was a whole section on alternate reality games, which was really fascinating to read. And how video games and alternate reality games could be used in propagandic settings, and people could be tricked into doing things through alternate reality games that they might not. Normally do and it was quite interesting just to see because a few people had sort of speculated wow these could really be used in sort of military training context because alternate reality games a lot of the a lot of the skills that they really sort of culture and nurture are spy craft.

[00:26:00] It is really like decoding information and sharing information and there’s sort of all these elements of secrecy and conspiracy one thing or another and also around that time the game Cicada came out which was this alternate reality game that had all of these bizarre puzzles that you had to solve and a whole lot of people were saying, “Is this sort of like basic training to become like a CIA recruit or IDF?” To be honest, I don’t even know where Cicada landed.

There was a U.S. journalist who contacted me a few years ago and really wanted to discuss Cicada and alternate reality games. But around that time and I’m talking sort of 2015, 2016, there was a bit of an emergence of these deeply secretive alternate reality games. So alternate reality games that were just kicking around in online spaces. They tended not to have much to do with the real world.

[00:27:00] They really were just sort of online games, and they traded in conspiracy theories more than anything, which was not atypical for alternate reality games. But yeah, there’s this sort of genre of alternate reality games, and a lot of them appeared in 4chan and 8chan, as I discuss in my article. There was a whole lot of precursors to QAnon in those spaces. FBIAnon, CIAAnon put out these conspiracy theories. And then invited people to do the research, to look into them. And these were quite familiar to me because I mean, that’s what my own game had done in with the Darkest Puzzle created this slightly provocative idea or narrative, and then invited people to look at the existing research in these spaces.

[00:28:00] I don’t want to ascribe any agency to one individual or group of individuals or for any of these things. I think with all of this stuff, it’s quite sort of zeitgeisty. It was just, the time was right. It was on everyone’s lips. It’s where online culture was at that moment. There were these sorts of conspiracies milling around in different spaces, some of them were game spaces, some of them were not game spaces. Certainly 4Chan and 8Chan in 2014, you had this Gamergate movement. Gamergate was I think very much a conspiracy theory in terms of there are a whole lot of predominantly male gamers and people who had- but the gaming space had been groomed to be very male from really the mid 1980s until that time, and it had some really sort of hyper-masculine injections. With games like Doom and the whole first person shooter genre.

[00:29:00] Games were promoted in a pretty sexist and misogynistic ways for really sort of the best part of like 20 years, or even 30 years, from 94-2014. And there are so many things that we can point to from like Game booth girls—girls who would be sort of scantily clad and appear at game events, sort of draped over cars and this very sexualized portrayal of video games. It was very much embraced by the industry. And these things have a real key history as well. After the games crash of 1984, it’s described in heroic terms now of how Nintendo saved the video games market with their consoles.

[00:30:00] But being Nintendo and being Japanese products and being toys, as they were considered, it was a decision that needed to be made. Well, if they’re toys, and we want to sell them in department stores, where do we put them? And so it was decided, we should put them in the toy aisle. But then it’s like, well, do we put them in the blue aisle or do we put them in the pink aisle? And so it was decided we should put them in the blue aisle in about 1984 because you had all of these different games, a lot of them were shooter games. And so it was like, well, shooting is a boys thing.

So we put them in the boys aisle and that minor decision had really major long term ramifications of how games were designed and played and made and celebrated and written about for a long time. And Gamergate was this moment where you had a whole group of people reacting to a really small event, which came down to a breakup of a couple who were both involved in game playing and game making.

[00:31:00] And this misogynistic backlash against the idea that games were being played by people other than white men and and men in general, people that identify as men. This is a fairly simplistic papering over of a really large and pretty terrible event, but it really was a pretty awful spotlight to be shown on gaming culture. It portrayed the outcome of all of that marketing and making of games for a really long time had cultivated a pretty dark group of players who really just saw video games as male spaces.

I suppose at that 2014-2015 moment of Gamergate, a lot of this trolling and doxxing was really finding itself. I think it’s probably a good way of putting it, some of the really dark aspects of the internet were forming in unique and terrible ways. And these communities were finding each other as well. You had armies of isolated, quite often male game-players who felt that there was a conspiracy against them to take away their quite masculine gameplay experiences and to make them politically correct. And not only did they reject that, but they found each other.

Hugh Davies, on Gamergate

So Gamergate was really that spilling out into the real world.

[00:32:00] That was a conspiracy theory that progressive forces were trying to woke-ify video games were trying to like, take the edgy misogynistic elements out of them without realizing that there are a lot of women and a lot of people who didn’t identify as men and a lot of people of color and a lot of people all over the world from all ages who’ve been playing video games the whole time.

It’s just that they’ve mostly been marketed toward me. I think it’s really important from a media archaeologist and internet historian point of view, that all of this stuff is sort of coming into being at this time when the idea of doxing people and of finding out about people online and, and digging up that information.

[00:33:00] Going back through people’s Twitter accounts and Facebook accounts, years and years and years to see, who they were and what they’d said and what they’d done and how their politics had changed or hadn’t changed. And as well as starting up a whole lot of fake accounts as well, creating troll armies. Whole series of accounts to make a posts and then all of these people like it, but the people who all like it are actually you just across a whole lot of different accounts that you’ve created— this sort of online shenanigans. We’re still really only in the first 30 years of online, we’re still coming up with new ideas and things. I suppose at that 2014-2015 moment of Gamergate, a lot of this trolling and doxxing was really finding itself. I think it’s probably a good way of putting it, some of the really dark aspects of the internet were really forming in unique and terrible ways.


And these communities were finding each other as well. You had armies of isolated, quite often male game players who felt that there was a conspiracy against them to take away their quite masculine gameplay experiences and to make them politically correct. And not only did they reject that, but they found each other.

As a process in the process of rejecting that so these huge communities formed these troll armies and they began to move that began to conglomerate in spaces and of course 4chan really was one of those spaces. Some of the worst aspects of internet culture really lived in those spaces and thrived and fested in those spaces.

[00:35:00] Of course the Christchurch shooting which happened in 2019. A politically incorrect forum in 4Chan might have closed at that time and then they all went across to 8Chan. I think that was how the history went. But suffice to say, there were these forums where some pretty hard alt-right, a fairly colorful rogues gallery of these personalities were hanging out and spending time with each other and and ideas were being shared and tactics were being shared.

These were game spaces. These were gamers who had felt jilted by the real world. What they thought was their domain alone, that video games were very much theirs. It turned out video games were everyone’s, in what is now called the game century. And games are not just for this exclusive group. Everybody’s playing video games.

That was a very difficult learn for these people. They felt that a culture that was just theirs had been taken away from them. And I mean to a certain extent, it had. They were just wrong in thinking that it was all theirs. But then again, they’d been groomed to think that way.

[00:36:00] The whole games industry had a vested interest in creating and marketing these particular experiences as theirs and theirs alone. So I don’t want to sound like I’m giving too much sympathy to them, but I can see how they perceive themselves as victims, I think is probably a good way of putting it.

And so in these spaces where the edginess that they wanted, the sort of political incorrectness that they loved about their games, the fact that you could just shoot and rape and do terrible things in first person shooter games. That rhetoric and logic was expressed in those online spaces. And also this political disenchantment with the real world. You have these groups festering away, and then every now and then they’re spilling out into the real world with things like Pizzagate, which was a conspiracy theory. I think it actually began in 4Chan or 8Chan.

[00:37:00] And then it spilled out into the real world. This is also where the normification of these spaces occurred, which is to say they began bleeding out of these online spaces, but people began making videos and tweeting on one thing or another. And people who were not part of those communities and didn’t have the frame of context that it was a whole lot of gamers playing, essentially like trolling/playing, and took what they were saying verbatim and then got really caught up in these ideas and thought that it was true- the conspiracy spilled out into the real world.

Max Haiven: Okay, so now it’s time to really move to what we really want to talk about today, which is QAnon as an alternate reality game. You are among those scholars who has really thoughtfully and carefully explored this question of what are the game like and the darkly playful elements of the QAnon conspiracy fantasy, and how should we understand them through the lens of games and play, and what does that offer us? I would ask you to maybe, for our listeners who are not as familiar with QAnon, to talk about it a little bit and also why you and others think it’s so important that we understand it through the lens of games and play.

Hugh Davies: For me, QAnon is an internet conspiracy But potentially also an alternate reality game and as with alternate reality games and conspiracy theories, they’re not particularly discreet. Just as a really good conspiracy theory really wants to have some facts woven into it to make it legible and to make it seem as though it’s real. Likewise, an alternate reality game does those same things. And alternate reality games embrace conspiracy theories and always have. And conspiracy theories, I would argue, embrace a kind of ludic logic, like a playfulness.

There’s a sort of libidinal element with conspiracy theories, and I think always has been. Which is to say, once you yourself from scientific logic, once you let that go, there’s a lot of freedom to sort of move about in different directions and really sort of just to get whole areas and stick them and come up with like wild and intuitive conspiracy theories.

[00:39:00] We’ve seen that many times before, we saw it with the 9/11 attacks. We’ve seen it with conspiracies before and since we saw it with PizzaGate and GamerGate. With QAnon, you really had this quite libidinal conspiracy theory, where it started in these online spaces. As I say, somewhere between a joke and a game. And then it moved out of these spaces and it was taken out of these spaces.

So I think the first step in that process was, so you have a character called Q.

[00:40:00] So Q is someone anonymously posting and saying they have high level or Q access within the US government. Now, who Q actually is contested, and has probably changed several times. Q was posting in the sort of chans for a while, and at some point, Q’s posts moved out of the chan spaces, which is to say, people started interpreting them, and turning them into videos, and turning them into tweets, and turning them into the larger internet.

And they lost all of their edgelord and gamified context in the larger internet. And people sort of started thinking of them as a canon, as a sort of alternate truth. All this happens against a backdrop of alternate facts and in a post truth world, where truth is already very contested in sort of the American context.

[00:41:00] So then you have the rise of Q Bakers, which are people who get Q is saying in these little micro releases of information, and interpreting it for a wider audience. So these people, they become influencers. They become interpreters of the Q canon. And so for a lot of people, they’re not actually even looking at the original Q tweets. They are just reading the interpretations. So QAnon is not any one of these individual things. It’s the whole phenomenon. It’s people all the way down the chain, interpreting these cue posts, and then interpreting the interpretations of the cue posts, and so on, and so on. And then of course, once you fall into one of these echo chambers, once you start like, looking at tweets, or watching YouTube videos, about QAnon information, then of course you have this algorithmic conspiritualism, conspirituality where the recommendation engine feeds you more and more conspiracy theories, and then you start to get this kind of feeling of synchronicity.

[00:42:00] ‘Yeah, I watched this video and then I saw this other thing about this and I couldn’t help but think the two were connected’ and of course, this is how the internet is not just designed, but algorithms are constantly sending us into these echo chambers. With the identification of QAnon, a whole lot of people who don’t really understand the 4Chan and 8Chan context of QAnon, they don’t understand the history of video games and Gamergate and Pizzagate and all the stuff that led up to it. But it just sort of stumbling into these spaces and this sort of thinking, wow, like a lot of this makes sense.

[00:43:00] Like I don’t believe what’s happening in politics and this person seems to have political access at the highest level. I don’t have that access, but they seem to be telling the truth. It all has a resonance and a vibe with what Donald Trump was saying and doing at the time as well, I have political access at a high level when I’m speaking truth about what is what is happening in those elite echelons of power.

Max Haiven: So I think the really promising thing about your research, not only on QAnon, but on games and games in public space and around public discourse more broadly- I think the really important thing that it offers is a sense that we’re ill-served if we imagine that play and games is alien from the major issues and crises of our times.

And I think in a lot of your work, outside of the work on QAnon, you’ve pointed out that many of today’s political movements and protest movements, both sort of radical and reactionary, both left and right, are increasingly taking on playful and game like characteristics. And I wonder if you can sort of give us a bit more of a global view of how that’s playing out right now and what you see the consequences of that being.

Hugh Davies: A lot of what we perceive as performances of nationalism, identity in community, identity individually. I think it’s helpful to interpret or even recognize a lot of this stuff as live action role play from the beginning. That all elements of identity are performed and performed playfully. I mean, that’s subjectivity, right? It’s how we express ourselves. So once you sort of realize that play is a part of not just human, but living thing subjectivity. Most people are familiar with playing with like pets, like cats and dogs and stuff. Play is the only language that we share with the animal kingdom, and we can see the personality of our pets and of animals in general, in how they play, in how they perform, in how they express their individuality and subjectivity through this performance of themselves. And I guess that’s what play is in a certain respect. It is really a performance of yourself. So when you see nationalisms as live action role play of a country or of individuals in a country. And then when you see a protest as well, that is a performance of antagonism.

[00:45:00] When I talk about the gamified elements or the play elements, not just of QAnon, but of what happened on January the 6th, I do it very much within a context of looking at activism in real and online spaces and gamified activism in online spaces, which is a significant part of my own personal research, looking at how the importance of video games in the Hong Kong protests in 2019, or in 2014, and the Israel/Palestine protests of today.

In a whole range of activist spaces, games, game logic, game rhetorics, and game symbols appearing. It’s the media of the moment. But of course with games, it’s not just a media, it’s a way of acting and behaving in the world. It’s a performance, it’s a play. So when people stormed the Capitol, a lot of them were caught up in this QAnon thing, which was inherently gamified and playful from the beginning.

[00:46:00] Not only had it sprung out of these game spaces where refugees of video game culture had been hanging out for quite a while, but it was itself a playful and gamified. experience, which is to say what made QAnon so successful was the fact that people really built their identities around it. Like gamers and influencers on one thing or another got a following, got score, got clicks and likes through discussing it and through theorizing on it.

And so when a lot of these people converged, and people who were influenced by these people converged, and people who had all sorts of political discontent. The January the 6th protests began, I think, as a stop the steal protest, and that was something which was very much in the QAnon spaces as well.

[00:47:00] So there was a lot of these people all together. When they got into the White House, and I don’t want to gloss over the fact that six people died, but I think that these protesters were ill prepared for success. They had no contingency for success. There’s a lot of discussion around some of them brought cable ties and I think a lot of these people probably brought cable ties to the supermarket.

It was part of their identity to wear flat jackets with open carry attire. I think if you’d caught them at a barbecue, they probably would have been carrying zip ties and handcuffs and bulletproof jackets and wearing Qsets. They’re LARPing.

[00:48:00] That’s part of their identity. It makes them look and feel tough and aggressive and there’s probably good reasons why those people want to feel tough and aggressive, they’re probably very vulnerable in certain ways and I recognize, we don’t have that same sort of culture in my country, but I don’t want to deny these people.

They’re a gun culture in an American context that is like part of an American culture. So when they appeared, when they turned up attired in this way, presenting as this way, and I would sort of suggest playing their identities in this way. You storm the White House, you bring guns and zip ties. I mean, people are going to get hurt. That’s just par for the course. But as I said, I don’t really think there was contingencies for success, which is another way of saying, I don’t actually believe they were there to overthrow the government.

[00:49:00] I judged them by their actions, I think they were there to, to own the lips, as a show of ‘fuck you,’ as a show of ‘we don’t care, and ‘we can do this if we want, and you don’t mean anything to us’.

They just had no capacity to overthrow the government. I don’t even know that Donald Trump would have the capacity to overthrow- he was in government for four years. And I mean, I don’t really know how much got done. Even Steve Bannon, I think of all of that far right political milieu, he seems maybe the most capable. But I also don’t think that he’s one to sort of dirty his hands with that thing.

[00:50:00] I think he’s probably more interested in developing that community and having them sort of pay for his content and like and share and that thing. I think at heart he’s still a media-maker and a producer. We are in this end time capitalist moment, and we’re living through kind of a decline of empire. And I think a lot of these things are like pathologies of decline, and sort of broadly speaking it’s, we know things are getting worse. There’s a gradual kind of ebbing away. There’s like there’s a lot of countries in the world like China, where I’ve just been is one of them where there’s still that feeling of things are much better for me than they were for my parents generation.

[00:51:00] And things were much better for my parents generation than they were for my grandparents generation. And I know things will be much better for my kids and we haven’t had that for a while in the broader West, I suspect. I don’t want to say universally because it’s not true, it’s different circumstances for different people.

But I think we can point to across the Western Hemisphere, I suppose. The middle class and a realization that we are at this end times capitalism where things are just getting more difficult and more scarce. It’s a smash and grab moment in history.

And so, as part of that, there’s this real sort of sense that anything that we try and do to stop that is helpless. Any protest that we put up, be it sort of the Occupy movements of the 2011-12, I think they were happening, contemporary protests today, or protests against the war in Iraq, any of these protests, wherever they happen in the world, just don’t seem to be working.

[00:52:00] Governments don’t seem to be interested in listening, and so protest itself has become somewhat impotent, and I don’t know whether people are consciously recognizing this, but at some level protest has become part of like performance and play, and I suppose because all of reality is becoming increasingly playful, increasingly gamified, as a way of distracting ourselves from the harsher realities that I’ve just articulated. People are much happier to sort of be in game spaces and to think about things in game rhetorics, game vernaculars. So it makes sense that activisms and protest movements would also have these game like elements and that does seem to be happening.

[00:53:00] There are a whole range of reasons why people are taking to game spaces to protest. One of the protests that I was looking at recently was a whole lot of Malaysian children were protesting the bombings in Gaza. And it makes sense that this would happen because these are children in Malaysia, like Muslim children, who are really aware a lot of children are dying and their parents have said you can’t go out onto the streets and protest.

So they’re protesting in spaces that they recognize because they feel, ‘We’re being killed. My demographic as a Muslim child is being killed and I want to protest against it’. That’s sort of one example of how video games from gamespaces are allowing for protests to occur.

[00:54:00] With the Hong Kong protests as well, there was, and I don’t want to distract from the fact that, there were physical protests happening in the streets in Hong Kong, in the West there’s been a lot of protests in, in France, across Europe, in the U.S and in Australia and in a lot of places. But the protests in Hong Kong actually made mainstream news in the West in the way that a lot of other protest movements didn’t and haven’t. So I probably don’t need to tell you too much about the the protests that took place, but a lot of those protests had gamified elements to them and use game vernaculars and game spaces.

One of the protests that I was sort of a little bit heartened by in some ways was. It took place in the servers of Grand Theft Auto V, which is to say that there’s mainland Chinese players playing Grand Theft Auto V, and then a whole lot of Hong Kong players dressed their avatars in the sort of costume or uniform of the Hong Kong protester, like with the all black and the gas mask and the yellow helmet and the goggles, and then stormed into the Chinese servants of Grand Theft Auto.

[00:55:00] And started smashing things up and turning police cars over and setting fire to them. Which was interesting because what they were doing was symbolically destroying a mainland Chinese space. But within the formula of the game, that’s actually what you’re supposed to do in Grand Theft Auto, it’s an open world, smash everything up space.

And then, of course, a whole lot of mainland Chinese players responded in kind by fighting against the invading Hong Kong players in this space. And it sort of blurred that weird line between, like, violence and play. But it did so in a way where nobody actually got hurt or killed.

[00:56:00] And, so there, I found something, I’m still trying to unravel that event and the meanings around it, but there was something hopeful in that expression of violence, that people were able to bleed these will for destruction and violence in an online space, where it’s actually set up for that.

And so, yeah, all of this sort of libidinal, violent energy for antagonism and protest was, was, all the steam was released in that online space and nobody really got hurt. And there’s something I do like about that, that those energies can be expelled in a way where at the end of it there’s a possibility for discussion to arise because ultimately a whole lot of people are in the same space together.

I also do think it’s worth recognizing these movements and the way they’re expressing themselves. Controversially, I do think of QAnon as an activist movement.

You can see what’s undergirding the QAnon movement. I guess like so many conspiracy theories, they really get very close to the truth. This idea that there’s power shifting beneath the surface, and that it’s affecting you for the worst, but quite often the ways that you have of diagnosing it are wrong.

Hugh Davies

[00:57:00] I don’t share their concerns, I think. Which is to say, I do recognize that a lot of their concerns are that they detect that things are going wrong. Things are going wrong with the political representation system and with the global economic order in that they don’t feel represented. And even though it’s not sort of articulated specifically in that way. You can see what’s undergirding the QAnon movement. I guess with so many conspiracy theories, they really get very close to the truth.

[00:58:00] This idea that there’s power shifting beneath the surface, and that it’s affecting you for the worst, but quite often the ways that you have of diagnosing it are wrong. And I think that’s true with QAnon. There’s probably a lot of things that individually and collectively, I probably do have a similar take on the world to maybe some of the individuals in QAnon, which is that like something broken at the heart of things.

They’re methods of diagnosis is what I take issue with, but more broadly the way they’re expressing themselves is increasingly gamified and lattified. And play is a really important subjectivity through which these things are being performed. It’s a much broader area. And having said all of that, I think that games are also a really good method or lens for looking at these things. That’s what I do with my own work. I use games as a method or a lens for looking at QAnon.

[00:59:00] QAnon is not specifically “games culture,” although I argue that it is. But I think that games offer a really useful lens of opening up that phenomenon with QAnon, it’s like genealogy point of view.

Which is to say that a lot of the people caught up in QAnon did begin in Gamergate, and a lot of those people ended up in sort of these game forums, these sort of playful forums, these dark humor forums of 4Chan and 8Chan, in which games were discussed and game vernacular was used.

I think more broadly, Games are structures and play is the movement that happens within them. And so in, in looking at structures, I think that games are really useful metaphor and logic for apprehending and understanding them and trying to sort of untangle the motivations of people playing in those spaces.

[01:00:00] People are playing whether they realize it or not in a lot of these instances. That’s quite a layered discussion as well of people who are playing who don’t realize they’re playing and people who are played, who don’t realize they’re being played, that they’re part of a game.

This is a really important part of the issue that I take with gamification. We do live in a gamified world increasingly and yet a lot of people don’t know it, like it’s not announced. We’re all part of this capitalist economy. Which is very much a game structure of point scoring, but we’re all being played or participating in this dark play where it’s not really announced as a game, but it has a game structure to it.

[01:01:00] And if you’re good at playing the game, if you sort of research the game and find out what the rules are, and then are ruthless in your play- you can do really well in it. So yeah, games-thinking I think can be very useful in this moment for that reason. 


Max Haiven: One of the things I really appreciated about that interview with Hugh is how compassionate he is towards the conspiracy fantasists that he’s describing, and I appreciate the way that he’s able to do that while not being uncritical of their position.

As I was mentioning in the intro my association with Hugh and his work came from a project I was doing with my colleagues Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou and A. T. Kingsmith around conspiracy games and countergames. And one of the things that led us to that project and continued to frustrate us when we were in that project is so many people who are studying conspiracies and conspiracy worlds sort of begin with the premise that anyone who believes in a conspiracy theory must be either deranged or stupid.

[01:02:00] What we learned, and what many people who study conspiracy theories and conspiracy fantasies learn, is that, sure, I mean, like any system of belief, there are some people who are deranged and some people who are not particularly intelligent, or at least don’t apply their intelligence to their particular theory, but there are plenty of people who in fact are both quite thoughtful and quite reasonable and even quite compassionate and apply all of those things to their concern about the conspiracy they see at work in the world.

And in fact, many conspiracy fantasists and theorists begin from a position that I think most listeners to this podcast would probably admire, which is that there is power. on earth. People with power exercise it. People with power often exercise that power in the shadows, secretly. They do so in what can legitimately called conspiracies, in the sense that they get together behind closed doors and try and shape reality through their collaborations.

[01:03:00] And that in fact, many of these conspiracies are quite influential over people’s lives and over politics around the world. Now the problem that we identified and I think from what Hugh said, Hugh might agree, is that what I just described sounds like people who have an analysis of power in society and we all should have an analysis of power.

But what goes wrong, I think in the thing that we’ve come to associate with conspiracies and conspiracy theories is a difference between what we ended up calling like a ‘charismatic theory of power’ and a ‘systemic theory of power’ and very briefly a charismatic theory of power is when you see all of these terrible things going on in the world and you say aha, there must be a person or a set of individuals working together who are responsible for this and those individuals must be evil, like they must be motivated either at best by greed or at worst by greed, Satan or the devil or some evil force and the alternative is to look at the terrible things that are happening in the world and say well, these are happening because generally well meaning people are conscripted by systems of power.

[01:04:00] Systems of power conscript all of us in small or large ways and influence our behavior, and sometimes they conscript the behavior of powerful rich people, and sometimes the powerful rich people work together, but those powerful rich people are not always even aware of how they are reproducing the system that enriched them or made them powerful, and they’re sometimes not aware of how their actions are gonna deleteriously involve lots of other people, so there are real conspiracies of the rich and the powerful and they are influential, but what’s much more important to grasp from our perspective is how systems of power work, and that it’s not just sort of evil individuals it’s actually these systems working together, and I think when you start to see that, you come to a position that’s much closer to the one that I feel like Hugh articulated in our interview, which is like—

[01:05:00] we have to actually have some patience and thoughtfulness and in a certain way, respects and understanding for people who do proverbially fall down the rabbit hole and not accept those ideas, but also not presume just because those ideas are unconventional or disturbing, or indeed the ideas themselves might be slightly deranged, if not the individuals, that people come to them for a lot of different reasons.

Naomi Klein in her new book, Doppelganger says that, conspiracy theories get the feelings right and the facts wrong. And I think there’s something really important to remember. And, and it was that sort of tone and that balance that I really appreciated in this interview with Hugh. Yeah, thank you.

Halle Frost: I love that you touched on the compassionate angle of his research, because that was also something I really noted. And. Yeah, I think what’s really important to remember when we’re listening to Hugh is that the communities that he’s describing that come about as a result of people engaging with this game are just a micro study in how these structures influence play, and none of us are immune to whatever structures we’ve been indoctrinated into.

[01:06:00] And I think that idea will lead really nicely into our next interview where we’re actually talking to one of the historians of game theory, which, right, if the QAnon conspiracy is this tiny microcosm of a destructive worldview at play, then talking with Dr. Sonia Amadei will get us ready to examine the worldview that all of us have been essentially baked into.

Max Haiven: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s also a really great example, Sonia Amadae’s work of how something like game theory, which has become so influential in ways that I’ll describe in a moment, emerged from many different individuals working independently or only in semi collaboration. And the mistake would be to say, the enthrallment of the world and almost every economics department and political science department, and all of the people who go through those departments.

[01:07:00] To a certain idea of game theory is the result of some nefarious conspiracy to dominate the world. But in fact, I think what, what Amadae work shows us is that in fact these things are more emergent, and they emerge from a certain set of push and pull factors and competition over the ideas that will describe our world to us.

So very briefly, for listeners who haven’t heard of it, game theory developed starting, well, starting before the Second World War, but really in the 1950s and onward as a paradigm for thinking about zero sum games between individuals. So the classic one, the most famous one that Amadae will speak about in our next episode is the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

You might have heard of this one before. The idea is that there are two prisoners who are, say, engaged in a rebellion against a repressive state, and they’re both arrested at the same time and held in isolation from one another. And their captors come into the cell and says to each of them individually, look, if you confess.

[01:08:00] And your partner confesses your, your collaborator confesses then we’re gonna give you both a long and horrible sentence. And if neither of you confess, we’re gonna give you an even longer and even more horrible sentence. But if your collaborator confesses and you rat your collaborator out, if you defect to use the words of game theory, then you are gonna have a very short sentence and they’re gonna have a very long sentence.

And the idea is that with this fairly ridiculous paradigm, you can begin to mathematically chart out what rational choices are. And what Amadae does in her fabulous book, Prisoners of Reason, which we’ll be talking about next episode, shows us how this strange paradigm of reducing human behavior to competitive deception really took over the world.

[01:09:00] It began to recalibrate the U.S. government’s approach to nuclear war and nuclear weapons, moving away from a paradigm of mutually assured destruction to one that actually was based on the idea that the United States could win a thermonuclear war that might wipe out most of humanity, but was still a strategic victory was still possible.

It moved from there to becoming incredibly influential in economics and has become in fact like dominant in economics so that most people who are working in economics in both the public and private sector have really built a lot of their thinking on this. Also political scientists and neoliberal state crafts moving towards an idea that everyone in society is just an acquisitive cheat who is ready to betray the system at any moment and the only role of government is to repress people’s baser instincts and ensure a functional market society.

And it even became central to some new thinking about evolutionary biology via Richard Dawkins and later to the thinking of Silicon Valley itself, which of course has been so influential over the last 20 years over things like social media, computing, and now, of course, the future of artificial intelligence, which is also often built based on this completely, well, it’s a very narrow and very jaundiced view of human nature.

[01:10:00] And I think the importance to tie these two episodes together is that, Hugh gives us a view of what it’s like to live in a world where you feel you’re constantly being played where there’s a game that’s going on outside of you that you that you can’t control and that you really can’t win, but that you are forced to play.

Nevertheless, and I think what Amadae shows us in her book and what we’ll be looking at next episode is—What that invisible game might be again, it’s not a conspiracy, but if we admit that many of today’s most influential public and private institutions are really built on thinking that is heavily indebted to game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma, then we have to admit that the world has been built in the image of a game. And that, I think, helps us really understand what’s at stake in thinking about this podcast’s theme, the exploits of play, and what we might need to do to craft different forms of resistance to.



Founder and organizer of Weird Economies: Bahar Noorizadeh
Host: Max Haiven
Producer: Halle Frost
Sound editor: Faye Harvey
Sponsor: Canada Council for the Arts