Game of Cults: QAnon as a Cautionary Tale of Gamification’s Harmful Potential

Is QAnon an Alternative Reality Game?

Before I go into the end game, I wanted to talk about games gone bad.

Jim Stewartson, a well-regarded game designer, calls QAnon a game that plays people. I highly suggest reading his explanation.

This pervasive conspiracy theory demonstrates Lippman’s pseudo-environment hypothesis in full effect.

Radicalization and brainwashing don’t have to happen in dark rooms with a spotlight shining in the subject’s eyes. Cult indoctrination isn’t just for those willing to go to a commune in rural Idaho.

It happens on your computer in your home, and the subject is the active agent.

This brings me to QAnon and how it became such a strong movement in America.

The success of the QAnon Conspiracy is often associated with the previous administration.

While it helps to get acknowledgment and support from legitimate power sources, that isn’t what drove Q’s success.

What made it so powerful was that it was a game—an alternate reality game.

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What is an Alternative Reality Game?

It’s a scavenger hunt set in the real world that blurs the lines between reality and a false narrative. In Wynn-ing Ways, I talked about the “I Love Bees” campaign.

The latest Batman movie also used this marketing technique, where the film’s theme was used to get people to solve riddles and find clues.

My son was so enthralled with that movie that he created a Riddler scavenger hunt for his friends to complete. Our natural curiosity drives us to close these loops.

Earlier in the series, I created a puzzle for you to solve. I have it so that those who solve it can go to a page and enter their email. No one has completed the path, and a few have written me asking for help or voicing frustration.

This brings up a word of warning about gameplay. It can either motivate or demotivate your players.

It can also take strange turns you don’t expect, à la QAnon.

While QAnon started as just a disinformation campaign to create discord, it differed from other conspiracy theories because of its gamification aspect.

How so?

If you are unfamiliar with the Q conspiracy, the basis is that Q, a high-level government agent, is leaking information to prepare for a government reset.

This information is released in “Q drops,” cryptic messages that must be decoded.

What developed was a subculture that rewarded those who deciphered these drops. Overnight, decoders and interpreters became celebrities on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. The main mechanic driving interpreters is apophenia, our natural tendency to look for meaning and patterns in whatever we see. It’s almost unconscious, and it results in us creating meaning where none is intended, such as when we see shapes depicted in clouds.

A subculture formed where people feeling outside were suddenly part of something meaningful and important. The group rewarded participants with status and belonging as they decoded Q drops and validated each other.

Over time, those running the game validated users by feeding back some of the theories in future Q drops, then encouraging  the craziest of ideas and rewarding decoders with significance within the community.

QAnon became an alternative reality game.

I don’t think Lippman, Bernays, or Le Bon would be surprised to see that their ideas on sentiment, groupthink, and pseudo-environment have morphed into people acting out in real life a battle between good and evil where “evil” is a deep state of lizard aliens designed to protect Satan worshipers who drink adrenochrome to stay young.

And when the President of the United States is asked to debunk it on national television, he doesn’t. To those people, that’s validation.

This is a game at its worst, a horrible combination that became a complex self-organized system for transferring subversive, destabilizing content from troll farms to Uncle Ed’s Facebook newsfeed and confirming it with likes and comments from peers he trusts.

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When he does go to “do his research,” he stumbles across a multitude of rabbit holes that lead him deeper into the fantasy.


I share the case study of QAnon to show you how deep and real it gets. These tools and ideas we are exploring are powerful and provocative.

So, there is a conspiracy. Influential people try to get you to self-indoctrinate into a pseudo-environment they can control.

Let’s be honest. You’re hoping to do this too, at a level that creates a community of readers who will support you.

At this point, seeing that these same tools are used to radicalize extremists and fuel dissent, you may think this is super icky and not for you.

I’m suggesting that these tools can just as easily be used for good and are equally potent in their influence to your ends.

Furthermore, with the escalation of these techniques being used to divide us, we need some folks to take the lead and build a game based on positivity and collaboration. Why not you?

If your brand represents something better, create a game that makes others feel you are a path to a place they desire.

A brand is aspirational. If you associate with my brand of helping authors build a great business, then you see that what I offer is the path to becoming the owner of a great publishing business. That’s what I aspire to deliver and you aspire to become.

One more thing…

In the end, there are only two things in our control: the lens through which we view life and how we react.

That’s it.

The problem is the circular loop of how our thoughts affect our feelings, how our feelings affect our physical well-being, and how our physical well-being influences our thoughts.

​​​​​Once in this unconscious cycle, it can be hard to break out and change that lens.

Take this moment to evaluate why your business is stuck. Are you trapped in a downward spiral of thinking? If so, why?

Read: Designing an Endgame Strategy That Satisfies Your Readers