Is the world controlled by a secret cabal of deep state operatives? Is "science" merely a front for a fantastically complex war on freedom? Such false claims are made by movements like QAnon, which since 2017 has grown from a far-right cult into a viral phenomenon. I'll spare you the more lurid details about the lies they spread – not least because, according to research by media scholars like Whitney Phillips, doing so could inadvertently help to amplify conspiracies. But you may be both alarmed and intrigued to learn that as many as 15% of Americans agree with QAnon's falsities.
How can so many people believe such improbable, paranoid fictions? Part of the answer is precisely that these beliefs are so alarming and intriguing. But it's also something more than that. Journeying into their mirror-world is akin to playing a uniquely compelling 21st-Century game: one offering a heady mix of purpose, exceptionalism and escape in its pursuit of purportedly forbidden knowledge through the internet's rabbit-holes.
I owe this analogy to Adrian Hon, a game designer and author of a new book called You've Been Played, which explores the increasingly uneasy ways in which game-like elements permeate our digital age. In his book, Hon charts the similarities between games and contemporary conspiracy theories – and much more. Game-like elements, he argues, underpin countless aspects of our lives today, from the mechanics of the workplace to how we spend our leisure time. You may consider yourself immune to conspiratorial manipulations. But, as the title of Hon's book suggests, you are most assuredly being played elsewhere. And – contrary to the fantasies of QAnon's would-be freedom fighters – there's no easy way to take back control.