This Is Not a Game

Conspiracy theorizing as alternate-reality game

From Pizzagate Neon (2017) by Warren Neidich. Neon glass sculpture, installation view. Photography by Karolina Sobel. Courtesy Priska Pasquer, Cologne.

“Many quotes from a long and enjoyable conversation I had with the author made it into this article. I hope you find it as enlightening and thought-provoking as I did.”  -JM


The alternate reality game began in the late 1980s, when multidisciplinary artist Joseph Matheny pioneered the format with Ong’s Hat, a transmedia narrative about an interdimensional cult run by Princeton scientists at an ashram in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Drawing on real people and places, Matheny crafted a series of documents as supposed evidence for the cult’s existence. He seeded them to the public through snail mail, posts on early internet bulletin boards (some of which can still be seen at alt.conspiracy and alt.illuminati), and Xerox copies planted inside independent weeklies and esoteric literature at libraries, book stores, and coffee shops. Over the course of a decade, the story’s media range grew to include CD-ROMs, books, video, and radio, including some interviews on the popular paranormal radio show Coast to Coast AM, which exposed Ong’s Hat to a wider audience of conspiracy enthusiasts.

Ong’s Hat was a unique hybrid of speculative history and speculative autobiography that participants could co-author by joining the investigation onlineIt was meant to be defamiliarizing and immersive; Matheny envisioned Ong’s Hat as a playground for experiencing synchronicities and then comparing them with other players’ — an exercise in intersubjectivity. But immersive storytelling and the intersubjectivity it constitutes can have a dark side, wherein communities can form around shared delusions that take on a momentum of their own. To Matheny’s surprise, some participants confused his fictional narrative with an actual conspiracy. When he broke character to remind them it was just a game, these true believers accused Matheny of being part of a disinformation campaign or running a mind-control experiment. He lost final say over the universe he invented.

Engaging in conspiracy culture is like playing a secret game based on insider knowledge, and it is this feeling that propels Q’s current popularity

When I spoke to Matheny, he partly attributed this reaction to the Coast to Coast segments attracting conspiracy-minded participants, to those who used Ong’s Hat to fulfill their X-Files-inspired “I want to believe” aspirations, and to proto-trolls looking for a pot to stir. Eventually these elements escalated their participation in Ong’s Hat to harassment, threats, and attempted home invasions, and Matheny was forced to discontinue the project in 2001. The term ARG, he says, began to be used on conspiracy and trolling forums around this time as a euphemism for gamified harassment campaigns. Matheny told me that he has since seen hardcore Ong’s Hat believers resurface in other conspiracy movements, including Weinergate, Gamergate, Pizzagate, QAnon, and the coronavirus cluster of 5G, vaccine, and quarantine paranoia. To Matheny, the 20th century U.S. tradition of conspiracy theories was “great folklore, great Americana,” to be taken figuratively. But he perceived this rightward and more serious turn in conspiracy circles at the turn of the century, with a crescendo in 2014, the year that some of his formerly left-leaning friends came out as neo-reactionary monarchists.

Matheny now refers to Pizzagate and QAnon as “dark ARGs,” signaling their family resemblance. “There was a bonding that happened, and probably a cooptation of troll culture into conspiracy circles,” he says. “This converged with fundamentalist people who were also doomsday preppers, and they had all adopted trolling behaviors, speaking in bad faith, giving circular arguments. All these weird subcultures have come together. How it happened was gradual. There wasn’t a puppeteer, but there are definitely people who took advantage of it. Breitbart, Bannon, Spencer.” This convergence of fundamentalism and trolling in conspiracy culture proved to be a toxic brew, facilitating zealous delusion and selective insincerity simultaneously. “The irony helps these people sidestep criticism,” Matheny says. “‘I’m just kidding, I’m just trolling.’ So I shouldn’t take anything you say seriously? Then they react with anger. And now there are movements being crafted to take advantage of this.” Irony serves as a gateway to belief as well as a source of plausible deniability, the same dynamic that can lead anti-PC trolls to become actual neo-Nazis. As George Orwell put it, “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”


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