“Eternity is a child playing, playing checkers; the kingdom belongs to a child.”Heraclitus
Has reality become a game? In an essay recently published on The New Atlantis website, Jon Askonas, assistant professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America, argues that contemporary American politics is adopting the qualities of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG).
If you don’t know what an “Alternate Reality Game” is, imagine a sort of collaborative treasure hunt where players work together online and offline to solve a fictional mystery. ARGs can be very popular – up to 11 million people in 75 countries reportedly played an ARG promoting the Christopher Nolan Batman film The Dark Knight in 2007.
Like all subcultures, ARG players have developed their own terminology. ARGs are designed by “Puppet Masters” (PMs) who run the game from behind “the curtain” (i.e. the veil of fiction separating the game reality from consensus reality). The Puppet Master creates one or more “rabbit holes” (usually a website, or a URL or QR code left in a physical location). Players often connect on forums or social media to swap clues and solve the mystery collaboratively.
The similarities between ARGs and the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon have been pointed out before (including by professional ARG designer Reed Berkowitz in a fascinating Medium post and subsequent Washington Post article). However, according to Jon Askonas, the gamification of reality is spreading beyond QAnon.
Askonas believes Americans are increasingly engaging online politically as if they were playing an ARG, hunting for clues and trying to reveal the hidden metanarrative that ties absolutely everything together.
Our species has evolved a powerful “sense-making” impulse when confronted with new information. Yet (so Askonas’ argument goes) that sense-making drive is going berserk as human pattern recognition and inductive reasoning processes are being overwhelmed by the deluge of disconnected information online, sweeping some into a state of apophenia in which we see patterns that do not exist.
According to this argument, US politics has grown more radicalised and conspiratorial as Americans have been fed more and more anxiety-inducing stimulation by “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” at the heart of social media platforms’ business models.
As Askonas puts it:
“Digital discourse creates a game-like structure in our perception of reality. For everything that happens, every fact we gather, every interpretation of it we provide, we have an ongoing ledger of the ‘points’ we could garner by posting about it online…
To play an alternate reality game is to be drawn into a collaborative project of explaining the world. It is to lose, even fleetingly, one’s commitment to what is most true in the service of what is most compelling, what most advances a narrative one deeply believes. It allows players to neatly slot vast reams of information into intelligible characters and plots, like ‘Everything that has gone wrong is the product of evil actors or systems, but there are powerful heroes coming to the rescue, and they need your help.’ Unlike a board game, this kind of world-building has no natural boundary. Players can become entranced and awe-struck at the sheer scale of information available to them, and seek to assimilate it into building the grandest narrative possible. They try to generate a story in which all of the facts they have piled up make sense.”
Askonas argues that the gamification of reality is ubiquitous, impacting even those not directly playing the game:
“It is tempting to believe that, sure, other people are headed into Wonderland, but not me. I can see what’s happening. What if, say, you are not online, or don’t even pay much attention to the news? Even if your picture of the world is determined mainly by conversations with friends and family, you will find yourself being drawn into an alternate reality game, based on the ARGs they are playing. These games have ‘network scale’ — they are more fun and powerful the more people you know are involved. This is also why it is becoming more and more difficult, and unlikely, for people playing different games to even talk to each other. Indeed, a common conceit of some media games is that ‘nobody is talking about this.’ We are losing a shared language. It is not that we arrive at different answers about the same questions, but that our stories about the world have different characters and plots.”
I find Askonas’ article really interesting, and there are elements I certainly agree with. However, overall, I am somewhat sceptical.
Firstly, Askonas’ argument seems guilty of the kind of technological determinism I mentioned in my first newsletter. After all, propaganda, conspiracy theories, sectarianism, and even political violence aren’t exactly new phenomena in American politics. Is democratic dysfunction really being driven by technological forces? Or are social forces, such as growing inequalities of wealth and opportunity, to blame? I argued last time that I found the idea of “co-production” between technological and social forces convincing, and I’m sticking to that argument. Askonas, however, doesn’t mention social forces at all.
Secondly the idea that our perception of reality has a “game-like structure” is not exactly new. Social scientists have long understood the importance of games to human society and behaviour: from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, to The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman, to Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois, to Games People Play by Eric Berne.
Nevertheless, the idea of a gamified feedback loop between new technologies and our human sense-making impulse is interesting. As Jon Askonas argues, this would have important consequences for democracy and politics.
In his excellent newsletter, L. M. Sacasas recently quoted from Sean Illing and Zac Gershberg’s The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion:
“If democracy consists of citizens deciding, collectively, what ought to be done, then the manner through which they persuade one another determines nearly everything that follows. And that privileges media ecology as the master political science. Some of its foremost practitioners, like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, sensed, far better than political scientists or sociologists, that our media environment decides not just what we pay attention to but also how we think and orient ourselves in the world.”
Next newsletter, I want to look a bit more closely at what a democratic cyberspace might look like.