Manufactured reality: D&D enthusiasts spawned their own culture and societies, with specific rules, language and traditions  © EPA

A strange subset of geek culture is threatening to destabilise society by taking over the internet and blurring the line between reality and fantasy. A type of online information warfare, its objective is to sow discord and distrust. Yet it is masquerading as a live action role playing game, or Larp, and much of the population doesn’t even know it is happening. 

The QAnon conspiracy that believes US President Donald Trump is battling an evil deep-state cabal is a prime example. The movement is gaining ground partly because its modus operandi — followers deconstruct cryptic clues from a government “insider” to uncover the hideous plot — emulates the addictive qualities of a Larp.

Larps, also known as alternative reality games, started off innocently. Back before the internet, they involved groups of people who either strongly identified with a particular fictional genre or historical era and wanted to recreate it; or who got a kick out of imagining they were the heroes of their own interactive and fantastical tales. They stem from role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, which took off in the 1980s. This was the first time that a manufactured reality of sorts — which followed its own rules and its own war-gaming agenda — began to intertwine with the real world in strange ways. 

D&D enthusiasts spawned their own culture and societies, with specific rules, language and traditions. Such Larps not only inspired huge dedication to allegiances and missions, but also trained participants in sophisticated war gaming tactics. The culture slowly became a potential recruitment ground for a virtual paramilitary organisation, just waiting for someone to figure out how to deploy it in the real world.

Digital Larps are even more addictive and alluring. You may not know you are participating in one until you are already consumed by the game. My first experience came after I got sucked into the television show Lost, which ran from 2004 until 2010. The waits between seasons were frustrating. So the producers and writers of the show made The Lost Experience. They buried clues to enrich the show’s plot across the internet. There were fake websites, fake commercials, fake forums. Each crumb led to another revelation. I must have spent two weeks obsessively trawling the internet. Even though I knew it was a game, I got swept up in the chase.

Done right, Larps are powerful tools. When I was most enthralled, I could easily have been manipulated to participate in anything from a denial-of-service attack, a trolling campaign or disinformation exercise. Of course, it didn’t matter so much then. Social media networks did not have the influence they do now on politics, culture and activism.

Today, the architects of some highly sophisticated and popular Larps are entirely unknown. That is dangerous and potentially destabilising and makes the games vulnerable to being hijacked or set up by nefarious state actors. Many even set complex, cryptographic puzzles or challenges for codebreakers in the style of initiation rituals for unknown causes. The allure includes the prospect of insights into an exclusive mystery. 

One of the most famous was Cicada 3301, which set incredibly complex, multimedia puzzles starting in 2012. To this day nobody really knows who or what was behind it. Active players who got ahead of others would sometimes disappear from game play. 

Luckily there is one tell that can help us navigate the confusion. Recruits often flag their participation in a particular online trail by using symbols, jargon or oddly non-grammatical prose that non-participants would dismiss as innocuous. If that sounds an awful lot like QAnon followers, consider that it may be because they have been swept into one of the most sophisticated and weaponised Larps ever. Players beware.

Get alerts on US politics & policy when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article