On New Year's Eve, Farmville shut down. Unlike everyone else who seemed to play the game a decade ago, I never experienced it. Why? Mercifully, I wasn't on Facebook.

An article in The New York Times argues that Farmville, and other, similar, games made by Zynga, paved the way for the kind of 'social' experiences we have seen in the last decade. That is to say, mass behaviour modification disguised as a game.

Mia Consalvo, a professor in game studies and design at Concordia University in Canada, was among those who saw FarmVille constantly in front of her.

“When you log into Facebook, it’s like, ‘Oh, 12 of my friends need help,’” she said.

She questioned how social the game actually was, arguing that it didn’t create deep or sustained interactions.

“The game itself isn’t promoting a conversation between you and your friends, or encouraging you to spend time together within the game space,” she said. “It’s really just a mechanic of clicking a button.”

FarmVille Once Took Over Facebook. Now Everything Is FarmVille. (The New York Times)

It's hardly surprising, then, that conspiracy theories have now become Alternative Reality Games (ARGs) or Live Action Role Playing Games (LARPs) where claims can never be falsified.

You may have heard of QAnon, the batshit-crazy conspiracy theory. As one game designer points out, it's so effective, despite it being anti-rational, because of the incredible amounts of apophenia ("tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things") it entails.

QAnon has often been compared to ARGs and LARPs and rightly so. It uses many of the same gaming mechanisms and rewards. It has a game-like feel to it that is evident to anyone who has ever played an ARG, online role-play (RP) or LARP before. The similarities are so striking that it has often been referred to as a LARP or ARG. However this beast is very very different from a game.


QAnon grows on the wild misinterpretation of random data, presented in a suggestive fashion in a milieu designed to help the users come to the intended misunderstanding. Maybe “guided apophenia” is a better phrase. Guided because the puppet masters are directly involved in hinting about the desired conclusions. They have pre-seeded the conclusions. They are constantly getting the player lost by pointing out unrelated random events and creating a meaning for them that fits the propaganda message Q is delivering.

A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon (Curioser Institute)

Ironically enough, the arc of my career, and many other knowledge workers like me, is to spot connections between similarly unrelated things.

As Dorian Taylor points out in his newsletter, there is a lot of money to be made as the 'trusted intermediary' between people and the information they desire.

The role of the intermediary is, nominally, to act as a trusted source, conduit, or steward of shared informational state. Being the trusted steward of shared informational state is functionally the same as owning it. Platform operators understand this in their bones, which is why they make their fiefdoms easy to join and hard to quit. And they do that by making the information you put into them hard to pry back out.

Setting the Tone for an Anti-Platform
(the making of Making Sense)

Taylor is talking mainly about platforms and standards, but the point remains that intermediaries only remain trusted so long as what they say is either objectively true (i.e. is 'falsifiable') or they can keep spinning the lies long enough.

In early 2021, we live in a world of what has become known as 'fake news' or 'alternative facts'. As Caleb James DeLisle recently pointed out in an epic New Year's Eve thread, however, is that there's another way of understanding this as being a move away from what he calls 'consensus reality'.

There are obviously facts which are beyond question: no matter how much you believe, jumping from a tall building will not make you fly. But social constructions accepted as truth are far more pervasive than most people think.

2020 is finally coming to a close, and like many people you probably cannot wait for this cursed year to be over. But did you stop to think that January 1st is only the boundary between years because Julius Caesar decreed it so? Social constructs are pervasive.

Caleb James DeLisle (Mastodon)

People having different ways of understanding the world is the default way that tribes of humans work. The scientific method, an agreement on objective facts, is a relatively new invention.

Since 2005, the hugely lucrative game that Big Tech has got us to play is adtech: behavioural modification through invasive advertising that tracks your every move. Now, though, we're all at it, trying to modify one another's behaviour to get the external world to adhere to the internal one we've created.

Quotation-as-title from Elizabeth Bransco. Image by Mari Helin.