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A ‘Brainwashed Death Cult’: The Gamification of Conspiracy

Heidi Siegmund Cuda investigates how the QAnon movement modelled itself on popular gaming culture

A woman holds a QAnon sign at an anti-lockdown protest in Oregon. Photo: Alex MilanTracy/Sipa USA

A ‘Brainwashed Death Cult’The Gamification of Conspiracy

Heidi Siegmund Cuda investigates how the QAnon movement modelled itself on popular gaming culture

When it comes to conspiracy theories, none is odder – or has attracted more mainstream media and political attention – than QAnon. 

The theory posits that a shadowy network of Democrat and Hollywood elites are trafficking children through underground tunnels in order to harvest “adrenochrome” from their blood. The substance is supposed to have anti-ageing powers and QAnon followers believe that it is more potent when harvested from frightened children. They also believe that Democrats have been the perpetrators of this satanic ritual abuse and trusted Donald Trump to “save the children” from the “forces of darkness”. 

During the 2020 US Presidential Election, Republican candidates such as Marjorie Taylor Greene expressed their belief in the conspiracy theory. Trump himself said that QAnon followers liked him very much. According to James Stewartson, who has spent a year looking into QAnon and its cult, Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is among a small, elite cabal with strong links to the movement.

The Coronavirus pandemic has been good for QAnon. With millions of people locked away in their homes, the tin foil burned brightly.

For the past year, Stewartson has been documenting the QAnon cult. He predicted the events of 6 January, when far-right activists stormed the US Capitol, on his Twitter feed, and believes that the assailants must be viewed through an “invasion of the body snatchers” lens.

“They’re victims of a psychological attack,” Stewartson told Byline Times. “They need help. They are suffering from a dissociative disorder. Some of them may have been racist before, but not all of them. It’s really important to understand that those ideas are put into their heads by a cult.”

Having worked in virtual reality, artificial intelligence and game design, Stewartson quickly realised that the techniques developed by ‘alternate reality games’ were helping to fuel QAnon’s march across the internet and into the US Congress. 


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A Dangerous Game

Stewartson told Byline Times how he “got into VR in 1995” and – about two decades ago – helped pioneer “alternate reality games”, which were “fun and used for good”.

Alternate reality games included setting up puzzles and scavenger hunts, creating real world and internet archaeology to solve mysteries – “it was really big in the Noughties,” Stewartson said.

One game, designed to market the Halo 2 video game, involved a nine-month adventure whereby players would go out into the real world with GPS and wait at pay phones, which were programmed to ring and offer clues.

At the time, such viral campaigns were created with set boundaries and clear explanations of where to look for clues. But, in 2020, the techniques that had encouraged people to have fun exploring their cities, and were employed by big brands to sell their products, went rogue. 

QAnon was using similar game-play to radicalise people into believing its conspiracy theories. 

The conspiracy began when an anonymous user known as “Q”, who claimed to have a level of US security approval known as “Q clearance”, put a series of posts on the 4Chan message board. These messages became known as “Q drops” or “breadcrumbs”, often written in cryptic language peppered with slogans, pledges and pro-Trump themes.

Followers of the conspiracy were, on one level, engaged in a game of waiting for clues that they had to decode – just as during the Noughties’ craze for viral treasure hunts. 

“So Q, who doesn’t exist by the way, sent people off to solve mysteries that didn’t exist,” Stewartson said. “They said, ‘here’s a mystery, go solve it’. The trouble is, the forums they were doing that in were filled with traumatic, sadistic, and harmful propaganda. Child abuse videos, horrific adrenochrome child raping video, all of that content was there, right next door, for the people who were trying to solve these mysteries”.

The Five Tentacles 

Stewartson is clear that misogyny was a core mobilising agent for the radicalisation of QAnon followers. This misogyny began with ‘Gamergate’, which targeted feminist game developers, and morphed into and grew the alt-right – the movement that developed around characters such as Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, and his protegé Milo Yiannopoulos. 

Bannon is one of the tentacles of five white men who Stewartson claims play a pivotal role in QAnon’s spread. 

“Mike Flynn is the psyops guy and the general,” he told Byline Times. “Roger Stone spreads the propaganda on various media outlets, along with Steve Bannon who brings the billionaires and runs enormous targeting and propaganda operations. Erik Prince trains everybody and executes specific targeting operations from training centres in Wyoming, North Carolina, and Virginia. He trains physical troopers, but he also trains psychological terrorists. Peter Thiel funded Maga3X, which was the group that started QAnon.”

Prince is the brother of Donald Trump’s former education secretary Betsy DeVos and founder of the Blackwater private security giant involved in a mass shooting of civilians in Iraq – the shooters were pardoned by Trump in December 2020. Meanwhile, Peter Thiel is the founder of Palantir and PayPal, while Roger Stone is an American conservative political consultant and lobbyist.

“The ultimate goal, the shared project, as it were, is the destruction of the concept of liberal democracy,” said Stewartson. “They think multiculturalism and all the ‘woke’, social justice warrior, racial inclusion is bad and they use racism and anti-Semitism to sell it.”

Stewartson believes that the ultimate goal of the project is to “convince everyone that you are right and destroy the ideas that oppose you”.

“They want to destroy global liberal democracy and replace it with fascism and authoritarianism, because they believe that situation is the best for them, and they may be right,” he said. “Because if you’re rich, king of the world, what do you need all these people for?”

This is, in part, why QAnon has focused on spreading anti-vaxxer and anti-mask conspiracy theories during the Coronavirus pandemic, alongside its main satanic focus. 

“It is a brainwashed death cult,” Stewartson adds. “So many dying people are in hospitals because of this cult. If you dispute the facts that the cult has put in their head, you are automatically the enemy.”

As he enters year two of documenting the cesspool that is QAnon, James Stewartson told Byline Times that he is incapable of giving up the fight.

“I have three kids, and I don’t want them to live in a fascist hell-scape. It’s basically that simple”.

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