Ong’s Hat.

A funny little name. A name on a map of a town that can’t be found.

Emerging on the nascent public internet at some indeterminate point in the late nineties, Ong’s Hat was the prototype for what would become a genre of participatory literature called the alternate reality game, or ARG. An ARG is part adventure story, part puzzle, part esoteric mystery, part scavenger hunt, part online community, all quite weird. They are mostly played on public forums, to capture the widest audience, but their content often spans multiple platforms, and typically multiple media. There have been many thousands of ARGs now, tiny and massive, but one of them was first, and it was wilder than the rest.

Ong’s Hat was by turns surreal, goofy, cosmic, and sinister, drawing heavily on classic counterculture and conspiracy theory lore. In the very early days of the worldwide web, it was doing something in a dispersed form that Mark Z. Danielewski would shortly be hailed as a postmodern genius for doing in the novel House of Leaves: playing adeptly with our ideas about how and why we find things to be true. What makes us believe a thing is real? The course of the game, its story, exists only in inaccurate second-hand reports and archived materials stripped of context now. By accident or by design, all the original online content has long since subsided into the digital sands, but the ghost of Ong’s Hat haunts us still.

As the millennium ticked by, media corporations clocked the power of ARGs as pre-release hype engines and data-mining projects for big-budget films or video games. Homebrew and shoestring ARGs began to proliferate almost invisibly as non-commercial storytelling art projects on the fringes of the internet. Academics began to muse seriously about new forms of transmedia narrative dispersion. The category of parafiction began to take on a whole new shape. But even in this moment when it briefly seemed ARGs might become popular, low-overhead vehicles of subversive art, their fatal flaws were already emerging.

The internet is too strange in its dark corners to tolerate strangeness in its public squares. ARG communities quickly fester and turn sour and become something uncomfortably cult-like, attracting newcomers who have no interest in the game or its story. Newcomers who only care about how the weirdness connects to their own weirdness. It has happened to a greater or lesser extent with almost every popular ARG that didn’t have heavyweight corporate support to keep their messaging pure and their communities managed. Trent Reznor’s 2007 concept album and ARG hybrid, Year Zero, was supposed to present a radical new artform to the world but only showed that where the purpose of the ARG was known from the start, it just did not exert the same pull on the imagination — they must be autotelic, or seem so. Many others tried with mixed success but anywhere that ARGs were being discussed online, the strange apophenic fish would be hovering, observing. For many years these people have just been considered trolls, but if so then there are different species of troll. The ARG as a storytelling genre is almost discarded now, as the public internet has steadily become an increasingly baleful place. Joseph Matheny, the principal creator of Ong’s Hat, has said that his work was never meant to be an ARG at all, just a transmedia storytelling experiment. It’s true that ARGs came afterward, but Ong’s Hat was the first, the strangest, the most hopeful, and ultimately the most tragic of them all.

And almost nobody knows its nearly secret history. Of those who do recognize the name, some (quite intentionally) misunderstand what it is. Ong’s Hat was one of the most ingenious and immersive ironic conspiracy theories ever told, and there remains in some quarters a persistent refusal to unsuspend disbelief in the specifics of its sweeping, totalizing conspiracy plot. The scale of its planning and execution across time and (both digital and physical) space was something close to epic. Journal articles published many years before the online game began, written by a real scholar who had appeared to be a character in the game, were found to contain specific story clues encoded into their otherwise innocently erudite text.

Players testify to the story’s power to reach right out into your life at moments like this, to smear across the boundary between the fiction and the real. There is a frisson particular to ARGs in that encounter — the sudden vulnerability that you feel within what is essentially still a kind of reading experience, when you discover that an element you had assumed to be contained within some troubling fiction turns out to exist independently and outside of it.

There has never been anywhere that concisely but adequately described what Ong’s Hat itself was actually about, until recently:

This hour-long podcast at decoder goes in depth into the content and history of Ong’s Hat, including extensive interviews with the major players and some sharp analysis. There is also a brief written synopsis of the underlying story. It is all good work, and long past time Ong’s Hat had some sort of coverage like this.

I have been thinking about Ong’s Hat again because understanding how this kind of encounter with this kind of literature carries such a powerfully compulsive affective charge is key to understanding the intense cult-like aspect of the “Q” movement. The same people who drained all the joy out of Ong’s Hat are the same people who are driving the Q movement from the inside, corralling others in the group across the line between suspension of disbelief and delusion.

Such people are lost souls looking for other lost souls. Their own deep personal anxieties lend their feverish speculations an edge of fierce, intolerant urgency. Their discourse is impeccably practiced, a perfect closed loop of impermeable, self-referential logic. They see images of society and history presented in the media that bear no relation to the world they know, and so they already know that everything you think you know is bullshit. With Q, or with some other conspiracy, they have found the secret key that explains why they have been rejected, shut out, scorned, and ridiculed all along. More than this, Q promises revenge.

If you construct the right story for the right audience, an ARG can be to a human mind what a ball of string is to a kitten. Not just ARGs, but problems, mysteries in general, niggle and command our attention. From sudoku to true crime podcasts, once we have turned our mind towards a problem, its possible solution pesters us. Puzzles can be almost compulsive lures, especially if you can persuade people that in the process of working through them they are unearthing an authentic mystery for themselves, rather than following carefully designed signposts along a well-trodden path.

This is the persuasive power of Q: to convince its adherents that they are genius detectives who are piecing together tricky clues, not marks who have been suckered by a massive far-right social media operation. If you are a Q follower, or a conspiracy theorist more generally, then you believe you have access to a higher truth that other people could also access if only they weren’t so dull, and unimaginative, and sheep-like. This same dynamic exists in activist and hippie communities and in many loosely New Age pseudo-political movements like anti-vaccination campaigns. Such groups depend upon the same kinds of closed loops of discourse that make Q and its various bespoke communities of followers so resistant to reason.

When you argue with a Q follower, or a conspiracy theorist, or an anti-vaccine guy, you unavoidably present yourself as the face of “the system” or whatever constitutes the social force they feel has rejected them. Every counterpoint you offer is a trick that has fooled you but won’t fool them, the wily maverick outsider. You just can’t see the big picture, which they can, because they spend a lot of time late at night, high as balls, reading blogs that feed their paranoid fantasies. They will frame your skepticism as lack of curiosity and tell you to “do your own research”. This invariably means reading only the same websites they read, that seem persuasive to them. If you somehow don’t find those things persuasive, it is only because you are too square, too committed to ordinary, mainstream reality. You fear the terrible light of understanding that sharing in their secret knowledge would bring, or else you are actively hostile to their truth-telling mission. Trying to shame such a lost person for their beliefs will not work. Shame, and hurtful interpersonal rejection, is why they hold those beliefs in the first place. Anything that shames them further only digs them in deeper, which might be why QAnon has been like Kryptonite for that type of liberal for whom shame is always the weapon of first resort. These bitter, acrimonious interactions only prove to the Q follower that they are right.

A Q follower is not simply a conspiracy theorist. The players who discovered Ong’s Hat were not simply reading a story. Q is conspiracy theory as alternate reality game, the logical conclusion of all bona fide ARGs being hijacked and wrecked by boring, corny illuminati nerds. In Q, you, as the player, participate in the grand narrative of this Manichean fairy tale by telling people about it, propagating it, following its traces. You will share in the glory of Q’s eventual, oft-promised victory over the forces of liberal communist satanic evil if you keep the faith. You need only be patient, keep on kicking the can down the road, and one day they will see. This resolution will be indefinitely deferred. It is not important that the destination ever be reached. It is the promised land.

The problem of Q is the problem of ARGs and apophenia. It is the problem that Ong’s Hat uncovered, and which killed it. It has been growing ever since, and now this problem numbers in the millions. Herding and goading each other into greater heights of resentment and fear, fantasizing and roleplaying fascism into reality to justify their alienation.

QAnon is not properly the name of a person, or a movement, or a coherent philosophy. It is a funny little name. A name on a map of a town that can’t be found.

Edit to add: Read this analysis of the relationship between Q and ARGs by someone who has designed and worked on ARGs, Reed Berkowitz.