It is reminiscent of a joke told by a 6-year old. But instead of “How is an elephant like a loaf of bread?”, I’m asking, “How is QAnon like Ratatouille: The Musical?” In addition to their shared context, both phenomena rising to mass consciousness in the late days of the Trump presidency and in the shadow of pre-vaccine pandemic lockdowns, both QAnon and Ratatouille: The Musical are both manifestations of participatory and emergent behaviours, made possible by web 2.0 collaborative interactivity. But whereas, the amateur artists of Ratatouille: The Musical created, well, a musical; the adherents of Q who elaborate the intricacies of the QAnon orthodoxy created an entire alternate reality.
QAnon is an apparently widespread American conspiracy theory, born in the dark corners of the web, that believes among other things, that Donald Trump has been chosen to save America from a deep state cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats, who are also pedophiles.  Ratatouille: The Musical, on the other hand, was born on TikTok, and is an assemblage of lyrics, music, dialogue, choreography, set and costume design sketches, that re-imagine the animated Disney/Pixar movie Ratatouille as a Broadway-style musical.  In early January 2021, both QAnon and Ratatouille: The Musical seeped out of the virtual realm and into reality. Over the weekend of 1-3 January, a production featuring a cast of well-known Broadway performers, streamed on Today’s Tix. The event raised $1.9 million for the Actors Fund.  On 6 January, the day of the certification of the results of the 2020 election, a crowd comprised of right-wing ‘militias’ and QAnon supporters who believed that the election was ‘stolen,’ stormed the US Capitol building with the aim of disrupting those proceedings. Five people including Capitol police and protestors died. 
Ratatouille: The Musical is at its heart a crowdsourced work. Beginning with an a cappella rendition of an ode to the main character Remy the rat, posted by TikTok user Em Jaccs, other TikTok denizens augmented this initial song, Daniel Mertzlufft added orchestral scoring. Others constructed a set model, wrote and performed more songs, invented choreography, even puppets. Not only is it participatory, but the iterative recycling and re-imagining marks this as a potentially emergent phenomenon. There is no director, no producer, no playwright or composer. Apart from the inspiration of the original movie, there is no controlling animus at all. There is no gatekeeping. Every contribution is valid—even potentially contradictory or exclusive elements become enfolded into the sprawling motley whole. One notable characteristic that distinguishes the Ratatouille project from myriad other similar collective works is that there is a knowing wink, a sly pretense that this could in fact be, IS in fact, real. Rebecca Alter makes this observation in her history of the musical’s development on Vulture.com. She writes, “the specific appeal of the Ratatouille musical is the alternate reality of it all: It is not inconceivable that there is a timeline where Ratatouille: The Musical was announced as a big-budget, family-friendly production alongside the likes of Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid.”  Additional creative elements that project that reality include a (faux) Broadway-style yellow-header Playbill and video from a high school cast party at Denny’s. This is where Ratatouille: The Musical tips into performance--using mimetic representation to create (probably) alternate fictional worlds.
Pervasive games, or alternative reality games (ARG) invite players to participate in covert activities in a hidden universe existing in parallel with the usual mundane one. One of the simplest pervasive games is perhaps Assassins where a group of friends or co-workers are each given the name of another person in the group to “kill.” The kill, depending on the agreed rules, is accomplished with coloured dot stickers, water pistol, or simple touch tag. If you successfully assassinate your target, you take the name of their target and move on to your next mission. The winner is the last person still alive. The pervasive nature of Assassins arises from the extended duration and expansive boundaries of the game that takes place in the interstices of everyday life over the course of days or even weeks. There is also a critical element of being secret weirdos, as your kills cannot be witnessed by anyone else, especially non-participant bystanders. The foundational book on this subject is Pervasive Games: Theory and Design  by Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern. They begin with Assassins and trace the proliferation of the genre through fictional-game-events like The Beast,  Shelby Logan’s Run,  and Uncle Roy All Around You,  linking at the end to the global TV phenomenon of The Amazing Race. These game-performance hybrids necessitate the imaginative invention of a separate world for the in-group of players within the magic circle.
By this logic, QAnon is a massive pervasive game. With its focus on discovering and decoding secret messages, the active logic of QAnon’s search for the ultimate truth is the same. In a September 2020 article in WIRED Magazine, writer Clive Thompson documents the insights of game designer Adrian Hon, who makes exactly this observation: “ARGs are designed to be clue-cracking, multiplatform scavenger hunts. . . .To belong to the QAnon pack is to be part of a massive crowdsourcing project that sees itself cracking a mystery.”  There is real pleasure in solving these perceived puzzles. The distinction however between the QAnon alt-reality narrative and that of something like The Beast is that in the case of The Beast, it is the fictional creation of Microsoft/Warner Bros to support the promotion of the film AI: Artificial Intelligence. There is an intelligence behind the game scenario. For QAnon, the hidden narrative that they seek to reveal is non-existent. There is no secret plan for global domination. There is no wizard behind the curtain. The truth is not out there. (Really.) Rather the ‘truth’ is being created iteratively by the seekers out of nothing.
What’s fascinating about this, then, is how this is an illustration of emergence in action. Emergence is a participatory phenomenon. Emergence doesn’t need a leader or a coherent narrative to get started, coherence arrives as a dumb product of the game mechanic, of the controlling algorithm. It is Internet-based social media platforms that provide the accelerator. Emergence algorithms require thousands, if not millions, of reactive local responses. Think flocking birds or colony building ants. Conspiracy theories are not in and of themselves participatory. They are the result, however, of a participatory emergent algorithm that produces the standard genre characteristics of a conspiracy theory (or a murmuration of starlings or insect architecture).
BONUS THOUGHT: Participation in conspiracy theories seems to align with feelings of powerlessness, perceptions of lack of control. It is not coincidental that paranoid conspiracy narratives tend to foster themes of control by elite “others.” (Sometimes radical socialist Democrats and Zionist globalist Jews, but also aliens). Mariah points out quite rightly that the musical theatre creators of Ratatouille: The Musical are also, within the realm of professional Broadway-bound musical development, powerless. Their pretense that their Ratatouille musical is real is a gesture of defiance that recognizes their outsider status.
 Roose, Kevin. “What is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?” New York Times. 4 February 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-qanon.html
 Alter, Rebecca. “Broadway Is Closed but But Ratatouille the Musical Is Cooking on TikTok.” Vulture. 19 November 2020. https://www.vulture.com/2020/11/ratatouille-musical-tiktok.html
 The official Playbill for Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical. https://www.playbill.com/ratatouillemusical; Bereznak, Alyssa. “Anyone Can Cook: The Oral History of Ratatouille the Musical.” The Ringer. 31 December 2020. https://www.theringer.com/movies/2020/12/31/22206943/ratatouille-musical-oral-history-tiktok-trend-making-of
 Healy, Jack. “These Are the 5 People Who Died in the Capitol Riot” New York Times. 11 January 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/us/who-died-in-capitol-building-attack.html
 Alter. “Broadway is Closed.”
 Montola, Markus., Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern. Pervasive Games: Theory and Design. CRC Press, 2009.
 The Beast is one of the earliest known mass ARG. It was developed as a promotional event in support of the movie AI: Artificial Intelligence. It ran approximately 5 months beginning in March 2001 and reached upwards of 5000 players worldwide. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beast_(game)
 Shelby Logan’s Run is the October 2002 Las Vegas iteration of a regular game, treasure/puzzle hunt, road rally called The Game occurring annually on the US west coast. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Game_(treasure_hunt); https://web.archive.org/web/20050720002159/http://www.shelbylogansrun.com/
 Uncle Roy All Around You was a combined online and in the street mixed-reality game produced by Blast Theory in June 2003 in London, UK. https://www.blasttheory.co.uk/projects/uncle-roy-all-around-you/
 Thompson, Clive. “QAnon is LIke a Game--A Most Dangerous Game.” Wired Magazine 22 September 2020. https://www.wired.com/story/qanon-most-dangerous-multiplatform-game/
 Roose, Kevin. “A QAnon Digital Soldier Marches On, Undeterred by Theory’s Unravelling.” New York Times. 17 January 2021. From a New York Times profile of a QAnon “meme queen,” the author writes, “What attracts Ms. Gilbert and many other people to QAnon isn’t just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It’s the community and sense of mission it provides. . . . New QAnon believers are invited to chat rooms and group texts, and their posts are showered with likes and retweets. They make friends, and are told that they are not lonely Facebook addicts squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi photos, but patriots gathering “intel” for a righteous revolution.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/17/technology/qanon-meme-queen.html
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