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What might viewing conspiracism as a form of play tell us about the workings of contemporary culture, our capacity for critical thinking, or how we build new understandings?

On June 27, Matty Roberts announced via Facebook a plan to storm the barricades of Area 51, the classified US Air Force facility where covert research operations on alien lifeforms and spacecraft allegedly take place. Eventgoers would penetrate the heavily guarded installation safely via the tactical adoption of the Naruto run (an anime ninja posture) to “see them aliens.” By July 31, the post’s log showed “2M Going · 1.4M Interested.” Bud Light, getting into the game, has offered free beer to all extraterrestrials able to escape. Satirical images shared on Reddit show an Air Force training module explaining the art of Naruto running to troops. As kids today say, “it’s a meme.”

I wish the scholarship on conspiracy theories (CTs) was as open to fun and make-believe. If we better understood how people play with CTs we might better understand their widespread appeal—and be better positioned to undermine their influence, when necessary.

The CT genre hinges on evidence of secret plots and powerful conspirators or sinister agents working behind the scenes, pulling strings, keeping the truth to themselves because they stand to gain from such undercover intrigue. To date, most research on CTs explores their dark side, although some does recognize that CTs may support psychosocial well-being by helping people make sense of their lives. Further, but still in this vein, Mark Fenster (2008) and Luc Boltanski (2014) have examined the appeal of games, films, and novels with conspiratorial plotlines.

The CT literature has, however, failed to pick up the ball. The possibilities that conspiracy theorizing can be directly enjoyable and entertaining, or that those not overtly calling their conspiratorial musings “jokes” may still be thinking playfully remain unexplored.

In maybe third grade, my favorite book reviewed well-known CTs. I understood they were likely not true, but then again, who knew? Aliens might have landed several times on Earth; Bigfoot could be real; and there might be reasons “they” don’t want us to know about such things. I enjoyed thinking about the scenarios offered. The book did present evidence with a nod and a wink; but still, in an inversion worthy of anthropological inquiry, these were fun facts that teachers and adults would never present to us. In hindsight, the book fed a playful impulse in me—one that any scholar of childhood knows is natural to our species, nicknamed Homo Ludens (man the player) by historian Johan Huizinga (1938).

The anthropology of play has bourgeoned. Play theorists generally focus on children, but play persists into adulthood too. Understanding this could help us to advance the CT literature, which today seems stuck between pathologizing analyses based on positivist presumptions regarding “truth” and naïve attempts to maintain epistemic neutrality. Viewed through the lens of play, we might better see how making conspiratorial inferences builds one’s social capital by demonstrating a capacity for discernment and cementing social allegiances, while also serving as a way of stretching one’s critical thinking muscles. Such effort makes sense in a political economy that fetishizes self-education or savvy consumption—and in which many adults lack opportunities to really play.

Ludic conspiracism allows us to explore assumptions about the world without obligation, much in the way that children explore the world through make-believe. Earnest conspiracism can do this too, but conspiracism practiced with irreverence and irony does a much more effective job of it, because of the way ludic self-positioning protects the thinker from the danger of getting stuck in one conclusion. It’s just a game, after all. A fruitful area for research in this regard might concern whether and how adult participation in, say, improvisational theater, computer role-playing games (CRPGs), or events like Burning Man and Comic-Con affects our engagement with CTs.

Given that CTs are both unauthorized and potentially ludicrous, the sense of risk entailed in entertaining them—the thrill of dissent—can be part of the fun. Risky play aids child development physically while promoting self-regulation and self-confidence. Likewise, self-conscious conspiracism can be a bit like running with scissors when we’ve been told not to, enabling adults to see how far we can push thought-boundaries or question experts who otherwise have authority over us. In this, ludic conspiracism fits with the American emphasis on freethinking and free will: the model citizen is one unwilling to follow others blindly, no matter the consequence (as the motto goes, “Live free or die”).

In the state of play, we feel free to experiment. Because of this play has been described as a liminal or subjunctive disposition, moving us from what S. Megan Heller (2013), following Victor Turner and Gregory Bateson, terms “a sober ‘as is’ relationship with factual reality to a lighter ‘as-if’ position, opening up to what is possible.” We must be playing in some quarter of our mind when we decide, for instance, to develop and explore a new way of making fire, or traveling long distances, or understanding how plants communicate. Scholars of the CT genre need to explore correlations between CT engagement at the “what if” level, when disbelief is suspended, and various cultural processes including political participation and how science works to build new understandings.

These suggestions for future research do not mean I would displace productive explication of the tensions that CTs index. For example, African American worries that a KKK-owned fried chicken chain put “something” into the food that would neuter male patrons point to the stress of living in a racist society (see Turner 1993). We should also explore how our present, profit-driven political economy with its principle caveat emptor (buyer beware), fosters conspiratorial thought. We should continue to investigate how the CT label serves as a hegemonic device, delegitimizing alternative discourses. This delegitimizing effect explains why even extremists won’t call their ideas CTs: nobody self-identifies as a tin-foil-hat wearing nutcase (see Harambam and Aupers 2016).

CTs can have perilous repercussions, particularly when those in power endorse them for their own aims: take Pizzagate, QAnon terrorism, or the so-called vaccines-cause-autism cover-up. As we bear witness to the deep concerns about social inequalities and power maldistributions that CTs can give voice to, we must also work toward increasing the public’s resistance to being duped.

That said, we should not allow this dark and necessary focus to blind us to the brighter side of conspiracism. In making the game of the CT explicit, Roberts (the Area 51 event organizer) has invited both the public and the scholarly community to reflect on our need to lighten up. We must reclaim opportunities for humor, and stake a place for playfulness in CT research.

The time has arrived for a deep exploration of how CTs serve the human instinct for play and fortify our invaluable ability to recognize (and make or take) a joke. In that spirit, I’m off to perfect my Naruto running technique. One can never be too certain.

Elisa (EJ) Sobo is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at San Diego State University. She has published numerous peer-reviewed journal articles and books, including a forthcoming second edition of Dynamics of Human Biocultural Diversity: A Unified Approach (2019). Her most recent research concerns parents’ use of cannabis for children with intractable epilepsy seizures; how local understandings about healthy child development affect educational strategies and standards; and pediatric vaccination. This article emerged during work on a manuscript for “What Do We Do about Conspiracy Theories?”, edited by Jaron Harambam and Elzbieta Drazkiewicz, whose guidance regarding CT scholarship has been invaluable.

Cite as: Sobo, EJ. 2019. “Playing with Conspiracy Theories.” Anthropology News website, July 31, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1236