On January 6, for the third year in a row, the Internet's most infamous game began with a tweet that was sent out from a mysterious account with a message that only made sense if you were looking for it.
Hello. Epiphany is upon you. Your pilgrimage has begun. Enlightenment awaits. Good Luck.
Signed "3301," it was more than just a greeting. It was the rabbit hole leading into one of the most under-the-radar nerdfests on the Internet.
For a brief period at the beginning of the last two years, a global Internet puzzle called Cicada 3301 has captured the minds of those who plumb the depths of the darker corners of the Internet looking for puzzles to solve and challenges to outsmart. It’s a scavenger hunt of the highest caliber, and no one knows who’s behind it—only that they are looking for "highly intelligent individuals." Clues like breadcrumbs are then seeded across the web, almost all of which require extensive knowledge of cryptography and obscure texts to solve—puzzles have referenced a diverse selection of works ranging from that of occultist Aleister Crowley and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.
It has a lot in common with most Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), which require players to collaborate across the web and in real life—some ARGs have been known to have players pick up packages, go to specific locations, and answer strange telephones in order to solve a mystery or advance a master plot. The ultimate purpose of an ARG can range from elaborate viral marketing campaign to fun diversion, but they usually end with someone stepping out from behind the curtain.
Not so with Cicada. Even amidst growing interest among the press and the best efforts of the web’s brightest, we still know just as much about the contest founders or their ultimate goal as we did at the start: almost nothing. That’s almost certainly by design, writes Tess Lynch for Grantland:
The frustrating thing about Cicada 3301 is that it self-insulates against casual curiosity-seekers trying to crack it: We are not the puzzle's intended audience, which is as maddening as it is satisfying and true to form.
In fact, those looking to follow along casually can only get so far. After a certain point, the trail invariably leads to the dark web and a dead end if you aren’t among the first there. After that, concrete, verifiable information dries up as selected participants are instructed to not divulge further details, like a hacker’s Fight Club.
For most of us the trail ends here, right where it began—although the greater Cicada community tirelessly pieces together every scrap of information they can find, contributing to an extensive Wiki and collaborating via Reddit. While few know what happens to those who "win," theories abound on for whom Cicada 3301 is recruiting—government think tanks, hacktivist collectives, and disturbing Nietzschean cults are among those suspected. While suspicions abound, answers about the game's origin are still elusive.
"That’s the beauty of it though," computer analyst and Cicada participant Joel Eriksson told Business Insider during last year’s challenge. "It is impossible to know for sure until you have solved it all."