Instagram's AR games take the spotlight during quarantine

They're more popular than ever these days.

Nicole Lee / Engadget

A lot of us are likely playing more games on our phones right now, while also spending more time on social media. Several of us, however, have found further comfort in the combination of the two, thanks to the increasing popularity of AR games on Instagram over the past few weeks. It sounds strange at first, but a silly interactive game on a social network appears to be the perfect antidote, albeit temporary, to our collective lockdown woes.

One of the most prominent AR effects that have emerged in the past few weeks is “Guess the Gibberish,” a creation of Christopher Gu, a senior at Missouri University of Science and Technology who’s also an intern at Microsoft. The idea behind it is simple: Point the camera at yourself, then hold down the trigger button to load a string of gibberish, such as “veer off mess sing oat.” You’re then supposed to come up with what that sounds like before the time runs out (In this case, that string of text translates to “fear of missing out.”)

Gu said he came up with the idea while watching a YouTube video of several people playing a game of Incohearant -- a card game that’s based off another card game called Mad Gab. (It’s not coincidental the Gibberish filter bears more than a passing resemblance to its Incohearant inspiration.) “I thought it was hilarious,” he told Engadget. “I laughed a lot and my favorite YouTubers were playing it. So I thought I might as well make this a filter in my free time while I’m not going to school.”

Gu created the filter using Facebook’s Spark AR Studio, which allows anyone to create effects for Facebook, Messenger and Instagram. It took him a while at first, since he’d never used it before, but after a couple of days, it was done. Even then, he was hesitant to release it. “I delayed publishing it initially because I didn’t think anyone would use it,” he laughed. Instead, he initially released a bubble wrap filter (as the name implies, it’s an overlay of bubble wrap which you can pop by tapping the virtual air pockets).

Eventually, he decided to publish the Gibberish filter anyway because of all the effort and work he put into it. He also DMed the aforementioned YouTubers -- Elle Mills and Jenn McAllister -- to tell them that he made a filter based on their video. To his delight, both of them used it and shared it on Instagram, creating a ripple effect. So much so that it became popular on TikTok too, as people started to post their resulting videos on the rival platform.

“It went crazy viral,” he said. According to the stats he gets, the Gibberish effect went from zero impressions to over four million overnight (“impressions” in this case are equivalent to views). Now, several weeks later, that filter has over 3.1 billion impressions, over 500 million “captures” (that’s when someone actually uses it) and over 30 million shares. “I have no words to describe what that feeling was like. I couldn’t believe it. Those numbers are just insane.”

Mary Orton, a fashion and lifestyle blogger at, also created her own Instagram game filter: “Random Questions While Distancing.” When the effect is triggered, you tap a box above your head to randomly generate a question such as “What’s your favorite Disney movie?” or “What’s your favorite fast food restaurant?” It has since received over 200 million impressions. It was an “attempt to provide people with a fun distraction and a great way to connect with each other on social media during the pandemic,” she told Engadget.

To be clear, third-party Instagram AR filters aren’t new; developers have been creating them for several years now. But it was only in the past year that Facebook opened up its Spark AR creation tool to the public, allowing anyone to upload their own creations to Instagram (The filters are then vetted by a team of reviewers to make sure they comply with the company’s content policies).

Random Questions

The result is a litany of AR effect choices that go beyond just bunny ears and goofy face modifications. Earlier this year, for example, a trend of “What are you” filters went viral on Instagram, prompting millions of people to hit a button on Instagram that told them what sort of Pokémon they were. That spawned dozens of copycat character quizzes, from Disney princesses to Simpsons characters. They were like Buzzfeed questionnaires, but quicker and instantly shareable.

The same is now happening for games, partly thanks to the lockdown. Not only do creators have more time to make them, but demand for them is growing. Several sites have popped up in the past few weeks publishing listicles of their favorite Instagram games to play during quarantine, and Instagram itself now has a whole “Games” category in its AR effects catalog. Some of the more popular ones include “Draw in 5 seconds” (where you have to “draw” an object with your nose within the allotted time) and “Name by Letter” (where you have to figure out a name in different categories based on a given letter). And as the creators can attest, these AR games can get hundreds and millions of views.

It’s a phenomenon that Matt Roberts, Facebook’s Spark AR product manager, said he couldn’t predict. “We definitely did not anticipate the rise of [these quizzes and games]. The community did that,” he told Engadget. He credits Spark AR’s open platform and easy-to-use tools (there’s no need to learn Javascript for example) and, obviously, the sheer reach that Facebook has. With over a billion users across the company’s different properties, Roberts said that Spark AR is the most widely used AR platform in the world if you take into account Instagram, Messenger, Portal and Facebook itself.

One of the reasons for this is Facebook’s early outreach efforts. “The tooling and the process for people to learn, build and publish their AR effects is a massive part of our investment,” said Roberts, citing a host of tutorials and documentation that are available on the Spark AR website. “We’ve made it streamlined, and easier than ever to build effects.” The result, he added, was a substantial growth in the AR creator community.

Draw Face Instagram AR effect

Yet, with all of this growth, the creators don’t really get any kind of payback. There is no monetary benefit from releasing an AR effect with a billion-plus impressions. “I just enjoy seeing other people using them,” said Gu. “It brightens my day and makes me laugh. But I make no money off of it.”

There are, however, other benefits. Any time you see an effect, you can see very clearly on the upper left the name of the effect, as well as the Instagram name of the person who created it. Gu, for example, has gained a huge 80k-plus following on Instagram as a result of his AR filters. Plus, he’s been able to make filters for other brands and influencers as a side hustle. Still, he said that it’s all for fun, as it combines his interest in AR and design. “Any other benefit is like the cherry on top,” he said.

Min Da Chia, the creator behind the aforementioned “Draw in 5 Seconds” filter, said he enjoys the reactions from users. “I get people who private message me on Instagram, thanking me for the filters which add fun to their life right now, during the lockdown situation,” he said. He’s also received opportunities from brands such as NBC to work on filters for them.

Orton hasn’t had such career opportunities yet, but said she loves the feedback she receives from her filter. “As a creator who doesn’t often get to see people on the other side of the screen, it’s been incredibly gratifying to have the opportunity to see the faces of many followers who I’ve DMed with for years,” she said.

Instagram AR effects
Nicole Lee / Engadget

When asked how he would improve the platform, Gu said that he would like to have a communication layer between the effect creator and the reviewer. For example, Gu has had his “Guess the emojis” filter disabled because of a generic “not suitable for the Instagram general user base” reason and he can’t figure out how to appeal it. “I totally understand how mistakes can happen,” he said. “But from a creator’s perspective, it hurts a lot. We spend days making effects that, in the end, don’t get published because of the approval process.”

Plus, discoverability remains a problem. Right now the only way to find an effect is to open up the Instagram stories camera, scroll all the way to the right and then go through the effects catalog. Gu would prefer it if you could search for a filter right on Instagram’s main search page.

Despite these challenges, Gu, Orton and Chia really like the impact of their AR effects, especially during this time of isolation. “It’s been really amazing to see people use it as a way to have fun and connect with each other during these socially distant times,” said Orton.

“In these past few months, we’ve seen a huge spike in the effects that were designed to elicit a response,” said Kyla Keefe, a Facebook spokesperson, adding that these kinds of interactive filters feed the human connection that we’re craving. “There’s something very community focused that’s happening.”

Based on Facebook’s other AR products, this could also lead to multiplayer games on Instagram, like the Kitten Craze AR game that debuted on Messenger a couple of years ago, or the donut-eating game on Facebook’s Portal devices. Keefe didn’t rule these sorts of experiences out. “The creators are really far ahead of us,” she said. “We expect more in that kind of second-wave of interactivity.”

Yet, the hype of these filters don’t last forever. After the initial few weeks of playing around with the Guess the Gibberish effect, for example, I’ve grown tired of it, and I’m now seeing fewer examples of it on my feed as well. But, just like other online trends, another Instagram AR effect will likely replace it as the next internet sensation, with or without the quarantine.