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Game or Cult? The Alternate Reality of the Jejune Institute

Roisin Kiberd

Roisin Kiberd

The cryptic creator of alternate reality game The Jejune Institute says there's already another one out there—but it's a secret.

Image: The Institute Movie

Cults rarely end on a high note: They hinge on anticipation, rather than results. Either they implode amid schisms and in-fighting, or they fail to deliver a promised apocalypse.

The Jejune Institute might have gone the same way. Over three years, the game/art installation/social movement became a living metafiction, encompassing a series of "episodes" staged around San Francisco as well as an online community. You might call it an alternate reality game, but its creator insists the term is insufficient.

Between 2008 and 2011, the Jejune Institute "inducted" over 7,000 players, many of whom did not know whether they were involved with a game or a religious cult. As talk spread of advertisements for "human force fields" and phone boxes which instructed you to dance in the street, the mysterious phenomenon was written up in the New York Times and a series of essays in The Awl. It culminated in the production of The Institute, a documentary which departs its genre halfway through, reneging its mission by turning into fiction.

The game was free-form and sprawling: "Meta threads for the meta-minded" sprung up on forums. Tribute blogs appeared for the mysterious missing punk teenager Eva, the subject of a search mission around San Francisco, along with a Yelp page for the Jejune Induction Centre, where new recruits were directed to a small room to see an instructional video. An anti-Jejune Institute propaganda radio station (also part of the plot) can even still be heard if you look for it playing on a loop in parts of San Francisco.

The Institute ends with an assembly of the final, most hardcore Jejune participants invited to a day-long "Socio-Reengineering" seminar, where they try out jokey New Age trust building exercises and ritualistically consume tea in pursuit of an elusive state of being known as "Divine Nonchalance". Those interviewed in the film seem disappointed with this lesser Rapture: after spending years in pursuit of the vague promise of spiritual epiphany, the creators had finally revealed themselves, killing the Jejune dream in the process.

The twist, however, is that their "recondite family" might have returned with a new game, albeit in an unrecognisable form. It might even have already started.

Image: The Institute Movie

"You can describe anything as a game. A court of law is a game. An election cycle is a game. Life itself is a game."

I spoke to Jeff Hull, creator of the Jejune Institute and its world, to find out what has happened since the film was released. I was a little apprehensive about interviewing Hull: a Nonchalance website appeared two years ago, taking credit for the Jejune Institute, but has acted as little more than a holding page. There a few testimonials for what is described as a "situational design agency"—my fear was that they and their alternate reality games (ARGs) had sold out.

"I just have to get on record as saying that, to me, ARGs are dead." Hull is speaking to me over Skype. He is driving, either somewhere in the "deep woods" or somewhere in San Francisco—he's cryptic about it, as he is with many things. "It is no small annoyance to me that this work gets described as an alternate reality game," he continues. "I hate them. I hate them. They're two-dimensional. They're usually marketing material. They don't have any higher ambition. Everything that we are doing asks people to challenge themselves, and I don't think that ARGs have ever done that."

He is deliberately careful about labelling his creations. "You can describe anything as a game. A court of law is a game. An election cycle is a game. Life itself is a game."

By this logic he describes the Jejune Institute as an "experience" rather than a game, one which can be handled on multiple levels depending on the player. Along with creatives Uriah Findley and Sara Tacher, and a wider team of Jejune devotees, Hull framed a series of hypnagogic episodes which gave the player, or searcher, just enough leeway for independent thought.

Screenshot: Jejune Institute trailer

The Jejune Institute first announced itself in 2008 with a series of fliers advertising pataphysical health products like the "Vital Orbit Human Forcefield", "Poliwater" (a more condensed form of water), a "Trans-time Camera" which could photograph the past, and most mysteriously, a handheld device known as "The Algorithm", which could apparently resolve worldly discord with the touch of a button.

"I still think about the Algorithm," Hull tells me. "The idea still feels really salient, of somehow using math and science and technology to solve the world's spiritual problems."

In a TEDx talk on "Variability and Play in the Civic Realm", Hull described society's lack of a "third place" beyond home and work for play and social interaction. Technology, in addition, forms a "fourth place", one which can lend dimension to life just as easily as it can become a black hole. In The Institute, technology, such as the screen which shows players induction videos, is a sinister tool for brainwashing and spiritual contamination.

The Jejune experience was transmedia in the purest sense—at the time the team couldn't even expect everyone to have a smartphone—and lives on in remaining fragments and the memories of its fans. "The legacy right now of the Jejune Institute is a new group of people in San Francisco called the Elsewhere Philatelic Society," Hull explains. "They're former participants who went on to create their own series of experiences, with new plots and new characters."

Outside the Philatelic Society, which paid homage to the original game with a series of commemorative stamps among other activities, there remains a club of people associated with the Institute. Everyone who appeared in the film is still part of the Nonchalant community, which is in turn tightly knitted into the fabric of its home: "It was really about San Francisco; it was an homage to the area I grew up in. All the New Age crackpots, those earnest ideals that can so easily turn into something absurd, or something really dangerous."

The Jejune Institute may also be appearing on screen again soon. Though Hull is not involved with the project personally, he mentions, "There's a possibility that the documentary may turn into a studio film."

"If we can create a new story, through real-world narrative experiences, then we are creating reality."

More exciting for those who missed the chance to join in last time, or have been patiently waiting for another go, is that there is apparently a second game (or "experience"): one as of yet nameless, at least to those not immediately involved in it. According to Hull, a new Nonchalance team has assembled and are working in conditions which sound not unlike the plot of the film Frank. "We've been living in a deep forest for the last few years, in a kind of monastic setting," he tells me. "We've been really digging deep, cultivating a whole new universe."

Hull will not go into detail about his new creation, apart from confirming that it is not a sequel to the Jejune Institute. He does see it, however, as an evolution of its predecessor: "We're being really ambitious, addressing the theme of a collective reality. Our beliefs come from the stories we tell, and our stories come from our experiences. So if we can create a new story, through real-world narrative experiences, then we are creating reality…"

I ask him if the plot will be completely new. Hull replies that it will be timeless. Where will it take place? "I can say that it's not local, and not on the internet." I ask if it will involve technology, and he tells me, "The technologies we're using are the same ones they used to build the pyramids." Aliens? "Yes. Ancient alien technologies." (This is the first and only time in our conversation that Hull sounds less than serious, though I wouldn't put aliens past him).

I ask him if this is The Latitude, a rumoured successor to the Jejune Institute, but he refuses to comment. I am beginning to suspect that Jeff Hull is the creator of Cicada 3301.

I ask him when this new experience will launch. "Oh, it's already out. It's secretly been out for a long, long time. I think it is going to proliferate hugely, just by remaining a secret."

Can he at least offer any clues?

"I have already given the clues."

He has?

"I can't really talk about that right now. I told you this would be cryptic."

Perfect Worlds is a series on Motherboard about simulations, imitations, and models. Follow along here.