Elan Lee is the vice president of alternate reality game powerhouse 42 Entertainment. His resume includes sensations like The Beast and I Love Bees, as well as new experiments like EDOC Laundry and Cathy’s Book.
At the 2006 Montreal International Games Summit, Lee led an introductory session on ARG’s. Afterwards, we sat down with him for a brief interview.
Gamasutra: The Beast is widely considered the very first ARG. Would you agree?
Elan Lee: No, I consider the first ARG The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper's” album. Of course, it depends how you define an ARG. My definition is very loose. An alternate reality game is anything that takes your life and converts it into an entertainment space. If you look at a typical video game, it’s really about turning you into a hero; a super hero, a secret agent. It’s your ability to step outside your life and be someone else. An ARG takes those same sensibilities and applies them to your actual life. It says, what if you actually were a super hero, what if you actually were a secret agent? Instead of living in the box that’s your television or your computer, why not use your actual life as a storytelling delivery platform?
GS: You mentioned “Sgt. Pepper's.” Was that one of your inspirations for The Beast?
I mentioned the album because that’s really, for me, where it started. They embedded a bizarre series of clues and mysteries into the cover, turning you into something more than you previously thought of you were. Look at this album: There’s a phone number hidden in the bushes over there. What would happen if I called it? Your superpower is simply that you notice this cool thing that most people don’t notice.
GS: Did the clues on the album cover actually lead somewhere?
EL: There was no internet at the time, so people weren’t able to form large-scale teams, but a lot of people went through the experience, and there are rumors that they solved the mystery of whether or not Paul was dead, and they figured out this secret island that the Beatles created somewhere. It all lives in rumors, of course, and I wasn’t even alive at the time, so I have no actual idea, but it’s something that I read about and thought, there’s something here. There’s something very empowering about saying there’s a little bit of magic in this world, and if you pay attention you’ll find it.
GS: Yesterday, during your talk, you also mentioned the Michael Douglas movie The Game as an inspiration. Where does that fit in?
EL: That movie completely twisted my mind. I have this terrible lack of ability to predict the end of any movie. I sit there, completely gullible and taken in by the movie makers. Anyway, I got to the end of that movie, and I was blown away, because I didn’t see it coming, at all. And I thought, there’s something magical here in the ability to take someone’s life and transform it into an entertainment platform. The movie got really scary and creepy; we wouldn’t actually want to do that, but on a much smaller scale there are some really fun things there. What if you’re walking down the street and a payphone rings. This is something that has happened to me tons of times. I travel a lot, so I’m always walking through airports, and inevitably a phone will ring. I always run over to answer it, thinking, what adventure lies in store? And it’s always a wrong number, a telemarketer, but every time I have that little moment of hope: Is an adventure about to start?
Alternate reality games attempt to deliver on that potential. Everyone wants to believe that they have the capability to live that secret agent life. Oh my god, a phone’s ringing! Maybe it’s someone who needs to talk to me because only I can save them. So we try to say, yeah, only you can save the day, and that phone ringing is for you, so answer it.