A game called the Jejune Institute

elizabeth tobey
Feb 25, 2016 · 24 min read
Image source

Part One.

These posts were first published on my personal blog on November 14, 2010 and April 11, 2011. They chronicle an alternate reality game around the Jejune Institute — you can read all about the experience through these amazing Google links (and also see a film!).

Jejuning, as I called it, was the beginning of a now lifelong quest to find the coolest experiential things out there. Since Jejune, I’ve played tag in a mall, hunted folks with Nerf Guns at night in San Francisco’s Union Square, done a ton of Escape The Room type games, run dozens of miles through the city in multiple Journey to the End of the Night games, ran a 5K while being chased by zombies (after which I dressed up like a zombie and chased other people running 5Ks), played Ingress so much I started kinda stalking a dude who also played it in my neighborhood, and run several times a week so I can pretend to be a post-apocalyptic citizen in the mobile game, Zombies, Run!

Jejune also opened my mind to what ARGs could be — so much so that it strongly influenced the later designs of two ARGs I ran for work (Something in the Sea and Citizen Skywatch, if you are into that sort of thing).

Okay, enough preamble. Let’s talk about Jejuning.


If you’ve been following my Twitter account for any length of time, likely you have heard me say at least once that I have been Jejuned. If you are confused, this blog post is for you. It probably won’t make you any less confused, but it will at the very least explain what the hell I mean when I turn the word jejune into a verb.

First, some backstory.

My job is to run interactive marketing and the community team for 2K Games. As such, I’m in charge of all experiential programs. You might call them ARGs, but I think that sounds too pirate-y, and I’m not a fan of “viral” either, so experiential it is. In real world terms, this means I ran a BioShock 2 campaign called Something in the Sea, another one for Mafia II called The Story of Frankie Potts, and now have embarked on Project Enemy Unknown for XCOM. SITS is most like jejunery — crazy puzzles, alternate world and fiction within the world where we live now, real world events, crazy mailings, crazy phone calls — the whole works. I really loved making SITS and it took my fascination with ARGs/viral events to a whole new level — one would call it obsession. And since I create these things for my job, it makes sense for me to research and do as many as I can.

Which brings me to Jejuning.

THE FIRST DAY

My friend Steve was the catalyst for Jejuning. He and his then girlfriend, Rachel, were going to do an ARG-like event in San Francisco and invited me and my boyfriend, Mike, to come. He also invited our friends Chris and Jake, who are also insane gamers who also work in video games. When we started, we knew there was going to be a story, it was going to be trippy, and we were going to wander around San Francisco.

Before we went, we looked at this website, which is sort of the “intro” to the adventure: http://nonchalance.com/. We also looked at http://www.jejuneinstitute.org/ which *is* part of the adventure. (Note: these links no longer work as the game is over.)

Jejuning day one doesn’t have many pictures, but went like this: We went to the 16th floor of an office building, watched a crazy video from the head of the Jejune Institute, took some paper with crazy ass directions on them and walked around San Francisco following clues. We were “opening our minds” for the Institute, learning about different levels of being, and in general being inducted into their program. During this quest, we found a detective’s office and that he was searching for a woman named Eva who had vanished. (This was one of the best moments of the day, actually, because the floor where the office was happened to be closed the Saturday we were trying to go, and so while we were looking for a way to go up the elevator a gal in the shop near us yelled “there’s no detective up there! It doesn’t exist, I don’t know why people keep looking for that office”). After spending about two hours winding around Chinatown, we ended up back at the same office building we began (allegedly a psychologist we needed to meet worked there). However, instead of finding the doctor, we were given a key to unlock a creepy locker in the office and find this really strange altar to something called Nonchalance. (And now, a picture of Steve and Chris going in to that locker).

We knew, going in to the event, that there were three chapters to Jejuning, so we headed out to find out what we could about Nonchalance over in the Mission. There, we listened to a radio station powered by this Nonchalance group, but then deemed it too late in the day to go find all the hobo coins and teeth the station was telling us to get from nearby shops, so we reconvened a couple weeks later on a sunny Saturday morning.

If you are asking yourself how I just went from scavenger hunt to hobo coins, yes. Exactly.

THE SECOND DAY

Part two of Jejunerying was honestly where shit started getting really weird. Our first excursion entailed us learning more as disciples (kind of) of the Jejune Institute. However, stepping in to the world of Nonchalance we were now finding out that Nonchalance and Jejune were enemies — and that the Institute was bad. Also, that Eva was very important to Nonchalance and we had to find her. So, for this hunt, we walked around small shops in the Mission (a cool pirate shop, a place with a lot of taxidermy, a record store, a used bookshop…) asking for hobo coins and teeth.

You used these coins in different shops to get the teeth and other goodies, as well as directions to new locations. Eventually, we ended up taking part in the world’s tiniest postal service and received our very own painfully tiny letter.

Calling this number gets you some trippy info. I really, really love how they use shop owners and message services to make this game move forward.

During this journey, we learned a lot about Eva’s life and childhood: In short, it was fucked up. Her mom was kind of insane and clearly part of the world of Nonchalance — and her mom vanished/died when Eva was younger. Eva also became a wild and trouble child in her teenage years. We also learned about Elsewhere Public Works, which is part of the whole Nonchalance movement, and that Eva’s mom was Elsewhere — which ostensibly is a place within the universe but not here. You know, I guess if you transcend.

The highlight of this day, as a side note, was when we tried to find the Hip Hop Shoe Repair. See, we went to a lot of real stores during our adventures, and visited Hip Hop’s MySpace page on our iPhones and Android devices, but we weren’t sure if the place existed. It doesn’t (at least I’m pretty sure it doesn’t) and the recording on their answering machine was all we needed — but the fact we spent a good ten minutes around a closed newsstand, trying to puzzle out whether we were supposed to actually find a way INTO the tiny ass thing, really hammered home how well done Jejuning can be.

Eventually, in the record shop, we received a CD and were instructed to listen to the last track. (Side note: I may, at some point, write a critique of Jejune wearing my I-Make-Shit-Like-This hat. I think a lot of this is done amazingly well — and gets better with each event — but I think some things were real stumbling points and clumsily handled, like this CD. However, for the purpose of trying to explain to you guys what I’ve been doing, I’m leaving that stuff out). Anyway, back to the CD, we had to go to my car and listen to it because people don’t carry Discmen around anymore. The track brought us back to Eva’s childhood and took us on a walk with her and her mother. We got to listen to them talk and, if we had been able to listen on a Discman, we would have been able to walk the route with them and see what they saw. That didn’t happen, but Eva and her mother ended up at a used bookshop, so our last stop was there.

Based on our instructions, we were to find this area in the shop. In this bookcase was a tiny diorama (I think made by Eva) about her life.

We found the book we needed to find (during the recording Eva played interdimensional hopscotch). The book was filled with nothing but the following on every page:

This led us to a website which asked us a whole bunch of questions (you can try and play with it here: http://elsewherepublicworks.com/ but you really need the information we garnered to get anywhere). We also found http://rememberingeva.com/ which led us to our third adventure: retracing Eva’s last steps before she disappeared.

THE THIRD DAY

We ended up around Coit Tower for our third day — where Eva hung out with the Savants (her friends). Each of us came with an mp3 that had recordings of police investigations. We wound our way around this amazingly beautiful and slightly hidden back trail in that area, listening to these recordings by her friends, living Eva’s last night.

Along the way, we picked up a post card, found out that Eva vanished when her drunken friends scattered, running from a cop car, and that a hobo who some thought harassed Eva was probably in on the whole Nonchalant movement. To end the day, we came to a video store that had the picture on the left in the shop window.

That’s Eva, by the way.

In the video store, we found a tape (and thankfully the store had a working VCR or we would have been in a world of hurt) where we saw Eva undergoing a mind experiment in the Jejune Institute. They were recording her dreams in a way that could, sort of, make them reality. (The idea of being able to suck dreams out of a person’s head and record them on tape is kind of awesome). Then, at the end of the video, someone help up a piece of paper with an email address on it — something about a lost mix tape.

And thus, I come to stage four.

THE FOURTH DAY

It was decided that I would email the address and figure out what to do next. I was down with this, because I was learning some really great stuff. However, when Terrence emailed me back, completely in-character, and asked for my address and phone number (and whether I used carrier pigeons, which was rad, because carrier pigeons are effing amazing) I was hesitant. (I gave my work blackberry to him — easier to change if I end up being inducted into a real cult).

For about a month leading us to yesterday’s event, I received three phone calls, several emails, and a post card — all with cryptic messages and instructions. I had to go alone, I had to remember certain directions, instructions, and mantras, and I had to be somewhere at precisely 10:30 AM. I knew 7 other people would be there with me, and it was crucial we were all there, and I didn’t find out the address (which was in Oakland) until the day before the event.

I really liked that this fourth (and secret) chapter of Jejuning was so difficult to get in to. I guess they figured if you had invested three weekends already and were willing to give your address and phone number to a complete stranger, you’d jump through a lot of hoops. The downfall to this chapter was that no one else did it with me on that day — so I’m kind of Jejuning alone now. But more on that later.

I arrived at 10:15 AM and met seven strangers. I thought one of these people would be a plant, but they were actually all people just like me. The person who emailed me last, Miguel, had received instructions from Terrence to meet someone two days before our event to get our final instructions. That person was a girl playing the tuba on the sidewalk — she was playing the Tetris theme. (AWESOME?!)

Since we each had separate instructions, we each spoke a certain thing at a certain time to figure out where to go — which was down a path and to a mausoleum.

There was a funeral going on, and there was a drum banging, and the juxtaposition of real and fiction was really awesome — also the worry that we were being highly disrespectful. I also wondered what someone, coming to visit a dead relative, would think about eight youngish folks traipsing around a mausoleum reciting near gibberish.

My first mantra was “forward through the left arc” — see, arc!

At the mausoleum, we each recited our “mantras” which ended up being a string of instructions on where to go in the building.

During this event I tweeted so that Mike (who was waiting in the car like the amazing partner he is) to make sure I didn’t get killed, as well as Steve and Rachel, could hear about what I was doing.

We found this boombox — which really fit in with the decor — and on it Eva’s voice instructed us what to do. Essentially, we were to wander around the building to open up our senses and learn how to trust each other — also to bond as a group. That’s not what she said in her instructions, but it’s what happened.

There were eight of us, and Eva instructed us to find blindfolds (hanging in the room with the boombox) and put them on four people. Then, those four stood behind four who could still see, placed their hands on the other’s shoulders, and were lead by the person who could see. I could see at this point, and the gal who I was leading even said “I don’t even know your name” before she put her blindfold on. She was clearly nervous (and only knew me as “WEST” — we each were renamed as points on a compass) so I whispered “hi I’m Elizabeth.”

Eva’s voice led us through the mausoleum — up and down stairs and through passageways. She had us take in fountains, rooms, plants — breathe deeply — the whole shebang. Then she had us switch, and I ended up being led blindfolded.

Finally, we came to a room and were told to place the boombox on a wall, just like so.

Then, we were told to find four more blindfolds (which freaked everyone out). We then all put on blindfolds, turned to face the wall/boombox, and were told to put our hands on that wall. The sense of vulnerability was pretty astounding, but we all did it. We also all turned to the right and put our hands on each other’s shoulders and somehow, no one screamed when Eva’s voice said she would lead us and we started walking. The gal in front somehow talked herself into believing the person who took her hand MUST have been one of us eight. But no — it was a Jejuner person (who we never saw by the way — she led us through the mausoleum, kissed one of the gals hands, and vanished before we could take our blindfolds off).

When we had sight again, we were in a different room, but the boombox was there. This was the coolest part of the day for me — the dedication to that level of detail and creepiness was great.

From there, we were directed to go into a small room, sit in a circle, and look into each other’s eyes. Again, very yogic and trust building.

Finally, we had to leave the boombox and go find one last thing from Eva.

We found a map:

That led us to a tape:

And a coded pamphlet I still don’t know what to think about:

We also found a letter, written by people “like us” who had also heard the voice of Eva and embarked our our journey. This letter told us we were now a tribe — and that we should listen to the “lost mixtape” that we were holding, name our tribe, make our own sounds, and send those sounds to a certain email address.

So that’s where I am right now in my Jejuning. Me and seven strangers are now bonded, I have a tape I have to turn into an MP3 so we can all listen to it and make a sound from, and the eight of us, I guess, are going to continue Jejuning. Why? No idea. I don’t really believe in Divine Nonchalance, but I can tell you it’s given me some great ideas for my upcoming work. Do I wish Mike were doing it with me? Yep! Do I think I’m getting inducted into a cult? MAYBE. Will I continue down this rabbit hole? You bet your ass I will.

TL;DR: This was perhaps one of the coolest experiences of my life. (Back in 2010, I told you to go do it, but, well. Sorry about that. Watch the movie?).

And that concludes my blog entry on what the hell Jejuning is. If you want more information, google “unfiction jejune trailhead” or read the wikipedia article on the Jejune Institute. There is a lot more fiction than what I’ve described, and several other websites — but this entry was long enough without all of that — so I’ll let you discover it for yourself, if you want.

But really. Just come here and do it for yourself, instead.

JEJUNE.


Part Two.

Image source

Today, I participated in the final chapter of the story of the Jejune Institute— and now, I’m going to tell you about it.

About a month ago, I received an email from Terrance (the guy who set up my last Jejuning) — we were to infiltrate the Jejune Institute’s Socio Re-engineering Seminar on April 10th in the Hyatt in San Francisco. We were to steal a specific orbit ball during out pre-screening the evening before the seminar and then kidnap Octavio, the head of the Jejune Institute, right after Torry (a Jejune Institute employee, sympathetic to our cause) gave the signal.

Simple, right?

The night before, we went to Suite 1140 in the Hyatt and sat in a tea tree oil smelling room playing new age music surrounding by Jejune employees dressed in white. We filled out a very touchy-feely new age kind of questionaire and one-by-one were brought into the back room to be tested by a scientist. Before the test began, the scientist left briefly, allowing me to search the room for the ball I was supposed to steal. After, I was asked a number of questions about deja vu (attached to a kind of heart monitor) and then told to watch a very trippy video with my full attention while the scientist watched me. After, I was thanked and left.

Today, Mike and I went to the seminar. It began at noon, but doors opened at 11:30. Upon arriving, we received bracelets.

Inside, there were a number of scientists and employees plus technology, and a man in a very strange chair.

The man then stood and introduced himself. His name was Antoine. He showed us a video about the first Socio Re-engineering Seminar that took place in the 70s (where his parents met and conceived him). A disciple of Octavio, Antoine was going to show the 175 or so people in the room how to attain Juvanescence. He then handed the mic to Yams, who then showed a live video where a dolphin talked to us.

After that, we moved chairs — saying “mmmm” with each step. This was to be done slowly, and with breathing much like yogic breath.

After the room was clear for us, we commenced our exercises. I’ll miss some of what we did, but all of these exercises were very yoga-related, very new age, and all about building trust. We picked partners and alternated saying “yes” and “no” to each other. We walked slowly around the room, looking at the floor, and then sped up, and then looked up, and then smiled at people, and then touched fingers with people, and then shook hands with people, and then winked at people. We sat in circles and chanted. We swayed. We cheered “AHHHHH” at the top of our lungs and threw our hands in the air.

After this warmup, we took a break.

Upon coming back, this is when stuff started to get intense. First we sat, and then were all told to take off a shoe. We then tossed all those shoes into the enter of the room — and then were told to fetch a shoe that was not our own.

We held that shoe to our hearts and communed with it. We closed our eyes and pictured a color — pictured the owner doing something with that shoe. We then were told to find the shoe’s owner.

When I found the woman who wore the sneaker I was holding, I told her I saw purple, and her sitting on a park bench with her shoe. She thanked me.

(It was around this time I realized that the Jejune Institute might not be evil. Truth be told, I had never quite understood why the Nonchalants were warring with the Jejune Institute. I hadn’t followed every piece of the fiction, and I knew that Jejune had worked with Eva (who was now Elsewhere) but not really why they were so bad. They didn’t seem bad — they seemed peaceful).

From the shoe exercise we then were to work on triangulation. We picked two people in the room (not telling anyone who they were) and had to keep each of those two people equidistant from ourselves as we pretended to mingle (as one would in a cocktail party) bantering aimlessly with the others in the crowd. Hilarity ensued. Also hilariously, the mark I was watching was watching me.

After this, we were partnered with a stranger and each pair was told to form a snake-like line around the room, each pair facing the other. When Antoine said so, we were to ask the other “who are you?” One person was then supposed to answer the question and the other was to listen without saying anything. I was partnered with an awesome girl who made noise music, was from Pennsylvania, drove a hearse, lived in a military family and had grown up all over the world, had recently lived in Georgia and was now in Pennsylvania. We answered this question to each other twice and honestly, I think I learned more useful information about this woman than I have most people I would call my best of friends. It was fascinating.

Antoine meant to do that, too. He talked about how people always have a barrier up — and describe themselves as “roles” — and we hide our deeper feelings and emotions. And while I knew that this was a game, I kept smiling because as far out and wacky as his delivery was, what he was saying was very down to earth.

Then we started dancing.

This dancing went on for… Twenty minutes? The room got very hot (and I’ll admit it, stinky, it was kind of gross). We danced the yes dance. We danced the no dance. We formed lines on each side of the room and one person in each group would dance any kind of movement they desired and then the groups would dance across the room, mimicking that movement. We turned in circles with our heads, our knees, our elbows, our whole bodies. We danced in circles with strangers. (Yes. Seriously. We did this. We chanted, we yipped, it was loud).

After that, we got a snack. The snacks were delicious vegan and gluten free granola-y kind of bars. We were locked out of the seminar room — and when they reopened the doors, we were told to get hot water.

(I always made a joke not to drink the koolaid. Who knew it would only be hot water?!).

Antoine again got up and he told us all that we had something hard in our pockets, or hidden away — something brittle. He said that we were told to keep it secret, but we could take it out and put it in the water. Everyone looked disturbed, because we knew he was talking about the secret orbs we stole the night before, but we knew that Nonchalance had sent us to get those, and he was Jejune. So someone yelled at “WHY!” and he said “because they are tea.”

Everyone laughed.

Over time, most people put their balls in the water. (I’ll be honest, I didn’t. Turns out, I’m actually pretty goddamned dorky and didn’t believe we were supposed to do this. We were).

Antoine drank his tea and spoke to us, and we drank our tea as well (if we had tea. I didn’t). Then we were given paper and pencils and told to write a stream of consciousness about what we envisioned one year from now to look like. As we wrote, Antoine said random words like “divinity” or “breath” or “noblemen” and we had to immediately insert that word into our writing and make it work. After the writing, we read our pieces to a stranger, and the stranger read their piece back to us.

From there we divided into four sections and got around bio chutes — white, breathable round pieces of fabric. We puffed them up into the air, then down, then up, then down, then up and all gathered beneath the chutes. We huddled down, tucking the edges around us, and we did something very like meditation.

(Well, they did. Mike and I did this):

After we crawled out of the bio chutes, all of the Jejune employees had carnation leis on (we saw those being made the night before at the pre-screening) and Octavio was sitting among them. Octavio began by saying “do you really still think this is a game?” He talked about the principles of the Jejune Institute, and how, when we first began down this path, he said that after we were done we would see the divine in a million different every day things. (I think most people still doing this ARG would agree that we do, in fact, see that).

This is Octavio.

After Octavio was done speaking, he said “Eva Bless” and was surrounded by his employees and then left out the back door. Immediately I wondered, why did he bless Eva if they are enemies? Then a girl in front of me said “we failed. We were supposed to kidnap him. We failed.”

Indeed, while the seminar was over, people gathered around talking — we all thought this was the last chapter of Jejune, but people much more hardcore than myself were speculating that the game was not over — that there would be more. Torry had never arrived. We did not kidnap Octavio. People did not leave.

Then the fourth wall broke.

For those who don’t know what the fourth wall is, it’s this: When playing an alternate reality game, there is a line of reality you do not cross — you don’t give up anything and traverse from the game into the real world. So, for example, the creator of the game doesn’t break character, reveal himself, or talk about what he’s doing. But, as you see from the picture above, Jeff, the creator of Nonchalance, stepped forward.

I listened to him talk for about half an hour as the very hardcore asked him questions about the game. This was, indeed, the end of the experience. The episodes I participated in before would still go on, but the Jejune Institute was closed and episodes that took staff to create would not be run anymore. And yes, initially Jeff anticipated there would be a kidnapping that would spill out into the street, but he said what happened in the room and the energy and activities we did were more important than that, so he let the seminar be as it was. (I’m not sure if that is actually true — kidnappings that spill into the street, in my experience, come with a fair amount of risk and legal angst. I know I work for a company that must consider these things where Jeff probably doesn’t have to, but still — I’m guessing a citizen can’t pretend to kidnap someone in a large city hotel).

Jeff, I have decided, is a genius. Running ARGs is my job, but it’s also pretty much my favorite thing to do. Jeff talked about the viability of his work in a commercial sense and alluded to being burned by companies who had asked him to mock up proposals for them. He said they wanted campaigns that were international and thusly had to be run mostly online. Jeff is interested in human interaction and real life experiences — and that is why I was so fascinated with Jejune. It took the idea of ARG and pushed it into years and years of rich content — grew a community of people into such a close knit bunch, and made an experience so rich and real that people paid $35 each to go to a seminar and dance around in circles without asking “why?” until five hours in.

Before leaving, I approached Jeff’s best friend, and I gave him my card. Hopefully, someday, I’ll get to sit down with Jeff and actually have that tea and talk to him, because honestly I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone who sees so eye-to-eye with me on how these experiences should be run: online hubs to bring people together and enrich a story that works in the real world. Experiences that happen and rely on strangers coming together and becoming confidants and, ultimately, friends. That human interaction is amazing to me. That a single man’s fiction can change so many people’s lives and turn them into a true community that works together and makes fiction together is an awesome and beautiful thing.

While I don’t know if I would have ended Jejune without the kidnapping — while I don’t know if I agree with all the build up that did not actually come to fruition — I have to say I think it was a beautiful day and I don’t regret it for a second, mainly because I got to see hundreds of people doing outlandish things without question (and I was one of those people). And, after all, with things as epic as Jejune, no ending could live up to the journey. It’s just too amazing of an experience to ever be happy when it ends.

To you, Jeff. And to Jejune.

elizabeth tobey

Written by

East coaster with a secret SF love affair. I enjoy juxtaposing things. Also: Cheese and tiny dachshunds.

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