“The Institute”: What a Strange Documentary About a Strange Game Reveals About Human Nature

We were iced in today in Sherwood, AR.  It was a great day for laziness and relaxation.  So this morning, indulging in said laziness, while scrolling through the U-Verse On Demand documentary offerings, I noticed “The Institute.”

Curious, I checked it out. It was, in a word, enthralling.

Essentially, here is what happened:  in 2008 a California-based artist named Jeff Hull developed an elaborate game in San Francisco.  In reality, he created a false world centered around the Jejune Institute and its conflict with the Elsewhere Public Works Agency.  It’s kind of hard to explain the story, though it dealt with the Jejune Institute’s very New Agey efforts at helping people develop in their understanding of themselves and of reality and of human potential.  Furthermore, there was a backstory concerning the disappearance of a girl named Eva and clues surrounding her perceptions and discoveries of deep truths regarding these themes.  I realize that does not make much sense.  Not much about this whole thing makes sense.  The game was carried on for about three years in the San Francisco area and had lots of twists and turns.

Participants walked into the game after answering advertisements posted in the SF area.  You must understand that those answering these advertisements were unaware what they were stepping into or that the Jejune Institute (where they first went to begin their journey through the game) was a farce or that this was a game at all.  Jeff Hull did a brilliant job of bathing the fliers and notices regarding the Jejune Institute in language and images and verbiage that will be immediately familiar to anybody who has ever looked closely at cults (particularly California-based cults in the 60’s and 70’s) and New Age movements.

Over the three year period of the game, thousands of people got caught up in it.  Most dropped out before reaching the end (the game itself was divided up into chapters), but the level of commitment evidenced by those who took part is telling.  They followed the signs and clues that Hull and his team cleverly placed throughout the city, analyzing the evidence they discovered about the disappearance of Eva and the mysterious Jejune Institute.  The game was basically an urban scavenger hunt.  How many people thought this was a game is hard to say.  Clearly many people thought this was reality and that they were caught up in a true story.  I suspect most people were conflicted about what was actually happening.

Some crossed the line.  One man in the documentary, interviewed with his visage obscured by darkness, refused to believe this was a game and lashed out at those who realized it was.  He read deep meanings into the arcane clues Hull offered and internalized the story in a troubling way.  Hull claims he was stunned at this phenomenon.  Finally, Hull brought the game to a conclusion with a truly weird day-long self-actualization event with the major characters of the game (sans Eva) revealing that they had reached a fragile peace.  At no point did anybody ever say, “None of this is real.  This has all been an elaborate game, a hoax.”  The participants who stayed all the way through to the end seemed to feel a kind of anticlimactic disappointment, with some saying they slipped into a depression when it ended.

This documentary should be watched and watched carefully.  What struck me must deeply were a few things:

  • The brilliance of Jeff Hull and his team.  Truly, it is amazing to see the world that this guy created and the lengths to which he went to create a believable if strange narrative that many people found compelling and intriguing.
  • The deep desire within people for transcendence.  This documentary clearly demonstrates how strongly people feel that there must be more than the reality we see before our eyes.  Though many people likely suspected this was a game or something like it, it seems to me that what drove them forward was a suspension of belief and a sincere hope that such an eclectic tale might possibly be true.
  • The human longing for community and solidarity.  It was fascinating to see people come together around Hull’s concocted world and imagined story.  In particular, it was interesting to see how many young people allowed themselves to be absorbed into this carnival and spectacle.
  • The ease with which human beings can be led to take up a cause or a movement that they do not even understand.  At one point, Hull even had 250 people protest in the streets of SF concerning they knew not what!  One of the troubling things about this whole experiment, to this observer anyway, is how it demonstrates the gullibility of people.  More than that, it demonstrates how people will put faith and trust in a movement that they do not understand.  I kept thinking, while watching this documentary, about how easy it is for cults to get started and get a following.

I’m not sure what Jeff Hull wanted to prove or demonstrate, but the quasi-religious/cultic element of this experiment, and the eagerness with which people gave themselves to this “cause” strikes me as telling and illuminating.

It’s a weird journey, but “The Institute” is an intriguing documentary that is well worth consideration.

4 thoughts on ““The Institute”: What a Strange Documentary About a Strange Game Reveals About Human Nature

  1. Hi, I read your article … I actually participated in the protest you have written about. This had nothing to do with “faith and trust in a movement that they do not understand,” it was 100% “I am involved with something very amazing, they’ve asked me to participate in this -fake- protest, and I am comfortable with doing that because it’s going to be fun/etc.” We protested a -fictional entity-. No one who was in that group that day said to themselves “oh, we’re going to show the Jejune Institute who’s boss here.” It’s more like reading a novel. You turn the pages because you’re “into” the book but you don’t think the book is actual reality.

    “I kept thinking, while watching this documentary, about how easy it is for cults to get started and get a following.” Exactly! But once you have enough members, it suddenly metamorphizes into an accepted religion. You just have to keep culling out the bad parts. Just don’t read the original texts, folks …

    • I very much appreciate the comment! Thank you. It’s great to hear from somebody who actually participated in the game.

      I fully believe that for the vast majority of folks involved, it was a known game. No doubt. Obviously it was for you and for most. One of the fascinating things, though, as the documentary revealed through interviews with others, is how over time the game drew people in to such an extent that the lines between reality and fiction were blurred. In that sense, it clearly wasn’t 100% awareness of the fictional nature of this, as at least some crossed over into genuine belief about it.

      I found the whole thing intriguing, and, again, I’m grateful for your comments.

  2. I too thought this documentary was extremely telling of human nature. I watched the first 20 minutes, called my best friend telling him I was coming over for he had to watch this. We were rendered speechless. Both of us being in ministry we couldn’t help but see parallels between this game and what many do with church. People are wanting something more than what the church is providing. I haven’t organized any actual game, but after watching this, I wanted to create a game in my city. My friend and I brainstormed what it would look like for the church to adopt some this role playing game/alternate reality into its story. Thanks for sharing on your blog.

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