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Elan Lee Designs Games That Make Reality Better

by Kelly Prosen
June 26, 2017 | Our Future

There are moments in Elan Lee's professional life that sound like something out of a different reality. Unsurprising, really, when you discover that he's one of the best alternate reality game designers in the business. He’s designed popular interactive games "I Love Bees," "Year Zero," "The Beast" and "Exploding Kittens."

But before diving into Lee’s extraordinary work, it’s necessary to define this new reality. Alternate reality games, or ARGs, are interactive games played in real life. A player’s ideas and actions guide the story. The game changes as the player, or, more often, players, play it. It takes game-lovers off their smartphones and gaming consoles and into the real—albeit altered—world, combining elements of role-playing games, immersive theater and escape rooms.

Lee tried to describe the genre he helped invent:

It’s very hard to give a concise description of what an alternate reality game is. They are also called a million different things. Like, they are called transmedia, and alternate reality and all of these various things, to try to just describe this new notion of playing games in the real world."

A bumpy start to a new reality

Like Link from Nintendo's "Zelda," Drizzt Do'urden from "Dungeons & Dragons" or Commander Shephard from "Mass Effect," Lee's beginnings as a gaming hero were inauspicious.

alternate reality game pbs rewire
Elan Lee. Photo courtesy of Elan Lee.

“I went to so many different schools on account of the fact that everywhere I went I would fail out pretty quickly," he said. "I ended up going to seven different colleges, but eventually graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York. The one advantage is the climate in upstate New York, because there is nothing else to do other than study."

Lee graduated with a degree in computer science but said, “I can’t write code to save my life.”

“When you go to as many schools as I have, and are constantly jumping around, you end up declaring a whole lot of minors, so while I have the degree in computer science, which I never use, I also have minors in computer graphics, computer animation, game design, multimedia production and psychology."

Just the recipe for inventing a mind-bending new kind of game.

Lee was working as a lead game designer for Microsoft when Stephen Spielberg approached him to build a marketing campaign for his movie, "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence." Lee helped design six different Xbox games as part of the campaign and discovered a problem.

“How do we carry people from Xbox game to Xbox game?" he recalled asking himself. "One is an adventure game, and one is a racing game, and one is a gladiator game. What is the glue between all these games? And then we came up with this idea we called 'The Beast.' ”

"The Beast" was a title that described recurring characters that cropped up across games and beyond. The beyond? Your real life.

Characters could call players on their cell phones, be tracked to real-world locations where live characters would appear and where players could interact with those characters. Because it was the first in its genre, Lee had no idea what to call the game.

“We just called it the glue,” he said.

In the process of shooting the movie, budgets changed and all the Xbox games were canceled.

“But, we were still kind of in love with the glue," Lee said. "So we decided to just launch it anyway. And we did, and millions of players followed this online murder mystery that spanned email addresses and websites and fax machines at specific locations in the real world. Literally using the real world as a game, until they got to the end and solved the mystery, which also coincided with the launch of Spielberg’s movie 'A.I.,' and so the whole thing kind of worked in this really fun synchronicity of launch the movie, and launch a new genre of entertainment.”

From alternate reality game to alternate reality

That was in 2001. In 2003, Lee left Microsoft to “pursue more interesting forms of storytelling,” and launched three different companies: 42 Entertainment, Edoc Laundry and Fourth Wall Studios.

Edoc Laundry combined ARGs with a seemingly unlikely partner: fashion. Lee’s team designed t-shirts (sold through Nordstrom) that looked amazing but also contained a secret message.

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The "I Love Bees" launch page at Elan Lee designed this alternate reality game.

“Every shirt had embedded in it a secret code or a hidden message somewhere," he said. "And you had to do a little bit of work to figure out what the code was. Sometimes you had to fold your shirt in a certain way to read the secret. Or sometimes you had to get it hot, or cold, or put it on top of another shirt. We used crazy inks and stitching, we used like thermal inks and infrared inks and glow in the dark inks and all kinds of stuff so that you could interact with your shirt and extract the secret from it.”

When you cracked the code—or thought you had—you would submit your clue to the website. If you got it right, a movie would start playing. You’d meet a band with one member on the run from the law for a crime she didn’t commit. The interactive part?

“Only you can save her,” Lee said.

The story gets wilder from there. Edoc Laundry was launched after the 2004 presidential election, when many of Lee’s friends were frustrated and feeling their votes didn’t count. As the Edoc Laundry story unfolded, players realized each character was based on a Founding Father.

“We never said that out loud, but slowly our audience started to realize, 'We can predict what’s gonna happen next in the story by reading history, because this is literally that story retold in modern times,' " he said. "Our audience started to realize like, 'Hey this stuff actually matters.' And without us ever prompting that, they started registering to vote, and they started canvassing their neighborhood, and they started volunteering at political organizations. And we registered more than 2 million new voters for this campaign.”

Always have a backup plan

One of the defining characteristic of the ARG genre is the sheer number of players participating at once. Things need to be flexible, puzzles need to be challenging enough to stand up to millions of brains, and staff has to be dedicated to produce more content on the fly.

alternate reality game
Elan Lee. Photo courtesy of Elan Lee.

“One of the scariest parts about any ARG design process is you have no idea, you can test it with your friends, you can test it even with large play test groups," Lee said. "And anything you do is such a minuscule number of people compared to the test that you are going to run in real time. ... So, you just have no choice, you design it as best you can, you test it on a small scale as best you can, you launch it, you hope for the best, and you always have the backup plan.”

One such backup plan was triggered during the game he designed for the band Nine Inch Nails, "Year Zero." Puzzle solvers were taken to an abandoned warehouse for a private concert. About 40 minutes into the show, a SWAT team burst in, throwing concussion grenades and firing automatic weapons. People ran outside to a waiting bus.

Well, most of them did.

“Except for these three giant, burly dudes, who saw these SWAT team members running at them with bullet proof vests, literally firing machine guns, and instead of running away, they just stood there, with their arms crossed, staring these SWAT guys down," Lee said. "The reason they did that was because somewhere in the back of their heads they knew this is a game: 'You guys can’t really hurt me.' ... What happened was one of the SWAT members grabbed one of these guys and punched him, and punched him so hard that blood splattered across the wall in the back of him, the guy crumbled onto the floor, and two other SWAT team members just started kicking the crap out of this guy.

"The other two big burly guys turned completely white, and their jaws dropped open, and they looked at each other and they freaked out and they ran towards the exit like they were supposed to in the first place.”

The catch? “It was a stunt man that we placed there from the very beginning that was our plan B in case something like that happened,” he said.

Lee’s work is full of contingency plans that are evidence of his quick thinking. There’s always a next project, or the one he just wrapped (he recently finished "Bears Vs. Babies," the follow-up to the wildly popular "Exploding Kittens").

What’s his next project?

“I get really excited about seeing giant groups of people come together and laugh around a dinner table or at their favorite bar and playing games together instead of staring at screens, so, um, everything that you’ll see, at least in the next few years for me will be focused on that social interactivity around releasing products that get communities really, really excited.”

So watch this space, try folding your favorite t-shirt a different way, or keep an eye on Kickstarter for a clue to his next project.

Intrigued? Check out this compilation of the top 10 creepiest ARGs. Some of Lee's work is featured.

Kelly Prosen
Kelly Prosen is a Minneapolis writer who loves tabletop games, horror, roadside attractions and empowering women. She tweets pictures of her cats and food her husband makes @kellymprosen and blogs about love and mental illness at
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