The Institute Is an Engrossing First-person Account of an Absurdist Game


A thrilling, absorbing, absurdist real-world alternate-reality game played out on the streets of San Francisco and Oakland gets souvenir-doc treatment in Spencer McCall’s The Institute—but complaints that there’s too little here about how the Jejune Institute was hatched or what it all may have meant matter little in the face of the one great thing The Institute does offer: a record of the mad invention of the game’s masterminds.

A typical participant in the game (created by Jeff Hull) reports his experience: A flyer advertising force fields in San Francisco’s financial district led him to call a phone number that directed him to an office suite, where a woman gave him a key to a room where a lounger was positioned before a TV upon which a cult-leader-like genius was bragging about having invented a new type of water—and then warning the player not to open the top drawer of a nearby desk. Inside said drawer, the player discovered an “induction card;” once that was filled out, the mysteries deepened.

The inventor’s Jejune Institute, it turned out, was in ugly conflict with the Elsewhere Public Works Association over a movement called Nonchalance. The details were doled out in a mixed-media scavenger hunt across the Bay Area, involving low-wattage radio broadcasts, bizarre books turning up in local stores, a rescue mission involving spelunking, and, pricelessly, players being told, “It is imperative that you dance!” by a mysterious voice on a Mission pay phone.

Video footage of that last stunt and some smart thoughts from the players on their disappointment with the game’s ultimate resolution distinguish the film, making it more than just an accounting of clever folks’ cleverness.