By Phoebe, July 7th, 2010

Elan Lee giving a presentation at Ignite Seattle 7

Elan Lee wants you to be a superhero!

[More on that later. Part II and Part III]

A note of introduction: Through the good graces of Lee Sheldon (a game writer/designer and professor with whom I worked during my graduate program), the Rob Kling Center for Social Informatics, and others at Indiana University, we were able to host Elan in Bloomington, Indiana for a series of talks on the arts of storytelling and game design. I was lucky enough to listen to him speak on these and related subjects, a lot. This three part, “Rolling Stone” style profile/discussion is a mash-up of those talks, a one-on-one interview, and a lot of coffee-fueled conversations–with me and others–over the duration of that visit (and even a couple of follow-up emails).

I should also state that I am now an awestruck fan of his work (the intentions that inform it, even more so), and though I aim to provide some substance, I can’t avoid the occasional out-pourings of puffery that is the hallmark of celebrity profiles. But I guess that begs the question – is Elan Lee even a celebrity?

Elan Lee playing pinball at the Indiana Memorial Union
“I’m trying to define a role in the world that doesn’t quite exist yet.”

Elan Lee is Famous

Elan Lee is one of the first individual identities ever associated with Alternate Reality Games, and with the “transmedia” [what do you call it? genre? evolution? debacle? … I’ll settle on…] arena more generally. Along with his fellow 42 Entertainment and Fourth Wall founders, he represents an approach to storytelling and game design that is lauded as the Next Big Thing. He’s the “transmedia” equivalent of Steven Spielberg (with whom he has, of course, worked). But this gives him a little too much credit. According to Elan Lee, the stories we tell don’t change, it’s the way we tell them that evolves.

The Future of Storytelling

In the early stages of preparation for his TEDxSeattle talk on “The Future of Storytelling,” Elan is obsessed with the image of the horseless carriage, and it’s as an apt metaphor. In the early stages of exploration, the identity of something new is not yet understood or established, so we use the language of the past to intellectually encompass the future. Even further, we use the symbols of the past to iterate what we think will be the future.

Let me be more illustrative: The “Horseless Carriage” is the name for a car in the world of the horse. The “Alternate Reality Game” is the name for a story/game/something whose characters may or may not inhabit physical bodies and whose setting may or may not exist within the boundaries of reality or imagination…in the world that accepts a distinction between those two states.

[Who knew this would get metaphysical so fast?]

Mercedes F-Cell Horseless Carriage
The Mercedes F-Class “Horseless Carriage” – new old school

Try Everything

But what does that mean?! Well, according to Elan it means that the field is wide open, and without any hard and fast conventions, we can make anything we want. And it may fail, but that only helps us define this incoming genre for the era where it becomes mundane.

The other half of this, of course, is the participation of the audience. Without an audience that comprehends the mechanisms of cutting and zooming and reverse shots, movies would look inconsistent, and the stories they tell would appear to be nonsensically non-linear and emotionally disconnected.

Such are the frustrations of the “transmedia” designer. We develop vast universes, profound characters, world changing events, the elements of which are constructed in the same way that we acquire narratives in our “real” lives – we see newspaper headlines, watch video clips, monitor facebook pages, and repost twitter feeds. There’s nothing about these activities that appear non-linear or disconnected, and yet, when we make up a story that is absorbed and distributed in these ways, it becomes somehow less easily understood, even though the behaviors stay the same.

“If It’s Not Broken”

Elan’s solution to this is two-fold: 1) talk about what you do in the blandest possible way, and 2) don’t try to fix what isn’t broken. Here’s a factoid that sheds some light on both statements – Elan is now writing TV shows. Don’t be dismayed, he’s bringing a little something new to the table. But only a little. Elan Lee is a pragmatic guy, and this is, of course, pragmatic. If the first car was an Enzo, the local horsebacked posse would have strung up the inventor of that deviltry by his thumbs.

That doesn’t make for very good ratings.

So point two reminds us that we can innovate without intending to spark a revolution, and we’re more likely to change the way people think, what they believe, and how they behave if we nudge them ever so softly, instead of pushing them off the ledge.

And of course, the language in which we talk about what we do has to be consistent with the language that is understood. So if we call something a “comic book” when it’s really an episodic, stop-motion, illuminated epic poem accessed through a fictional character’s Vimeo account, the more traction it’s likely to get with the funders and the audience when it doesn’t sound so avant-garde.

Discussion of the “transmedia” industry, strategic storytelling, and creativity in Part II

Elan’s TEDxSeattle presentation

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Posted in ARG Person of Interest design gaming storytelling transmedia

Phoebe was the co-founder and president of Mstrmnd Ltd from 2003 to 2009. She recently completed a masters in creative management & game design/production at Indiana University, and now works as Lead Designer for a game development start-up. She is a little uncomfortable with writing about herself in the third person, likes playing devil's advocate, and makes stuff in all media (even the old hands-on kind).


  • This is cool! And so interested! Are u have more posts like this? Plese tell me, thanks

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