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  • Jenn Goes Wild
    Ex-Raiderette talks about sex, hot tubs, and her role in the Real World.
  • Raising Pagans
    When Daddy is Catholic and Mommy is a Witch, what's a couple to teach their children?
  • Letters for the week of March 28-April 3, 2007
    Readers comment on Oakland Police tactics, Ralph Nader, immigrants, fact-checking, and the digital-radio fiasco.
  • War Pornography
    In an echo of the Abu Ghraib fiasco, grisly images of dead, mutilated Iraqis are traded for access to pornography, an apparent breach of Geneva Conventions.
  • What a Steal!
    Counterfeiters apply the Tupperware business model to an illicit new enterprise: purse parties.
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Elan Lee buys a wrench.
Lenore Henry picks up the phone.
Elan Lee changes the channel.
Microsoft gets richer.
Elan Lee throws toast.
Never stop searching.
The clues are there.
Alex Handy is missing; find him.
Remember:
You just need to know where to look, dear Watson.

Stop reading for a moment and scan your surroundings for anything that might be lying to you: Strangers. Classified ads. Billboards. Phones. Radio shows. The Internet. Games. Classified ads? Be warned, this isn't an article. This isn't a newspaper. And it sure as hell isn't a game. Lies, all lies.

One day last fall, Lenore Henry stood by a pay phone on San Francisco's Market Street. She cupped the thick black shell of the receiver to one ear and plugged the other with an errant finger to block out street noise. Behind her, a man clicked on a recording device and poked a microphone at the telephone mouthpiece. A familiar female voice was on the line. It wasn't a recorded voice as before. This one was live. It was "Melissa," and Lenore needed to make her cry.

This much she knew: Sometime in the distant future, a six-year-old girl had been abducted by the government and her personality uploaded into a computer as the foundation for an artificial intelligence -- Melissa -- aboard the spaceship Apocalypso. As a result of some strange events on board, Melissa somehow was thrown back through time to 2004, and was now trapped on the hard drive of a Napa Valley woman's Internet server. That woman was a beekeeper named Margaret Efendi, who maintained a Web site, ILoveBees.com, which someone, or something, recently had hijacked.

Lenore and millions of others had been keeping close track of the site. That's where she'd discovered the latitudes and longitudes of this and other pay phones, and the dates and times they would ring. Now here she was, conversing with Melissa and, without really knowing it, participating in a completely novel type of marketing campaign, one in which the campaign is an end in itself. Lenore had not yet heard of Elan Lee, but she was doing his will nonetheless.

Roughly 650 miles to the north, Elan flips through the TV channels, blending the disembodied words into one unintelligible sentence. His face is boyish and mischievous for a man of thirty, and his tendency to fidget and switch body positions incessantly would give any third-grade teacher fits. Working out of his Seattle apartment, he maintains a hacker's habits, staying up until 4 a.m. and sleeping till noon. The TV stays on while he works -- he's ignoring Ed Wood at the moment. It satisfies his peripheral vision as he types furiously, letting the random ideas, fragments, puzzles, and hypotheses spill from his hyperactive brain out through his fingers and onto his computer monitor. Elan fancies himself a sort of funnel for mass communications -- the background sounds and symbols infuse his projects with knowledge of the masses. He knows the will of the hive mind.

Breaking up the TV programs is advertising, that antithesis of art. At one time, these commercials proclaimed product features and benefits. You'll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent. Lucky Strike means fine tobacco. Today, ads must entertain or die. The straight sales pitches of yore have been replaced by attempts at brand association: Nike is an attitude; Budweiser is big breasts and talking lizards between innings; Volkswagen is catchy synth-pop and emo twentysomethings. Over the past two decades, the merger of the marketing world with the entertainment business has been made complete. Modern advertising is all subversion and coercion, seldom straightforward, often dishonest.

Elan and his team embrace this reality. They lie for a living. They make everything up. The hive mind understands, and with any luck, it will like their product.

Their product is a game.

The unstated goal of which is to make you purchase their client's product.

Which is also a game.

Perhaps you've heard of their client.

The Launch

At precisely midnight last November 9, the video game Halo 2 went on sale for the first time. Within 24 hours, the Microsoft Xbox shoot-'em-up had clocked in as the most successful media launch ever. By midnight the next day, 2.4 million copies had been sold nationwide, reaping $125 million in sales. It took Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a popular PlayStation 2 game released almost two months earlier, thirty days to hit that number. The record haul for a blockbuster film on opening day, set by Shrek 2 last May, was $44.8 million. Halo 2 nearly tripled that.

At least part of the credit -- and it is impossible to measure how much -- lies with the small, innovative Emeryville-based outfit 4orty 2wo. That's Elan's baby. He's one of its three cofounders, and its day-to-day creative mastermind.

Forty Two, as it shall henceforth appear, got its name straight off the jersey of Jackie Robinson, the black player who shattered major-league baseball's race barrier. To boot, in the geek novella (and recent film) Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a supercomputer called Deep Thought calculated for 7.5 million years to come up with "The Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything," which was -- you guessed it -- 42. What Forty Two, the company, provides its corporate clients may well reside at the remote fringes of the marketing universe, but it already has an acronym: ARG. That's short for Alternate Reality Game, something that didn't truly exist until the company's founders put it in play.