Small pulsating areas of green and blue connected by shimmering lines create semi-opaque fields that cover my iPhone screen. Tapping one of the active spots on the map, I bring up details of the nearest portal, The Mountie Rides In. Its resonators must be recharged to support the control field I’ve established. Back at 100 percent after a few injections of Exotic Matter, I set my sights on the portal across the street. The game is all around me—I am in the game. This is Ingress.
There is an epic battle in the streets of Nanaimo—Region NR13-Romeo-04—and it’s happening right under your nose. You probably don’t even know it. The war is fought all over the world, but for the operatives on the ground, battles are lost and won on home territory. The centres of power placed at significant points in the city—portals—must be captured, protected, and linked to blanket the planet, controlling the minds of its citizens. The portals are under constant threat of attack by the enemy faction: Enlightened or Resistance; choose your side, green or blue, and fight for it.
This is the world of Ingress, a massive augmented reality game played online with the use of GPS technology. Niantic Labs released the game for Android devices in December 2013 and rolled it out for Apple iOS in July. To date, it has been downloaded seven million times.
The backstory is complicated—science fiction based—evolving during game play as user-generated content is bought online. Shapers—exactly who (or what) they are is unknown—are working to create an enlightenment for the human race, one that will lift it to the next level of evolution. The earth-based team that was aligned with the Shapers split over differing philosophies: The Enlightened embrace the work of the Shapers, but the Resistance lost trust and believe they are protecting humankind from falling under the Shapers’ control. Mind Units (MU) are at stake; the quest is to keep the maximum number under the control of your faction. The Earth has been seeded with an energy, Exotic Matter (XM), which operatives need to connect portals into control fields and generate MU.
The smartphone application serves as the Scanner for gameplay. Working from real time GPS data, players follow the map: the “real world” overlaid with portals and fields. Most actions require close proximity to the landmark that the portal is attached to and earn the player Access Points (AP), allowing them to level up and collect more powerful tools for game play.
Usernames of agents are attached to portals and resonators, and their activities are reported by the Scanner, so local players quickly become familiar with one another. Adversaries emerge, identified by communication reports as they attack, disarm, and destroy the portals under your faction’s control, something that’s hard not to take personally. I imagine that they take great satisfaction in smashing our receptors to bits, forensically dismantling our work, and claiming the territory for their own. (I’m looking at you, Gelinas23).
My partner (name withheld) and I walk around the neighbourhood farming: hacking and fortifying portals, setting up links to build the conditions that may contribute to an Onion, a high-scoring configuration of fields. Studying the screen, trying to map out links, I’m stymied by another existing field: the links may not cross one another. “Just like in Ghostbusters,” my partner says, “you mustn’t cross the beams.” A nearby Resistance portal has just fallen. I’m curious, eyeing everyone walking with a phone. A young man passes by, studying his device intently. Was this the man, Tony1236, playing for my team? Then I notice that a historic site—a street sign from the early settlement of the Old City Quarter—doesn’t appear on the map. My partner enables the GPS on his camera, takes a picture, and submits it to Niantic with a description so they can consider creating a portal there. User-generated content like this keeps the game fresh and current for players on the front lines.
Most students running around VIU’s Nanaimo campus seem to have their heads buried in phones. They’re probably checking email or Facebook, but I can’t help but wonder if any are gaming as they travel from class to class. Some may even be able to play while they’re in class—if I stand deep in a corner window in the Visual Art building, I can hack three different portals at once. My attempts to reach other Ingress players on campus to discuss strategy have been unsuccessful though. Agents DevianUA and Skyfisher prefer to maintain deep cover in the Ingress world.
if i stand deep in a corner window in the Visual Art building, I can hack three different portals at once
In the late summer heat, before class, I take the stairs two at a time. Stopping at the Kwulasulwut portal I do a quarter turn, raise my phone in the air, crab walk two steps to the right, and bring the phone back to eye level. Working the Scanner intently, the Resistance portal falls and I unconsciously raise a fist in victory. Looking to my left, then studying the map again, I take off towards the art buildings. The campus is peppered with portals and I hope to farm most of them today. Video footage of my escapades would probably rate well on YouTube.
Google Hangouts has become the meeting place for Ingress communities. Some are clusters of friends from different cities, while others focus solely on particular regions of play. Agents often stick with their in-game usernames in communications. They “meet” to learn from one another and strategize group offensives. “The game rewards you differently when you first start than later on,” says local agent Pavicus. “In the lower levels you are encouraged to learn your immediate environment, and playing solo advances the game quickly. Small links and fields advance your level, and you can successfully do this on your own. At higher levels, team play, cooperation, and strategy are important, but also mentoring new players.”
“it was the expected mix of 30-something stoners, 40-year old IT guys, old creeps, and hip Asians.”
Strong team play was critical on September 27 when the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver became an important satellite site for a major event in Tacoma, Washington. I asked what a player should expect. Agent BlerkSwern replied, “400 people staring at their phones, walking around UBC, getting yelled at.” Later, reporting from the front, he described the scene: “It was the expected mix of 30-something stoners, 40-year old IT guys, old creeps, and hip Asians. I’m sure the reps from Niantic were a bit shocked at the 10:30 am blaze session that would’ve made a Cyprus Hill show look like Raffi Unplugged. Someone in a 90s Camaro was cranking the NIN. You could make a fortune selling deodorant.” The Enlightened faction emerged victorious, winning the event 187-107.
Affiliation with worldwide events like this keeps players feeling connected to the greater narrative, and Ingress is poised to continue on this path, to grow and lead a new generation of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. Pavicus says he was drawn into the game by a friend and quickly became impressed by the advancements in the genre. “Ingress has successfully leveraged players to create content for the game. Since playing multiplayer online games, I came to realize that the only way to satisfy the number of players in-game is to harness player-generated content. In Ingress, people create portals. The second aspect of the game that made it interesting is the real world overlay, or the map. I’ve seen it attempted before, but never so effectively,” he says.
Ingress’ creator, John Hanke, was the man behind Google Maps before he moved on to start Niantic Labs and developed Ingress. When it was rolled out to iOS users in July, Hanke told Wired magazine that there are two agendas hidden within the game. First, it encourages people to interact with the historical markers or pieces of public art that are often attached to portals. Players inadvertently learn about, and become more connected to, their neighbourhoods. It also propels them out of their living rooms and into their cities, usually on foot or bicycle, which promotes exercise. “People tell us they’re losing weight. We don’t market it as a health app, but it does cross over with that and for a lot of people it is that extra nudge just to walk a little bit more,” Hanke says. Physical activity and social engagement are both important for the gaming community. Chatter on a local Google Hangout points to the way Ingress draws gamers—a notoriously isolated community—out of their basements and into the real world where they inevitably run into other agents and forge connections.
I usually walk around Bowen Park with my partner when I play, but this time I’m on my own, remaining in the car as much as possible to avoid the rain. One portal, River Predators, remains elusive. I am forced into the open air without a coat, running around in the damp grass, and take shelter to regroup beneath a tree. Four tourists, comfortably dry in Gore-Tex, watch me move north and then south again. The marker onscreen jumps back and forth erratically, which makes it difficult to determine exactly where I should walk to fall within the portal’s range. I am late for an appointment, frustrated, and wet. But my will is strong, and the longer I search, the more determined I become; I refuse to leave without taking this portal. Off the side of a walkway and through a shrubbery I come to some slippery rocks at the edge of the river. Finally, success—I am right on top of the portal. With one hand shielding my phone’s screen from the rain, I use my thumb to hack, capture, and fortify. It is ready. I push the button that says “confirm.” The voice of ADA (the Scanner’s artificial intelligence) comes to life: “Portal link established. Field established. Good work.”