Mobile game Ingress has implications straight out of science-fiction
August 26, 2014 | 7:11 pm
So, this past weekend I took part in my first ever “Anomaly,” a big local event for players of the Ingress game (which I wrote about for Answers here) by Niantic Labs, a subsidiary of Google. In these events, players in certain towns gather together and fight over specific virtual bits of real territory, needing to hold as much of it as they can at specific time points when the score is counted. It was a great deal of fun, and very involved.
The Resistance (the faction I play) is very well-organized around these parts. We met at 10:30 at a park a few miles from the anomaly play area, and divided up into teams. I was on the bike team, but there were also a number of pedestrian teams and car teams as well. We installed a couple of apps—a comm app called Zello that turned our smartphones into push-to-talk walkie-talkies, and a custom Resistance-only map app that kept track of our locations for the dispatcher and mapped the play areas for us. (The Resistance higher-ups are a bit prickly about too many details of their operations being given out, so that’s all I’ll say about it.)
We tuned to a specific Zello channel for our marching (or biking) orders, and off we went. We got together for a cross-faction group photo, then headed out to take all the territory we could before the measurement timepoints at 2, 3, 4, and 5 p.m.
I’ll spare the exact details—they wouldn’t make a lot of sense to someone who hadn’t played the game before—but it was a really fun, team-play experience. There were times when clusters of us and of the enemy faction, the Enlightened, were all gathered together in one spot, all frantically tapping buttons on our phones as fast as we could to gain or maintain control of one particular leverage point. (It was…a lot more exciting in the heat of the moment than that probably makes it sound.)
The operation was really well-organized, and the level of leadership was almost professional. I got the feeling the fellow in charge of dispatching for the op had done this sort of thing a lot. (He wasn’t even local to Indianapolis with us; I gather he was actually based in Utah. But you can do that sort of thing with the Internet.) That’s probably why, at the end of the day, it turned out we’d given the local Enlightened a major pasting, winning the day by 391 to 128 points. The Enlightened won in Detroit, but the Resistance took Indianapolis and Baltimore and won the day overall.
After the anomaly was over, both factions met up at a local bar for drinks, then the Resistance headed off to a Mexican restaurant owned by the husband of one of its senior members for dinner and repeated hacking of an on-site portal.
A Whole New Game
When you think about it, Ingress is a new kind of game, and in some ways more than just a game.
Consider how games have brought people together historically. I have little doubt there have been times in the ancient past when two travelers who shared no common tongue were nonetheless able to bond over a chess board or some other game with shared rules. And there would be times travelers might get to a new area and look up other people who played the same games they did, for conversation, game play, and companionship; the best-known example might be the Old West saloon where a gambler could always find someone who played the same card games he did.
This social aspect of games has shown up a lot in science fiction, too. In Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series, games were the entire reason for being of the setting. Catherine Asaro’s Skolian Empire series has Quis, a dice game that is also a method of prophecy and communication (though it’s never really clear exactly how it works). In most of these cases, science fiction writers are playing with some advanced form of game that has the ability to connect people together in ways no mundane game ever could.
All the real-life games I mentioned connect people together in some way, but Ingress is more like those SF games—it has its own advanced method for making connections built-in. It’s no longer necessary to go to any particular physical spot, like a saloon or a chess club, to meet players of the game—you can do it through a communication channel built into the game itself.
Say I go to a new city. Any city, anywhere in the world. I can open my Ingress app and type a text message into my faction chat channel, and immediately get in touch with anyone else in the area who’s playing the game at the time. Not only does the game give me a way to talk to them, it gives me a common interest with them, so I immediately have a network of new friends (or at least friendly acquaintances) anywhere I go. And I do mean anywhere. There are Ingress portals on every continent, in remote locations in Alaska, and even at the McMurdo research facility at the South Pole.
Of course, modern MMOs and other networked computer games have players in all parts of the world, too, but given that those games aren’t built around 1:1 correspondences to the real world, there’s no immediate easy way to communicate to local players of them. But Ingress is all about mapping the virtual onto the real, and its communications channels default to talking to people within a specific short range of your real-world location. So there you are—with new real-world friends waiting for you literally wherever you go. It’s like a cross between a game and a personal support network. Isn’t that an amazing thing?
Anyway, my first experience with an Ingress Anomaly was amazing. I really hope they do it again soon, somewhere near me. But I think the more amazing thing by far is just how easy Ingress makes it to network in a way you never could before.