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    I Tested Google's Augmented Reality Game in Vienna

    Written by

    Louise Beltzung

    Ingress is somewhere between collective clicking and geocaching. Image: Niantics Labs

    I’ve never talked to him, but I know what time he gets up in the morning, what time he leaves his home, and where he worksand I notice the slightest variations in his daily routine. In real life he is my neighbor, but in the game he is my enemy. He belongs to the blue ‘resistance’ movement (the ‘smurfs’) in Google's augmented reality game. I, however, have fallen for the green side, the ‘enlightened’ (or ‘frogs’).

    Ingress, developed by Google startup Niantic Labs, is a prime example of the gamification effect. It shows how our actions can contradict the moral we defend; we love to emphasise the value of privacy, but renounce it in the blink of an eye as soon as things get fun.

    The game was made available in the Google Play store at the end of October. Not wanting to be a complainiac and denounce people's behaviour without having a clue about what they actually do, I decided to download the game onto my smartphone and try it for myself. Just for academic reasons, of course, as a PhD student in the philosophy of technology. A few weeks later, and I'm totally immersed in the game.

    This is how it happened. 

    Chronology of an Ingress Addiction

    The game transforms the world into more than it actually is. Places, sculptures, and many buildings conceal energy, the so called Exotic Matter (XM). The background: In a secret operation called ‘Niantics Project’ the NIA (National Intelligence Agency) inquired about this phenomenon. XM have an impact on humans, and the shapers (an alien-like grouping) possibly use this to change the course of history.

    As information about this secret operation emerges, a revolt in the NIA starts. The resistance (blue) wants to hold back the influence of the ‘shapers’, the enlightened (green) on the contrary are delighted. This history developes further related to the way the game play enfolds.

    So first and foremost I have to choose: Do I join the green or the blue digital army?

    Admittedly, I have hesitated. Resisting this mindfuck sounds good indeed, but then again, if I oppose, why should I even bother playing Ingress? That’s how my trivial decision for green was taken. And so there I was, ‘louiseattaque’, enlightened-player of the low-level league.

    Level 1: The first genuflection

    The app allows you to navigate from portal to portal and shows which are links, or which areas haven been occupied (Image courtesy of the author)

    To play Ingress, you walk through the city with a smartphone (or tablet) and to hack, destroy, conquer, or link portals. The principle is easy: every memorial plaque, every statue, every historic site may become a place, which lets off XM.

    A portal is kitted with resonators, and can deploy a maximum of eight such resonators. If three portals are linked to a triangle, a field is created. No link may cross an existing link, and thus players have to coordinate efforts if they want to lay down impressive fields such as those crossing country borders or oceans.

    All of this only works if I enable the GMS option on my cell phone to allow the sharing of my location. So far, I  have always refused this click. And while I have become digitally transparent through extensive online activity over the last fourteen years, toegther with and my presence on every possible social networking site, I was kind of proud to have at least not shared my location. Well, now I have abandoned one of my last bastions of privacy.

    Level 2: Getting to know my neighbours

    I seem to be permanently writing Emails. I miss trains and realize who else may be an Ingress player (Image: Bernd Herzog)

    "Hi, Alpengeist here."

    Instantly, I am welcomed and invited to the Google hangout of my district in Vienna (Austria). Here, I get to know them all—only my neighbours' green ones, of course. And lucky as I am, I actually live within a little fortress of enlightened pioneers. On just a few streets there are dozens of them. They are students, graphic designers, employees, who meet late at night and to go for walks, no matter how shitty the weather is. 

    Ingress is a game for team players. A level one player may deploy all eight resonators in a portal on her own, but this capability is reduced as she climbs levels. All those who have reached the highest (eighth) level may only place one L8-resonator and have to complete it with resonators of a lower level. Each portal has a level, one determined by the deployed resonator and according to a formula, which combines the level of the player and the portal, and then spits out items (such as weapons or resonators). Thus, if a player wants to have a lot of weapons and resonators of their eighth level, they have to cooperate with seven colleagues on their level.

    Take Farming. It's an activity where such a group comes together, and generates a range of these portals in the immediate surroundings to hack them repeatedly in service of embellishing their own inventory. Such virtual agrarianism is taking place at the right corner in front of my window, and I'm being invited to harvest. 

    I've got no idea what to expect. I get down and meet the people behind their partly-cryptic aliases. I have to admit: I am surprised just how normal they seem to be, all these different types of people who otherwise hang out on medieval markets or anime parties. But no freaks in sight, at least not more than I am one.

    In Ingress, Farming means to go around one and the same block of houses for hours. You stop every few meters to hack, before you continue walking. Some arrive with their Thermos, the others with cans of beer; cables lead to every pocket, where battery packs lie. During this evening I quickly learn that a conventional smartphone battery does not suffice for Ingress. I quickly pimp up my equipment on the next day as well.

    The evening is interrupted abruptly, as a ‘resistance’ player in hiking boots and wearing a big grin shows up. He's a level eight player, and calmly starts the same turn-around circle and shoots everything down.

    To play Ingress also means to understand that both need each othee, because there is no victory. Only destruction and reconstruction in an infinite loop.

    Level 3: I’m in–and it looks bizarre from the outside

    Professional Equipment is everything. My colleagues form bike-gangs are equipped with the matching clothes, even cell-phone rigged gloves (Image via Magnus Event)

    In a very short period of time, I climb up the levels and surprise myself with strange actions.

    For example, a friend announces she would be late, and I start Ingress in the meantime. Similar to Little Red Riding Hood picking up flowers, I end up far from our meeting point by the time she finally arrives. Every day I explore my district with friends and complete strangers. I end up at the most absurd places, such as the waste grounds of a social housing estate, to reach portals. Willingly, I make detours and spend hours walking around in the city on my own in the evenings.  

    It’s on one of these evenings that I get word that there is farm in a district on the other end of the city. Excitement has been building in Vienna: Google's 3Magnus event will make the capital of a small country the center of global Ingress action.  On this Friday evening before the event, shortly before Midnight, I end up at a lost corner of this district.

    A man is standing on the balcony and screams the place down.: “Are you nuts? What the fuck are you doing? I am calling the police!”  

    He does not understand what is going on. How should he? For hours he has seen small groups of two or three people going the same 50 meters in front of his building, up and down. They stare at their displays of their smartphones. Some of them quietly talk. I realize how strange this may seem from the exterior, what we are doing: Fifty meters to the front, abruptly stopping, turning around, and back again.

    Level 4: The neatly organized anomaly

    Some have travelled to Vienna from a far to attend the event. Many sport self-made fan gear, like flags and scarfs (Image Bernd Herzog)

    At 1 PM the event everyone has prepared for for days and weeks finally starts. An ‘anomaly’, as it's called in Ingress, occurs in Vienna. The event is part of the ‘13Magnus’ series, which has been going on in 39 different places of the world since October. The second location today is Dallas, Texas. The upcoming events in Europe, the US, and South America will be held on December 7 and 14.

    There are four clusters in here in Vienna. Niantic Lab measures set the most links and fields, occupying the most portals in the span of just four hours.

    All teams are given cards with Clusters of the XM-Anomalies. The leaders give instructions (Image Bernd Herzog)

    Everything is neatly organized. The teams are centrally coordinated; some go by bike, the others by feet. And then there are the strategies, strictly secret among the few insiders who work on fields surpassing as the clusters covering whole cities.

    For me, someone who cannot really upset anyone with my weapons, the game is quickly over, because the 'resistance‘ has established a field over the whole Vienna, which can only be destroyed shortly before the end of the game. The field makes any links impossible.

    For me, a blue screen is totally not a good sign.

    At the end of the day, the victory of the ‘resistance’ in Vienna is announced. Perhaps I am just a bad loser, but I quickly hop off. I had a nice day and am impressed by the organisation efforts, but at the same time I prefer Ingress within its daily banality rather than after this chronometer principle.

    Level 5: Ingress, mon amour

    All told, I walked 147 kilometres, destroyed 864 resonators, and deployed 2523 more. For established level eight players this is nothing. But for a novice like me, this seems alarmingly high.

    Today, I moved up the chain into the highest level. Officially, at least, because the counting continues unofficially after play is dead

    Will I stop? Probably not. I enjoy thinking about the devastation my L8 bursters will leave at my neighbours place, for one thing. But I also like this virtually-expanded city wandering.   

    Boom! Starting today, I won't have to stand in one spot for ten minutes to destroy a portal.

    To find out more about the playful life of this augmented reality, I reached out to the developers directly. On the eve of Ingress leaving the Beta stage in two weeks, I talked to Anne Beuttenmüller of Niantics Labs on Ingress Clans as the better Cliques, how they plan to monetarize the buzzing game, and about data protection.  

    MOTHERBOARD: Augmented Reality Games such as Ingress make you forget that you are actually playing a game. I had a feeling of immersion. Hours passed quickly. Have you made similar experiences?

    Anne Beuttenmüller: Oh, yes. The first time I tried out Ingress, I went out during the lunch break with a colleague to conquer some portals in the park nearby. Half an hour quickly turned into two hours. We rented local city bikes to conquer as many portals as possible. I was excited and somehow I was impressed [at] how easily you can forget about time.  

    Does Ingress create a new social reality? In other words, to what extent do you think new social communication forms may emerge out of such games?

    The most impressive feature of this game is the social component, that due to the game mechanics, players have to meet at a precise place at a certain time to play the game effectively. Out of this emerged not only thousands of communities, but also strong friendships, relationships and rituals such as regulars’ tables.

    I was told stories of how players found a job through Ingress or how the community helped out some to recover from the cruel hand of fate. Ingress constitutes a neutral platform of interests, on which people establish new ties for which it’s without relevance who you are, what you do or have done. Only, the common interest “Ingress” connects.

    I don’t have the feeling that new forms of communication emerge, but on the contrary, Ingress shows me every day how important personal relationships are for us. Ingress enables this in an innovative way.

    Could Ingress Clans be the better Cliques?

    Yes, absolutely, or the new associations. Gamers meet to live a common interest, be it soccer or Ingress.

    Ingress will soon leave the Beta phase. How do you plan on making money with it?

    Currently, we are in an experimental stage, because we think that innovative games such as Ingress need innovative refinancing models. At best, advertisings enrich the game, but they should definitely not impact the user experience to the negative. This is why we experiment with various partners such as Vodafone in Germany, HINT Water and Zipcar in the USA, to get a feeling for where this route takes us to.

    Some people see Ingress as an illustration of the end of privacy. Where do you see the potential for improving data protection in Ingress or do you consider those critics as unjustified?

    To be very clear: The protection of the data of our users is a priority. We take this topic very seriously. This is why each player has to accept the terms of use, which amongst others state that a user should not try to get access to any information on location not of interest for his game. If a player violates these terms, we act accordingly and if necessary, close down the account.

    Google Ingress has not yet conquered the whole world.


    What about my privacy? For me, at least, there is none within the Ingress village. The player community constantly develops apps to allow for a more efficient game, and until a few days ago there was only one, through which you could see where a player is and to where she's moving.

    Still, there are at least a few things I could do: change player name and stop hacking portals the whole way down from my doorstep to work. And if I prefer walking around anonymously in the streets, I should definitely stop doing what I did right now, writing about it.