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Image: Zen Lefort / MOTHERBOARD

The King Of Augmented Reality Street Fighting

Louise Beltzung

Louise Beltzung

A 30 year old from Paris was the first top-ranking player in Google's augmented reality game Ingress.

Image: Zen Lefort / MOTHERBOARD

Louis XIV has been enthroned on a horse on the Place des Victoire in Paris since 1828. However, the Sun King had to reconquer his place on the streets of the French capital, after his statue was melted into cannons by revolutionaries and was briefly replaced by a naked general.

Today, Place des Victoire is a central destination for tourists making their way through Paris. For Damien Bastou, a 30-year-old Ingress player, the regal square is primarily a symbol for his success in the game. Under the pseudonym, "Morka," Bastou has become one of the top player of the increasingly popular augmented-reality scavenger hunt. That is at least according to the ​first official world-ranking list Google published in November, where he came in first (a title that has since changed hands, although Morka remains one of the top players).

The game, developed by Niantic Labs, a startup within Google, ​promotes itself with the slogan: "The world around you is not what it seems." It's the most entertaining fusion of virtual and urban reality yet that's available to the general smartphone-wielding public. I can confirm, ​from reported experience, that Ingress offers you a totally new experience of your city, where you traverse your city for hours on end with smartphone users who were complete strangers only moments ago, making public space into your playing field—climbing the Ingress hierarchy, level by level.

7,992 kilometers in augmented reality to become number one in the world.

Morka gets going early in the morning—the city around him immediately becomes a battlefield. Notable places, like ornaments, historic facades, hills, statues and graffiti tags transform into "portals," through which "exotic material" passes into the urban space.

As an agent of the "Enlightened" (green), Morka's goal is to destroy the portals of his enemy, the "Resistance" (blue), to occupy these portals with his "resonators," and to connect the portals in such a way that streets and buildings create "fields," which then claim the valuable "Mind Units."

Image: Morka.

Morka has been playing Ingress since it launched in 2012. By now he's covered 7,992 kilometers in augmented reality, visited 15,794 portals and destroyed 258,063 resonators. The longest link he's made between two portals was a legendary 594 kilometers.

"I get really immersed in everything I do. And that's true with Ingress too." That's how the computer science engineer from the Sorbonne Nouvelle summarizes his enormous engagement to me. Another secret to his success, which distinguishes him from his colleagues, is remaining calm in every gameplay situation.

There are agents (players) who feel persecuted IRL during attacks on "their" portals and throw their phones on the ground. Aside from the countless, amazing, augmented Ingress friends, I've had the chance to meet a few of these more peculiar agents—when ​playing in Vienna or the Netherlands.

Image: Zen Lefort / MOTHERBOARD

Morka knows that it seems pretty Dadaistic for the rest of the city's inhabitants when Ingress players gather, completely immersed, unaware of anything outside the game. For example, they keep going back and forth down the same path, doing really weird things with their bodies to counter the jumps in GPS positioning.

For the cultural theorist, Paul Virilio, in light of accelerated modern communications, our constructed urban space has long become an electronic topology—wouldn't Ingress be a dystopian expression of electrified urbanity for him? Thousands of people continue to voluntarily stare at their displays for hours, sharing their movements with Google.

By now I just wake up earlier to really play before work.

​Ingress agents have already covered 127 million kilometers in the last two years. It's unclear how many players are active, but it's known that free game has been downloaded over 8 million times for Android and iOS.

For many Ingress players, the city "made of flesh and stone," as urbanist Richard Sennett calls it, has long been superimposed with digital impregnations. By now both nerd armadas have constructed over 3 million portals worldwide.

Ingress is also vary much a social game for Morka, which he continuously emphasizes to me. I spoke to him about how he was able to become the world's number one agent, how teamwork works in augmented reality, and how Ingress has changed the last two years of his life in the French capital.

Motherboard: How many hours do you spend playing Ingress right now to defend your top ranking?

Morka: I play at least five hours a day. I play in the morning before work. I used to use my way to work, but now I just wake up earlier to really play. I usually get going at quarter of seven. I play less during my lunch break but after work I play a lot.

It's impossible for me to gauge how many hours I've spent playing in total. What I can say is that I spend less time sitting at home on my computer, but I also spend less time with other hobbies like photography or going to concerts.

An dem Ort hatten sie die Enlightened in Paris ihre ersten Portale des höchsten Levels aufstellen können, die es braucht, um an entsprechende starke Waffen und Items zu kommen. Das Jubiläum feierten sie, indem sie mit grüner Folie die Beleuchtung änderten. Laut Morka ist „die Place de Victoire mehr als Symbol für uns.

This is where the Enlightened managed to conquer the first top-level-portal in Paris. They celebrated by altering the monument's lighting. According to Morka, "Place des Victoires has ever since been more than a symbol to us." Image: Morka

So sieht es aus, wenn sich die Ingress-Spieler zu Hause versammeln und weitere Aktionen in Paris planen.

This is what it looks like when Ingress player meet to plan their next moves. Image: Morka.

Morka und sein Team bei einer Aktion, bei der sie eine Nacht durchgespielt haben.

Morka and his team on one of their all-night allcity hunts. Image: Morka.

Are there key events from the beginning of your career as Morka that you can remember today?

I can remember everything. I was in my office the first time I opened Ingress. I thought it was an awesome way to get out, linking points in the real world and thereby covering entire areas in green.

I don't think I'll ever to reduce my Ingress activities.

There were quite a lot of portals right around my university and none at all anywhere near my house. So I can clearly remember the first portal in my neighborhood, the city hall of the 13th arrondissement. It turned blue one night and I ran out to take it back for my green team. I met another player there who wanted to do the same. We talked for more than a half hour in the rain. He still plays and was one of my faction's first, high-level players in Paris.

In ​my most active Ingress days, these spontaneous meetings would happen all the time. Have you ever had unpleasant meetings?

Yes. The people who play Ingress are real people, so there are crazy people and weird people and posers and trolls. But that's all part of it. I just ignore the people I don't like—like I do in "real" life.

Otherwise the Ingress community seems to be really committed to each other.

Yeah, it's always growing closer. Teamplay is necessary to win. You have to work together to build stronger portals, make longer links and to receive higher items.

But solidarity in the Ingress world goes way beyond the game. There are players who've gotten new jobs thanks to Ingress acquaintances. People have gotten into relationships, and countless new friendships have been made. I meet my team outside of the game—and of course our phones are still all out on the table, with our scanners on, checking to see if enemy portals have been taken over.

What was your guys' most spectacular action so far?

Setting up our first field over Paris was cool. It was pretty complicated and intense to conquer such a huge field. I've played with other players for 24 hours a lot. That was amazing, exhausting and thrilling at the same time. How did we do it? Red Bull, bikes and elaborate preparations.

Red Bull, bikes and elaborate preparations.

And then there was our most recent action, "Green Paris." More than 200 agents from all over Europe gathered in Paris, coordinating in teams to conquer a high field all at once. We erected the biggest eight-fold farm in the world to date in Paris, with over 5,000 green portals.

The green collective in front of Louvre. Image: Morka

In december you were in Barcelona for Anomaly, where ​Resistance and Enlight​ened were to meet for a big battle. Have you traveled to a lot of these Ingress competitions?

Yes. I love the atmosphere at these events. The players organize into bigger teams of their color, waving flags from their city when they travel into the augmented reality of a foreign city. However the playing level isn't too high most of the time—you basically shoot before you think. The size of the two teams is often unequal, so then you can basically forget a fair fight.

Now that you're number one in the world, are you at all interested in switching factions?

Hmm, yeah I would love to try it. But not to become a blue. I love my color, my team, my friends. I would just like to try it for the challenge in the game. But I'm not a traitor.

In the game you've achieved everything. Do you think you'll still continue to play for a long time?

I don't think I'll ever be able to reduce my Ingress activities. It's hard to stop but it isn't impossible. I love moving through the city with Ingress, meeting people and discovering new places in augmented reality.

This article was translated from ​Motherboard Germany.