Some thinkers have argued that public space has become nothing more than something in-between location A and B. During our travels from A to B we prefer a cocooned state with minimal friction: earphones plugged in, quick and efficient means of transportation and directions from a navigator. Seen from this perspective diversions, detours and the noise or even presence of others during a trip are simply a nuisance. Some recent games though have attributed to a different form of presence in our public space. For this post I’ve decided to review a few and immerse myself as undercover Ingress agent Winslow.
The treadmill stimulates a workout in the confines of a gym or home. Augmented reality workout apps though, stimulate more outgoing behaviour. Take simple apps like Runkeeper; motivation can be boosted by breaking records and exploring new routes (shown at the end of a run), especially if these performances can be shared. The app allows you to stop once in a while and make photos during your run which are modelled into a collage that can be shared via fb or twitter. Strava offers the same for cyclists and adds a competitive dimension: you’re ranked with all the other Strava users per ‘Segment’ (route or road). Both kinds of apps stimulate outdoor workouts and therefore public presence, but Strava also seduces its users to look for uncharted segments in the map. These activities become playful as they become more competitive or creative.
Runkeeper and Strava make navigation playful and stimulate public presence, but both apps are more focused on ‘working out’ than what might actually be called ‘gaming’. Google published an app that makes navigation playful, stimulates public presence and can truly be called a game: Ingress. Ingress (instructional video) is an augmented reality massive online role playing game using GPS. The basics of Ingress are comparable to Foursquare, but Google added some successful game-features:
- Ingress has a (science fiction) storyline, you’re actions are part of a bigger whole that keeps developing;
- Instead of checking in to stores or shops, Ingress ‘portals’ are landmarks or monuments that can be occupied and overtaken with the use of energy and items collected during walks, this turns Ingress into a ‘resource war’;
- The game features items and other rewards that range from very common to rare. As Tom Chatfield mentioned by describing rewarding schedules, a calculated amount of luck is a very stimulating;
- All of your actions are measured and rewarded, therefore granting constant feedback and a feeling of progression;
- In order to build the most powerful portals or destroy them a certain degree of collaboration is needed. This adds a social dimension to the core mechanics of the game.
Undercover -Ingress- agent Winslow
In order to see what Ingress was like I created a profile (winslow007) and immersed myself in the Ingress scene. My hidden agenda was to find out what kind of people play this game, why they play it and whether it changed their use of public space. After downloading the app I got the following warning during the instructional video
The first step was choosing an alignment: Enlightenment (Green) or Resistance (Blue). In the narrative of the game the former faction wants to use the mysterious ‘Exotic Matter’ in order to improve humanity while the latter resists against the potentially dangerous effects; Classic trans-humanist issue. I decided to adopt Nietzsche’s perspective (we are but a way-station to the Ubermensch) and joined green.
First night out
After making an account at Nietsling’s place I cycled through the city while I watched the Ingress map on my phone. The streets were poorly lit at this dark hour but the map showed bright green or blue portals referring to murals, statues and other kinds of monuments around me. During my trip I ‘hacked into’ several portals and got items from it. I figured I might as well destroy some blue portals and tried ‘firing’ a couple of the rockets I got from hacking by clicking on my map. My activity was noted and soon enough the powers-that-be in Ingress found me..
Down the rabbit hole
Enlightenment headquarters as well as a local chapter contacted me and congratulated me on ‘finishing my training’. The ‘Ringleader’ of the local chapter invited me for a stroll the next morning and we made an appointment near a local monument. As I waited for a complete stranger next to a monument I rarely noticed before, I realized the absurdity of the situation. I didn’t have to wait long though: a cyclist rode straight up to me, got of his bike and offered me an outstretched hand. ‘Winslow?’.. ‘Yes’.. ‘Pleased to meet you, I’m Stephen’. Stephen struck me as a friendly and mellow feller, he told me that he was an ICT student who was just finishing his bachelor degree. As a frequent user, and a high level agent, he would make a ‘bicycle drive-by’ at least once a day/night apart from his ‘walks with his dog’. Stephen gave me some welcoming items and invited me to a group chat for local players, the municipal wide chat is also available but those guys are quite directive. ‘How so?’. ‘They kind of demand you to perform raids in other neighbourhoods, I prefer not to be told where to go’.
‘Nightfarm’ with the top-dawgs
I played some more Ingress the next days and leveled up fast. It was fun to run from one new portal to another, connect them with links and explore murals in my neighbourhood. One night I drove home from dining at a friends place, I strolled around on my bike and hacked a couple of portals when I received a private message form the ringleader. ‘Winslow, I see that you’re hacking close by, meet me at ‘Royal Kids’, were doing a farm and Ive got spare items for you’. A bunch of questions popped up like: What and where is Royal Kids and what’s a farm? Whatever it was, I wanted to know more. This was what I was hoping for, lets see what the Ingress nightscene is like! It took me a while to find Royal kids, which turned out to be the name of a portal. The streets were filled with groups of hoodlems. Where they just hanging or were they hacking? One dodgy looking pack was shouting.. seemingly at me. ‘Winslow!!’ ‘ Winslow!’ (uhm, right, thats me). I recognized Stephen and took a good look at the rest. Two of them looked like squatters, their clothes were of an indistinct hue that could either be green brown or grey. One of them was tall and had big frantic looking eyes, the other wore fingerless gloves and a Castro-cap. Next to them stood a young Turkish guy with a fur-lined hoody. “nice frog shoes” I raised an eyebrow and glared back. Frog?. “Nice Enlightenment shoes”. I suddenly realised they were the colour of our faction. “Others name us frogs, we call the resistance smurfs”.
We got acquainted and I took the liberty of asking some questions. What’s this thing about setting up a farm? 8 high level players gather together to build high level portals. Afterwards they walk a couple of rounds and hack the portals they’ve build. Level 8 portals grant the best items. An unlikely combination of guys was thus assembled out of common Ingress interest. Why did they play this game? The squatter replied that it had become a striving for badges and higher levels. ‘Its like Pokemon: you gotta catch em all’. The fields and narrative become less and less important.
Ingress has some interesting effects that seem implicitly intended. Ingress stimulates the historical and artistic exploration of your own as well as other neighbourhoods. This could have historical or educational value but can also be seen as an interesting addition to the factual information that’s already supplied by Google Maps.
Run fatboy Run
Remember those scenes in which a father orders his son to play outside instead of sitting behind a computer or television all day? Like other augmented reality games, Ingress requires you to move outdoors with your mobile device, you simply cant play it behind a desktop. Rumour has it that Ingress was designed partly with the purpose of enticing fanatic gamers to become more outgoing. To be sure, I’ve seen Ingress agents walk and cycle long distances to increase their influence and discover new portals. During my time as agent I actually combined it with my morning runs as a playful replacement of Runkeeper. I’ve also read a blog by an American Ingress player called BaconFatLabs who used a car and combined Ingress gatherings with pizza, cookies and beer.
In 1962 the Dutch performance artists Wim T. Schippers and Willem de Ridder organised a march through Amsterdam. A group of people was guided through (and eventually out of) the city by random and unforeseen decisions from the guides. In turn Schippers or De Ridder would walk till the end of a street and from that point point towards a new direction. The point of this exercise was pointlessness itself, or as Schippers used to call it: ‘life is absurd and wholeheartedly uninteresting’. The absurd march was meant as a playful form of moving through the city that was not functional. Maybe Ingress’ biggest feat could be a less rational and more playful way of marching through the city.