A mass of hooded figures form a convoy outside Portsmouth’s Guildhall. Heads and shoulders bowled forwards, shielding hidden devices from the cold, Southern rain. Cables snake between clasped hands, trailing out of sight within backpacks. Perched on a nearby wall, cheap coffee in hand, I curiously watch the scene unfold. Fingers furiously tap at what I now make out as smartphones. The dangling cables I presume lead to external battery packs. It’s not particularly thrilling to observe, but undoubtedly suspicious looking. Shielding an ear from the wind I check for the wail of sirens.
The next day my friend Paul informs me that I had stumbled upon an ‘Ingress Meet’. Apparently Paul is attending one later and suggests I come along. He takes my phone and navigates the app store until reaching Niantic Lab’s Ingress by Google. Whilst downloading, Paul explains to me that Ingress is an augmented reality game that uses GPS data to forge its game world.
“Basically there’s loads of this stuff called exotic matter that has been left by aliens.” He informs me that “as part of the Resistance I need to collect exotic matter to stop the Enlightened from getting it.”
“Why?” I ask, drawn in by his enthusiasm.
Apparently, the Enlightened gather exotic matter with an aim to control and evolve the human race. Serious stuff. For an app available as a free download, its backstory sounds pretty rich. Gameplay revolves around players physically travelling to areas marked as portals on the in-game map. Players then ‘hack’ these portals to claim them for their faction. Opposing teams may then steal them back in an attempt to control the largest area. Essentially, it as a huge scale, technology driven version of capture the flag.
There is something refreshingly different about this Google-funded game. From merely witnessing the admittedly bizarre, ‘Ingress Meet’, the game seems to generate a sense of community and physical activity that the creators of Flappy Bird and Candy Crush could never achieve. It signals an intuitive step towards elevating the status of gamers or tech enthusiasts above that of passive consumers, reuniting them with and reinvigorating them through the physical world and the importance of social interaction.
People can often be dismissive of technology, seeing it as inciting laziness. But in the last few years it has become common to see health-related apps topping download charts or even coming pre-installed on many devices. People recognise and embrace the convenience of smartphones and tablets but are still seeking ways to manage their health. Whilst many games available for smartphones represent simple ways of passing time, potentials have been seen for making the gaming world achieve something more wholesome. With over 9m downloads from 200 countries, Ingress proves that people are willing to get off the sofa to play video games. The stereotype of the lazy gamer has generally been amplified with the advent of phone and tablet based games, but the popularity of Niantic Lab’s creation suggests that this stems from a game’s design rather than gamers.
I meet Paul at a nearby pub. The Ingress Meet is in full flow. Several members of the group adorn blue tee shirts, the colour of the Resistance. A couple of green tee shirts, a symbol of the Enlightened, mingle over drinks. No sense of threatening opposition is apparent between the teams. I sit next to a member of the Enlightened called Tom. He’s travelled down from Salisbury to interfere with Portsmouth’s largely Resistance occupied streets, and hopefully unlock some in-game achievements.
“The Ingress community is great.” Nods Tom, sipping at a can of energy drink. “I really look forward to these meet-ups. It’s a good way of meeting people and getting out of the house.”
Tom uses Ingress’ built-in messaging platform to stay in touch with other players and organise events. “It is a genuinely social form of social media.” Whilst still using sites such as Facebook, Tom sees Ingress as offering an enhanced “sense of connectivity.”
I hear other players across the table comparing statistics they have accumulated whilst playing the game. Ingress displays the number of unique ‘portals’ a player has encountered and even the distance walked. Most tally up thousands of kilometres. Paul admits to walking “several miles a day, usually to and from work. I used to get the bus, but it was frustrating driving past all these unclaimed portals!”
Ingress promotes an approach to exercise that hardly feels like exercise. Popular health apps will often set goals or display techniques, but many people lose the enthusiasm. The way in which Ingress implements the need to physically travel to locations as part of the gameplay, adds a degree of involvement and achievement, making the overall experience more fun.
Aside from the health and social benefits accompanying Ingress, the game also prides itself on promoting the importance of travel and culture. A childlike sense of adventure that occurs in the real world is achieved by inciting players to get out of the house and wander their local area or travel even further afield. ‘Portals’ on the map are represented in the real world by statues, art, landmarks, and buildings or areas of cultural significance or beauty. Mexicolodger.com has used Ingress to promote tourism in the Pulaski County area, creating ‘portals’ for notable landmarks. The website gives a brief historical overview of each landmark and also lists nearby restaurants for the tired, Ingress pilgrims. ‘Missions’ have recently been implemented within the game, offering rewards for the completion of set ‘portal’ routes often through tourist locations.
Retailers are also benefiting from Ingress, with Schuh declaring their stores as ‘portals’. Players can now ‘hack’ whilst replacing their footwear after miles of walking. A phone’s battery life also bares great importance to the Ingress community, so electronics manufacturer Anker have teamed up with Niantic Labs to create the Ingress external battery pack. Feedback from players has been encouraged to determine the battery’s design and performance.
The future of mobile gaming is exciting. Developers have the potential to shed the negative connotations of gamers and offer a socially rewarding experience. Niantic Labs are currently working on ‘Endgame’, a follow up to Ingress, again based on real-time exploration. Hopefully other developers can recognise the benefits of augmented reality and expand a platform that effortlessly implements health, exploration and community.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.