The Blue and the Green: Ingress, Google's Leap into Mobile Gaming

 

It's Thanksgiving day, and I'm standing in the chilled fall air, facing a statue of a camel. It's one of the pair that guard the doors of the Asian Art Museum in Seattle's Volunteer Park, quite unassuming, especially in a public space with several art installations.

After a furtive glance to see if I'd been followed, I retrieve my smartphone, turn it on, and scan the area. Like a few nearby statues, a virtual portal resides on the camel's back. Just as anticipated.

"Jackpot," I mutter as I target the camel's portal and select "Hack." The virtual location’s spot changes from neutral white to Resistance blue as I claim the spectral property, which I then reinforce with resonators and shields. With the camel and the other nearby statues now glowing blue on the map, I signal my allies about the location. "Volunteer Park secure. Growing Enlightened fields over Downtown and the U-District. We need to retake Capitol Hill, and soon."

This isn't an excerpt from a(n admittedly dry) cyberpunk novella or a record of a World of Darkness LARP. This is Ingress, a new game from Google's Niantic Labs (the secretive wing responsible for the clever and somewhat-creepy Field Trip), that deals in augmented and alternate realities. It’s part voluntary data collection, part MMO, part Foursquare.

And, for what it's worth, it's remarkably fun. Your Data, Inc. Few have any illusions about what Google is after, by, seemingly out of nowhere, releasing a slick alternate reality game with an augmented reality tie-in. When you get down to it, every service Google provides - email, web browsers, OSes, maps, online storage, translation, among many others - is an avenue to collect data.1 This data is used by Google both to target advertising (the crucial revenue source for the company), and to further refine and polish said products, bringing more walking metrics into the fold.

But Ingress seems like more effort than Google has gone through in the past. Sure, they’ve taken financial hits by offering heavily subsidized devices to gain market share, or by providing free phone calls in North America. But why the theatrics, the leap into mobile and multiplayer gaming alike? Ostensibly, they seek information on pathing in non-vehicle-friendly areas. Paranoid people are free to speculate, as is their wont, but ultimately, Google has no clearer motivation than adding walking paths to their portfolio of data.

So Ingress is certainly another Tom Sawyer-esque effort of Google, attempting to get users do the heavy lifting of data collection by making it fun. Whether or not it (or its promised game tools) serves another purpose, maybe as a killer app for another product, remains to be seen.

But enough tech-talk; for our purposes, Ingress is a game. While I wouldn’t anticipate it causing the death of either traditional gaming (PCs and consoles and the like), nor that of typical mobile gaming (simple mechanics, addictive play, paid extras), Ingress does not seem to be in either category. Instead, it appeals to a very different appetite: one that craves adventure from the mundane. Few games currently cater to this.

An End to Boredom In the fall of 2004, a friend of mine introduced me to a game called Morton’s List, a game billed by its ICP-associated creators as “An End to All Boredom.” The game itself consists of a thick tome and a 30-sided die. No game board, no scorekeeping sheet, no electronic component. Players promise an hour of commitment to the game, then simply perform a set of rolls, determining which of the 360 “quests” they will undertake. The quests, too, are not particularly game-like, ranging from volunteering with a local charitable organization, to illegally sneaking into a ticketed event.2

Indeed, Morton’s List is a game only in a very loose sense of the word - the rules and die rolls serve only to choose the activity, and beyond the hour minimum, there are few observed victory conditions. It’s not very widely known, and even less widely played, tending to require nocturnal teenagers with an abundance of free time.

I didn’t get to play Morton’s List much, a number of sessions countable on one hand, but it was extremely memorable. One session saw us hastily assembling a spoofed CNN page claiming the resignation of then-president George W. Bush, to be perpetuated on a dormitory neighbor.3 Another night, we energetically slid under dividers and dived behind displays in a twenty-four hour supermarket, pretending to be in a spy film, much to the chagrin of the exhausted employees. Although aimless, silly, and bordering on juvenile, the open-world setting and semi-clandestine nature of the game lent it a special exhilaration. For years, I found no real equal.

Resist or Enlighten Let me be clear: Ingress is very, very much in beta.4 The game client went without updates for a span (before receiving three unexplained patches in as many days). It chokes on lesser Android phones - my quad-core manages fine, but, with shiny graphics and constant GPS and data use, it does so at the expense of battery life. It has no iOS client, which cuts out a sizable potential playerbase. The alternate reality side of the game advances daily, but, like many players, I’m still not entirely sure what’s going on. While enticing, it lacks context for player actions, diminishing the augmented reality experience to simple “green vs. blue.” Portals, the in-game map points over which the two factions battle, are either overly-dense or sparse, meaning that a few upgraded portals can hold a huge area of the map, while others lie directly atop one another - a far cry from an optimal block-by-block ground battle.5 Criteria for level advancements and scoring aren’t entirely clear outside of a brief tutorial, and have not yet been adjusted or reworked based on player feedback. It’s a closed beta for a reason; there’s work yet to be done.

Despite all these flaws, Ingress gives me that same feeling of exhilaration I felt years ago. An inkling, for now; present, but not yet fully revealed. Capturing a portal, destroying an enemy resonator, or reinforcing a friendly position all have me checking my back, making sure nobody else is trying to undo my actions - even though there’s little direct player interaction. I even get excited sitting at home, looking at the browser-based overview, feeding information and high value targets to my faction’s agents on the ground - even though there’s no incentive to do so. It’s engrossing, captivating, in a way that traditional games simply aren’t, just because it exists in parallel with the real world.

For now, I’m an eager participant in this still-baking experiment, excited to see what happens in the game and its puzzle-happy counterpart. My first invite code, meant to bring a friend into the fold, was given to my brother - who immediately sided with the Enlightened, the green to my blue. Game on, I suppose.

 

1: Any and all data, be it browsing habits, driving routes, commonly used words, et cetera. 2: No, seriously. 3: In the end, I had forgotten recommending him a browser not susceptible to the exploit. 4: And it isn't entirely new, either.  5:Portals can be submitted by players, requiring a photograph and location, but currently there is no in-game reward for doing so. This leads me to suspect that the process will be incentivised. Once the map has been populated and refined, they’ll wipe the slate clean before it goes public, not unlike other MMOs.