Ingress

Ingress is an interesting, still a rather new alternate reality game (ARG) by Google. It is the type of application that I’m calling Reality Guides – applications that tell us about our surroundings.

In Ingress you visit places in the real world, such as statues, monuments, public transportation stations, or what ever strikes the eye. The common nominator is that they are at least somewhat remarkable and unique. These places are marked in the game as portals that can be seen in the Ingress augmented reality. When you come by a portal, you try to capture it for your own team (The blue Resistance or the green Enlightened). You also build links between portals, which draws lines in the map. Once three portals have each been linked to each other, a “field” is created for your own team’s colour. A goal of a sort in Ingress is to eventually cover the whole world with fields of your own team’s colour. This goal, however, is unattainable in practise, as both teams are attempting to do the same, but with opposite colours, and so the fields tend to be built, destroyed and rebuilt in waves of alternating colours.

The augmented game world is also scattered with exotic material (XM) spreading out from the portals. You gather this material by walking close to it, and you use it as energy to take actions in the game. The activity is rewarded by activity points (AP), which are needed to gain levels in the game. On higher levels you have more power and social prestige.

Ingress rewards the players for being active and investing time. The more you do, the faster you gain levels. This is mostly constrained by the (lack of) activity by the opposing team. You get most AP from capturing portals and linking them. Once you have captured and linked all, you can’t do that any more until you have let them decay, which takes about a week, or the opposing team has taken them back. Therefore player progression is higher where there is lot of activity in the game in both teams.

There probably are some portals in Ingress originally placed by Google. However, the main method is not that Google employees would go around to place portals. Instead, the game has a feature for the players to submit portals. Google only moderates the submission queue. Ingress leaves a lot open to be created by the players, reminding the ideology behind wikis.

As for the ideology of Ingress, the game has several player guiding drivers. Ingress encourages walking. There is a constraint on how often you can hack a portal, but this is not a problem, if you just go around from portal to portal. Ingress enforces communality. The game can’t really be won and the story can’t be finished, but you can improve both the story and your success by being active in the community. As a game with two opposing parties, Ingress enforces rivalry and attracts power players. This attracts the kind of players who are abusive towards the other players, especially those that play on the opposing party. Ingress tends to have infestations of abusive players. Therefore, to be a active, skilful, female player in this game may require courage, as you are likely to meet the immature male players, whose lack of self confidence cannot tolerate losing, and to whom women represent so much otherness, that to come second to a woman represents shame and provokes primitive rage.

As an example of more positive social activity, for example in Turku the Ingress community have agreed upon a “level 1 area”. This gives new players a nice sandbox with only easy-to-overtake level 1 portals to practise and level up with. Both teams have reached an agreement on this and the policy is maintained. New and visiting players are contacted through the game chat and instructed about the rule. In cases of accidental violations, the opposite team is notified, so they can have someone with sufficient player level to go and “clean up”.

The pervasive story balances the action. Ingress isn’t much of a competitive action game. One cannot really defend a seized portal effectively. (A group of portals, perhaps, so that all of them cannot reasonably be taken.) There is a narrative, however, brought to players in real time through video clips and written media. Unlike in most narrative games, you can’t just go through the story of the game in your own pace, but you have to wait for these “news clips” to be published. The story tells of big corporations, conspiracies and rebel heroes. You can’t hurry or delay the story any more than the news about elections or sports events. The fictitious events in the narration of Ingress occur when they occur, and typically you can’t really affect them. They are, however, connected to the game elements, creating local player events around the world. Players are given specific portals to capture and they do gather in masses to compete there, team against team.

Ingress leaves one to wonder, why Google runs it. Joining is free. Playing is free. There are no advertisements in Ingress. What Google is taking, is a lot of your time and information. When you are gathering the XM, you walk around the streets with your cell phone GPS active, sending the location data to Google in real time. Google knows exactly where you are and when, as you play. Google also knows, whom you are playing with. The data would appear to be connected with Google+ and Google Maps data at least. The chances are that Google has a very good idea where all the Ingress playing fans of your favourite TV-series hang around, for example. They can probably measure, how well a certain advertisement on their services has affected people, making them visit a store, for example.

More likely than intruding your privacy, however, Google is using Ingress to improve Google Maps and test big-data concepts. Ingress provides good data on pedestrian accessibility and favourited pedestrian routes, which could be used to improve Google Maps giving directions. For big-data benchmarking, Ingress is a global game with the player count in the million-scope. (According to Liberty Voice, half a million at May 2013.[1]) The game is not only active, but even busy 24/7/365. For example, it has a chat system for the players to send messages. The players can choose to filter all the current and recent messages sent within a given radius from their current location, or even to receive all the messages in the game. Both of these are quite a feat for a database. And, of course, it’s not only the messages that the database has to store and provide an access to, but all the player actions alter the states of portals and the links between them. It is no surprise that there are glitches, where bursting down a portal does not break all the links connected to it and the game ends up even having links of both colours for one portal. It’s just amazing to see a link being built between two portals that are hundreds of kilometres from each other. The system must deny links that would cross existing links. It must inspect all the potential links between these two distant portals to make sure that not even the tip of any of the links crosses where this new super long link would be. The players are giving Google cheap system testing, where the biggest extra cost is recording a fictitious news video every week or so and releasing it as a part of the narrative.

It will be interesting to see, where Ingress is going. At the moment, submitting new portals into the game is a significant part of the game and it’s attraction. However, the amount of players in increasing, as well as the speed of portal submissions must be. At some point, finding new plausible portal locations will be significantly more difficult, and loads of players will be stalking the opening events of new statues to manage the first submission. Attaining the top-level badges for portal submissions will become very hard. Will Google change the gameplay here somehow? Will they introduce a third faction in the game? Will they change the game completely, or just, perhaps discontinue it? Currently there is only evidence for the opposite. A few months back they released a version of the game for the IOS platform, and even more recently they launched a new feature of quests in the game.

Google has their own good introduction video to Ingress at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6-JAm3NCAk

[1] http://guardianlv.com/2014/06/google-ingress-once-little-known-game-reaches-large-audience-2/

Also please, read below the invited comment from Heter Ocera who has far more experience in the game than me and is one of the top players in Finland.