Ingress turns the city into a playground

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

The relationship between Ingress, a mobile game from Google, and cities reminds me a lot of the relationship between skateboarding and cities. If a police officer saw you playing Ingress he’d might get suspicious and ask you a few questions about what you were doing. It’s not some violent first-person shooter or a game like Grand Theft Auto, where killing cops is required.

Ingress is a free-to-play, location-based mobile game from Niantic Labs, a development team within Google. It barely features any graphics at all, let alone graphic violence. Ingress looks strange to a bystander because you have to play it outside, often with other people.

“People do come into contact with law enforcement,” John Hanke, who runs Niantic Labs, told me. “I think in the U.S. it’s partly driven by the fact that unfortunately it’s uncommon for people to be out in parks and in public places. Because even though we have these great public spaces, a lot of the time people are just going from home to work in their car, and a lot of these places don’t get used otherwise and one of the things Ingress does get people out into them. Sometimes that seems unusual to law enforcement.”

Hanke said Ingress was designed to encourage people to move through the real world and see it with new eyes, to stop and notice things we’re used to passing by every day.  

At its essence, it’s a game of global, territorial control, where players try to conquer portals located at specific locations in the real world. Using Google’s mapping technology, you go to your city park or other landmarks, pull out your phone, launch the “scanner” app, and use it to deploy “resonators” to claim it for one of three factions in the game. Players can link the portals and form fields that capture parts of the real-world map for their faction. There are also episodic events based on the game’s elaborate, sci-fi story, which require them to cooperate in special activities.

Skateboarding interacts with public spaces in a similar way. Our cities were designed with public spaces in mind, but for a variety of reasons, congregating in those places or using them for anything other than taking your lunch break seems strange now. Stay there for too long without an apparent purpose and you might get in trouble for “loitering.” Both skateboarding and Ingress imbue these places with new meanings by reimagining them as playgrounds. A skater looks at a public space and sees the potential in its sets of stairs and handrails. An Ingress player looks at the same park through his phone and sees the potential of its portals.

Not all Ingress players are necessarily aware that they’re having an effect on public space, but there’s no doubt many of them have latched on to the concept of a location-based mobile game. Ingress has been downloaded more than two million times and is being actively played in more than 200 countries. Players initiate their own operations involving thousands of agents in multiple countries, coordinating their efforts in order to grab large swaths of a continent.

Ingress represents the utopic, Googley-eyed ideal of a technology company not being evil. Even the cops, while suspicious, are ultimately for it, Hanke told me, because using public space deters bad activities in those spaces. “I think if there’s an underlying good that can be done not just by Ingress but games like this, it’s that it gets people out and using this places meant for public use, and for the general benefit.”

“There’s an underlying good that can be done by games like this.” 

Still, it’s important to remember that Ingress is a Google product, and that Google is primarily an advertising company. It gets people to use public space, but it also gets them to walk into large chain stores.

“We’re also experimenting with ads that are kind of location-oriented ads with retailers, Jamba Juice; Zipcar is a big one for us currently in Ingress. With these kind of ads, the physical location of the retail partner becomes an active location in the game so there are incentives for users in the game to visit those locations. It’s in the early stages for that kind of a business model but I think it’s a very promising one. Retailers want store traffic. they want consumers to be aware of where their locations are. They want consumers to be engaged with them, and I think these games are a powerful tool for that.”

Skateboarding graduated from subversive, creative play to an institutionalized commercial sport, with proper, structured sporting events that take place in designated venues away from public space, and mountains of merchandising. Ingress can’t “sell out” this way, because those commercial aspects are already baked-in. It encourages us to support public spaces, but only if we’ll support Jamba Juice as well. Whether Ingress can serve both masters, private and public, depends on your faith in its players. So far, they’ve been as ambitious and helped define the game just as much as its creators.

Skateboarder image via old_skool_paul