Ingress, Google, and Linda Besh: How a Mobile Game Augments Reality

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

When I first met Portalyst, she was at the Detroit Public Library, surrounded by her fellow agents in Resistance Detroit. There were BelaWren and Commander Lobo, a bookish married couple from Royal Oak, MI, and B33rhun73r (Beerhunter), a software developer so named for his appreciation of craft brewing.

They were all glued to their phones, scanning for portals and enemy fire while watching the Comm stream for updates from other “Resistance” players, as well as missives from the opposing “Enlightened” team. They were also fielding calls from BKnock, another Resistance agent who is an aspiring rapper and producer from the Dexter-Davison area of Detroit. He was on his way in a taxi.

The library finally began dimming its lights to signal it was closing time, and we trudged through the snow to a bar called Lefty’s, just off Wayne State University’s campus. An especially aggressive member of the Enlightened was on the loose attacking Resistance territory, and the team was watching it play out on the Comm stream. Despite the bitter rivalry, BelaWren sent a message to the Enlightened player inviting him to meet us at Lefty’s. (Detroit might have a fearsome reputation in the world at large, but in this case it’s known as an atypically friendly community.)

What would draw such a diverse mix of people to the heart of Detroit on a frigid February night? The most addictive augmented-reality, location-based mobile game you’ve probably never heard of, called Ingress.

It’s the product of Niantic Labs, an app and game development startup inside of Google. Niantic Labs is led by John Hanke, the man behind much of the technology fueling Google Street View and Google Earth. With Ingress, which was released to the public in December 2013 after about a year in beta, Hanke has channeled his passion for discovery and community into a game that involves using GPS to locate and “control” points of interest—historic sites, landmarks, works of public art, schools, libraries, and post offices, to name a few.

The Ingress universe has a sci-fi backstory—Hanke says it was inspired by JJ Abrams—which involves a mysterious alien presence called Shapers. Shapers have taken over the planet with something called Exotic Matter, or XM. Agents who play for the Enlightened believe the Shapers have come to uplift mankind; Resistance players want to protect humanity from Shaper subjugation. Players on both sides use their Android phones—it doesn’t work on iPhones yet—to establish “portals” at points of interest.

The point of the game is to link the portals together, creating triangular fields over geographic areas that protect the unsuspecting public, referred to in Ingress as “Mind Units.” The balance of power between the Enlightened and Resistance is constantly shifting. In fact, the Ingress storyline is always evolving, depending on both online and offline player actions.

To be a really effective Ingress player, like Portalyst, you need to form alliances with other agents so you can go out and play as a group. Experienced players will share inventory—weapons, shields, portal keys—with newbies. Because of this, a close-knit community has sprung up around Ingress, with players holding competitive meet-ups called Anomalies. There are books, comics, a weekly news broadcast, clothes, and a thriving Google Plus channel dedicated to Ingress. Characters in Ingress books will “jump out” and show up at Anomalies. Ingress has been responsible for romances, broken friendships, and remarkable acts of community kindness. Hanke estimates that two million people worldwide have downloaded the game’s app so far.

I can attest to the game’s strange addictiveness. I officially joined the Resistance while sitting with Besh and crew at Lefty’s bar. Later that night, Portalyst, BKnock, and I … Next Page »

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