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

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loaded into my rental car and drove through the icy streets of Detroit hacking portals. (After a portal has been established, players must get within 40 meters of it and press a few buttons to “hack” it. If it’s a portal that is held by the opposing team, a player can choose to ignore it or destroy it.) After about an hour, I dropped Portalyst and BKnock off and kept playing on my own. I didn’t hang it up for the night until my phone died.

The Face of Ingress

In the offline world, Portalyst goes by Linda Besh. Besh, a petite brunette, just turned 52, and it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say Ingress has changed her life. Before she leaves the house, she usually wears a hooded sweatshirt that announces her Resistance affiliation. A few weeks ago, Niantic Labs recognized her as one of the top five Ingress players in the world—and the only representative from the U.S.—a distinction she says she earned more for her community-building efforts than for flawless play.

“When I zip this jacket up, I’m Portalyst,” Besh says. “I like that I can escape. People in my non-Ingress life would be shocked. When people ask what I’m up to, it’s really hard to answer. They probably wouldn’t believe where I’ve been, and that I jump in cars with strangers I’ve just met on the Internet and drive around Detroit at three in the morning. I’m doing all the things they say never to do.”

She has a voracious appetite for learning about new things, and she found her way to Ingress one night in 2012 after falling down the Internet rabbit hole and ending up at an online Google talk about crowdfunding. The talk inspired a Google search, and Ingress popped up. She had beta-tested Gmail in its infancy, so she entered her e-mail address to also be part of the Ingress beta test. The next day, she received her official invitation to play.

Besh was quickly taken by the mysterious Ingress backstory. She learned how to play by joining up with groups of mostly male players and not saying a word, no matter how cold or hot or uncomfortable she was during long Ingress excursions. She eventually created a local Ingress community with the friends she had made and started racking up followers on Google+. Back in the early days of Ingress, Niantic Labs would give players a new clue each day. She felt that Niantic seemed to be monitoring her posts and incorporating some of her ideas into the clues and gameplay, which thrilled her.

The power she felt was a delightful contrast to her daily working life, where she felt her talents were going unappreciated. Her daughters had grown up and left home, and she was at loose ends as an empty nester.

“My spare time before Ingress involved going to the movies and eating out with my friends,” she says. “I was gaining a lot of weight. I took some tennis lessons; I tried bowling. I also read a lot. I’ve always been an outdoors person, so I wanted something that would get me outside. Ingress got me outside, I saw stuff I’d never seen before, and I could do it with a ton of people or alone. It became a lifestyle.”

Besh gave up watching television in order to dedicate more time to Ingress. She lost 35 pounds after the weather broke last spring and she was able to play the game on foot. Meanwhile, she grew frustrated by how difficult it could be to communicate offline with … Next Page »

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