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

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members of the various volunteer boards she served on; she wondered why she had to work so hard to get her point across in the non-Ingress world.

What she loves most about Ingress is that it uncovered her latent leadership abilities. “It gives women in particular the chance to step out of the areas that limited them,” she says. “I was limited by a corporate job [as a financial analyst] and a gray cubicle. In Ingress, you can be anything you want. But you can’t just do it by yourself, so you have to be dedicated, motivational, a good planner, and you have to work in collaboration. You accomplish things you can’t do in other parts of your life, which makes you start to try bigger things.”

Perhaps Besh’s most famous Ingress accomplishment was something called Links Across America. She had an idea to create a chain of portal links using war memorials and military bases across the United States, in honor of veterans and active duty military, for last year’s Memorial Day. Since the U.S. is carved up into Resistance and Enlightened territories, she knew it would require cooperation between the warring factions.

What she didn’t realize was how many military people play Ingress. (Law enforcement is another well-represented occupation.) Besh says an “amazing” number of people stepped forward to participate in the Memorial Day event, and two links running west to east across the U.S. were established. Besh was personally responsible for the portion between Columbus, OH, and Indianapolis. When she arrived in Columbus, a group of Ingress players was waiting. A woman unfolded a flag that had flown over Afghanistan. “It was very emotional,” Besh recalls. “I realized this is bigger than the game—this was serious. I think it was the most meaningful weekend of my life, let alone in Ingress.”

Niantic Labs noticed Links Across America, and ended up leading with it during the next Ingress news broadcast. Hanke says he thinks of Besh as an archetypical Ingress player. All along, Niantic had the goal of creating a game that leads to social interaction and urban exploration, he says. To see Ingress transcend what he calls “the cocoony culture” of tech geeks has been very fulfilling, Hanke says. “Sometimes, cities in the U.S. can feel deserted as people go from their house to their car to work and back again,” he adds. “Our secret plan was to also do some good. Even with games like World of Warcraft—people get into those games, but I don’t get the sense it has the same positive, transformative effect. People are really starved for that interaction. In the past, Kiwanis clubs or other civic organizations served that function, but they’ve eroded. The younger generation didn’t have anything to take their place.”

A Google Allegory?

Since Links Across America, Besh has been all over the country, couch-surfing and helping to build Ingress communities in other cities and states. She gets messages from players in places like Morocco and Malaysia asking for help. She’s known for her ability to mediate conflict, and she says she’s spent her own money to travel all over Michigan, California, Colorado, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Texas, and Illinois to play Ingress. “You know you’re addicted when you’re in Chicago, wondering if you can walk across the ice on Lake Michigan to get to a portal,” she says.

I caught a glimpse of Besh’s mediation skills myself one night in downtown Detroit. We were outside Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers play baseball. Between teaching me how to attack enemy portals and the sheer number of portals to capture and hack, it took some time. Comerica’s security team sent someone out periodically to ask what we were up to, looking skeptical when we told them we were playing a game on our phones. Finally, they called the police.

We saw flashing lights in the rearview mirror just as I was about to ascend to level four. We held up our phones to show the cops, and Besh calmly explained she was teaching a reporter to play a game for an article. The cops were quite pleasant. They told us to move along, and we did—but not before spending two more minutes in front of Comerica so I could level up. (Besh says there’s a handbook on the Internet that offers guidance to Ingress players for interacting with police.)

Despite minor bouts of unlawfulness, Ingress has inspired Besh to rethink her career. She quit her job as a financial analyst and is hoping to use her newly honed leadership … Next Page »

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