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 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 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 and community-building skills as a consultant. “I’m not a leader to this extent in my private [non-Ingress] life,” she says. “I had it in me to be a leader, but I felt I didn’t have the pedigree. I didn’t go to college until 2005. I felt very overlooked. With Ingress, I didn’t need anyone’s approval, so I was able to break out. After Links Across America, I wanted to see how far I could go. My dream is to do this for a living, maybe for a company.”

Soon, a lot more people may also get pulled in by the allure of Ingress. Later this year, it’s expected to be available in the iOS store for the first time. Niantic Labs also recently inked a deal with HarperCollins and “A Million Little Pieces” author James Frey to turn Frey’s Young Adult trilogy “Endgame” into a multimedia augmented reality experience. Hanke also won’t rule out a future Ingress movie or television series. “It’s such a rich universe,” he notes.

Hanke also says he’s looking forward to seeing if mass adoption of wearable technology—Google Glass, smart watches, and the like—will influence and change augmented reality games like Ingress. I asked him if Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and CEO, plays Ingress. “He has played, and he’s a big fan of our product,” Hanke says. “When he found out people were getting tattoos of faction logos, I could see his eyes go big.”

I also asked Hanke if the factions are meant to be allegorical to how people feel about Google—some take the “enlightened” view that Google makes great products to help humanity, while others form the “resistance” opinion that Google is vacuuming up our data and monetizing our behavior. Hanke replies, “I’ve never heard that before, but that’s an interesting take. When we were creating the Ingress story, we went to great lengths to make sure there are no clear good or bad guys.”

Meanwhile, Besh is preparing to be a guest of Niantic Labs in Mountain View, CA, soon. Niantic is flying her out for a reception celebrating Ingress’s elite five agents. It’s a validation for Besh, a definitive honor that cements the fact that her thousands of hours playing Ingress have served a higher purpose—namely, her real life.

“When you’re out playing, you’re dreaming and scheming,” she says. “Sometimes, you’re literally running around town chasing each other. You feel young again, and you don’t want to go back to your old life. I like this life. I can take these connections I’m making in Ingress and do good things with it.”

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