There are approximately one gajillion people fighting this virtual war.
Okay, maybe not a gajillion. But that’s what I thought once I got on the scene at Wright Park in Tacoma, Washington. It wasn’t that the park was swarming with bodies, or that the scene could be described as congested or chaotic. No, it wasn’t the rumpus that impressed me about Google Ingress’s final turnout for the summer season of live Anomaly Events. It was how many people I saw already out on the streets in clusters and droves when I was still just getting to the meeting place. Men and women of all ages, wearing blue or green shirts to show their team support, were everywhere.
An Anomaly Event is a time where, in the world of Ingress, a way point (called a portal) becomes particularly volatile. During these times, players–called agents–congregate at locations chosen in part by Ethan Lepouttre, Olga Garcia, and Brian Rose to gather for happenings that are game-changing. Literally–the outcomes of Anomaly Events in Ingress direct the future development of the game, which is malleable and ever-evolving. This season’s Anomaly was called Helios. As I made my way from the freeway to the park, I wondered how far the agents had already fanned out.
The glass art at the Chiluly Art Museum set a complimentary, futuristic scene to this mute melee. Bedecked in Beats and Bluetooth, Android and Google phone owners lined the streets in Tacoma as far as the eye could see, all in a coordinated effort to gain ground and shape the story of the Ingress battle. For those who haven’t been to this gritty city with the sloping streets and expansive views of the South Sound’s industrial district, Tacoma has a real San Francisco meets Seattle vibe–whimsical meets hipster meets Compton. I can’t imagine a better setting for this virtual warfare.
When I arrived, there were groups of bikers (as in folks on bicycles, not as in hog-riding Sons of Anarchy) at the ready near every corner of the park. I hadn’t worn any colors, and I had never interacted with other Ingress players before, so I hovered near a group for a second, trying to decide who to talk to. Finally, I approached a really relaxed looking solider with an iced coffee, flannel shirt and man-satchel slung across his broad chest. I had no idea if this guy knew anyone around him or not, but you don’t need to know anyone to immerse yourself in the world of Ingress.
“What’s up with all the bikes?” I asked. He had headphones on; pulling one ear free, he jerked his head to have me repeat my question.“What’s up with those guys?” I repeated, pointing at the docile looking riders. He explained that these were mobile units, ready to be deployed into enemy territory, if need be, to capture a portal.
“Ohhhh, that’s really cool,” I said, genuinely impressed at the mobile infantry. (Ha–mobile infantry. Aren’t I clever?) I geek out over stuff like this. The notion of grown-ups playing capture the flag really does something for me. I saw he was lingering with one ear out, my little informant, and so I thought I’d ask about his supplies. His satchel looked big enough for a laptop, but it was also pretty full. I thought maybe it was his mobile command center, or something equally functional. I asked as much, while he still had an ear free. In reply, he spread open the flaps and motioned for me to peer inside.
Chargers. His bag held about six chargers. The event was scheduled from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. It stood to reason that no phone could stay charged with GPS app left running for six hours. I was reasonably impressed at the amount of prep work that had gone into this. I thanked the gent. He looked ready to get back to his phone, but was enduring me like a true citizen of the world; I moved away so he knew it was okay to start ignoring me.
And he wasn’t the only one that came prepared. I talked to another agent named Ryanne Fultz; she looked like straight out of the Matrix with her Google Glasses and her blue Resistance garb. Ryanne also told me that the secret to success in this game was an entire tote full of portable chargers. She and over 1,000 visitors from the U.S. and came beyond well prepared.
As I made my way to the Arboretum to speak with Niantic Labs about the event, I saw small clusters of players. Children on iPads and Kindles flanked their parents on picnic benches. If I didn’t know better, I’d think it was just a really connected family having fa Saturday al fresco lunch. Under lamp posts leaned single men with ear buds and large screened phones. And walking briskly away from the park, chattering about strategies and points of ingress on Commerce Street, was a sizable group of green-shirted Enlightened players.
One of the very best things about these players who choose to play these hybrid online games (and by hybrid games, I mean activities like Geocaching and Ingress that help get people out of the house) is that they are all such genuinely nice people. Everyone I talked to was more than happy to tell me about their adventures, and about their faction, and about how Ingress has helped them meet new people and rekindle a love for technology outdoors as well as in. That was certainly the case in speaking with the Niantic Labs team about Google Ingress, as well as this final Anomaly.
Niantic Labs is a Google start-up. They have only developed two apps, Field Trip and Ingress. The studio also plans to release an app later this year to accompany an upcoming book series called Endgame. There is no hard launch date for Endgame, which is forthcoming from Niantic. However, the first book–co-written by James Frey and Nils Johnson-Shelton–is due out October 7 of this year.
Interview with Niantic Labs
Olga explained that even though this event is the final one of the summer, a fall season is scheduled to begin again soon. “This event is the last of the fifth season. We will start another season October 18. I encourage anyone that wants to be a part of the event to check out our event website. All of our events are listed there, as well as RSVP links so that people can be a part of our events.”
Brian Rose had this to say: “It’s a fantastic idea. The cool thing about that April Fool’s prank was that the players who caught all of the Pokemon–I think there were 151–they actually got their medals. They got sent their medals and then their Pokemon Master cards. The offline component–the fact that it wasn’t just online, but that players got physical letters and physical cards–I thought was pretty cool.”
For anyone who hasn’t yet checked out Google’s Ingress, I encourage you to start playing today. The only down side to any of these games is the battery life that they chew up. The really wonderful thing about offerings from Google is the capacity to integrate their wealth of services and apps and social profiles into their VR and wearable technology. Google+ was slow growing at inception, but as new services and games like this one emerge, Google will see an avalanche of new users and activity in the coming years. Better to get in on it now, I say, and be ahead of the curve.
Be sure to check out Niantic’s other effort, Field Trip. It’s like Yelp meets Google Maps, and it is really fascinating with a beautiful and intuitive interface.