Google’s Ingress creates Aussie online turf war


This article is by Anastasia Powell, Lecturer in Sociology at La Trobe University. It first appeared on The Conversation and is replicated here with permission.

analysis Don’t read technology blogs? Then a new innovation in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMPORGs) may be passing you by. Perhaps, like me, such games have never been of much interest to you. Or perhaps they haven’t been able to hold your sustained attention. So why should you care now?

Because, as I have discovered since playing Google’s new Android-only augmented reality (AR) game Ingress (launched earlier this month by invitation-only), you are already potentially interacting with its players as you go about your day. Perhaps my fellow Ingress players and I have even bumped into you in the street because we were obsessively watching our smartphones instead of where we were walking (sorry, by the way).

Already, technology reviewers are commenting on the addictiveness of the game, and the huge data gathering and marketing potential that it promises.

But what I have found most compelling while playing Ingress around the streets of Melbourne is the level of real-world social interaction possible. This represents a significant shift in how we experience our relationships with technology and with each other.

So, what is Ingress? Ingress is an augmented reality game, which essentially overlays the real world with additional information through a digital device (such as your smartphone, tablet, or perhaps in the near future, digital glasses). In Ingress, players pick one of two sides or “factions” (Enlightenment or Resistance) and visit real public places to capture “portals” (often key landmarks, public sculptures or art). By capturing these places displayed on their smartphones players can link portals together to create “fields” and gain control of territory for their faction.

It is a power struggle to take possession of territory and either harness the portals for the betterment of mankind or protect mankind from the dangerous energies they emit (depending on which faction you belong to). The following is a map of the fields currently established in Melbourne:

While it is possible to begin the game as a sole-player, the battle for control ultimately relies on collaboration between players in the local area. To be successful, players need to share information, orchestrate their attacks on enemy portals to re-claim them for their faction, and even meet-up in the real world to attack together simultaneously. There’s also the real risk of running into the “enemy”, literally, as they attempt to defend the site you and your faction are attacking … and then you might head off to the pub together to commiserate.

As a mostly non-gamer (but avid technology-user) I was not a natural candidate for an early invitation to play Ingress. But after just a week of playing I have found myself strangely obsessed by this innovative concept in game development. Already I feel a real obligation and loyalty to my faction, the Resistance, who I am communicating with not just in the game but also through my social media.

A key attraction of the game is that I’m not spending hours sitting on my couch, eyes glued to the television, interacting online with people halfway across the world that I don’t know. Ingress has me walking the streets of Melbourne, enjoying the sunshine, taking in some key landmarks and public art I have never really paid attention to before. Since it is played via my smartphone, the game is also always with me, and so is the temptation to check on the status of my portals as I move about my day.

There has been so much media coverage of the social “ills” of the internet lately (such as harassment and cyber bullying) that you could be forgiven for forgetting there’s plenty of positive and meaningful social interaction that takes place online.

In fact research suggests much of the misogyny, racism, homophobia, and just plain nasty vitriol directed at people in online spaces is at least partly due to the nature of online interaction being largely anonymous and lacking in real face-to-face interaction.

If this is the case, then one strategy for addressing such behaviour is to reduce the incentives for remaining completely anonymous. In an augmented reality game such as Ingress, there’s a natural incentive to ensure your online communications in the game are fair and friendly since it may not be long before you encounter other players face-to-face in the street. Indeed, while my screen name may not give away my identity, the need for real-world collaboration and information sharing makes remaining completely anonymous somewhat impractical. The fact that my teammates and the opposition are identifiably “real” and not faceless “others” also promotes a closer sense of community and fair play.

Online gaming communities already have a reputation both for fostering real social relationships and for taking action against those who violate the community rules.

Indeed establishing a clear ethics for online interaction or an enforceable community code of conduct seems particularly relevant when gaming takes you out into the real world. The Ingress Community Guidelines specifically preclude:

  • harassment (predatory behaviour, stalking, threats, harassment, intimidation, and inciting others to commit violent acts)
  • privacy violations (such as revealing or posting information about players real identities)
  • inappropriate content (such as sexual or pornographic content, obscenity, or hate speech whether racist or sexist).

Players face having their account terminated if they breach the rules. Of course many of the above actions would also be considered criminal under local laws; particularly if they were to take place in the street. That said, it may be less the threat of consequences for breaches, and more the nature of the social relationships and trust developed within the game itself that will facilitate ethical player behaviour.

Ingress opens a window into the possibilities of augmented reality for our future relationships with technology and each other. It is a world where the “real” and the “virtual” are much more interconnected. A world where technology blends seamlessly into our everyday interactions. It is also ultimately a socially regulated world. As our digital and physical selves become more interrelated, maintaining an ethics of online communications and facilitating trust between collaborators (who are always both online and offline) will increasingly become standard operating procedure.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a portal to defend …

Anastasia Powell receives funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC). This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation


  1. So….whats the PvP like?!!

    Just kidding :o)

    Very interesting run down, it seems there more and more of these AR games getting developed all the time. I think there’s a few in the US where you need to use your phones GPS and certain clues to track down prizes and things, there’s also been a few games that have setup real world sites, wiki’s and other things to enhance the online game play (The Secret World is one example of this).

    I guess we’ll be seeing more and more of this in the future.

  2. I would love to try it out, and have received an invite, but the app is US only at the moment…
    Yet another example of the kind of US-centric thinking that really frustrates me from the big technology giants.

    • Consider yourself VERY lucky. I’m still trying to get an invite. You can side load the app. Search for a link to the APK. ;)

    • Considering the author of the article is in Melbourne I feel pretty confident in saying there’s probably a way around it being “US only” ;o)

  3. As much as I can see the fun this sort of gaming brings with it, it also has some concerning elements.

    For example, if truly addictive, then players may be open to being manipulated by other players, and/or organisers of the game into going places and doing things IN REAL LIFE that they would not normally feel comfortable doing.

    In most RPGs the player has a “character”, a proxy for themselves, and indeed one that allows some amount of distancing of their player and character identities – an embarrassment in game may confirm my status as a noob, or be something that gets me laughed at in gaming circles, but being encouraged to walk into the opposite sex’s toilets at work, or in the middle of a industry conference, could have more serious ramifications.

    There is also the slightly sinister aspect of a tribal mentality finding a foothold in our real world, whilst positive behaviours can be encouraged though identification of our real selves, that also allows for real world organising of groups that might find themselves trained to follow orders from someone in a game world.

    Game players are potentially opened up to cognitive programming that because the game takes place in the real world means there could be real world implications. Could one version of such a game encourage players to become expert locksmiths in the context of puzzling through “planted” puzzle locks, only to find the best of them get misused to help terrorists break into target buildings?

    • wow paranoid much?

      This is just like geocaching only completely virtual with some extra game stuff added.

      Also you know it isn’t illegal to know how to pick a lock?

      • Isn’t illegal, and hence isn’t something players might balk at. Doesn’t mean the potential isn’t there.

        There is always the danger of FUD with these things, but it is better to acknowledge and discuss how to mitigate the risks than assume that Google (or whoever runs the next one) won’t be evil – because clearly they have been in many ways (scanning WAP data with their cars).

        Our minds are plastic, and our thought patterns can be influenced, sometimes heavily, by the games we play – for that reason I am now more careful about what sort of games I play.

        Technology has reached the point at which things, like this game, that might once have required significant planning and resources are now trivial. Network effects are all around us, as are unintended consequences – our maturity rises at a slow pace in comparison to the power available to us.

        • The potential for what?

          Learning how to pick a lock?

          I’m really failing to see what your fears are.

          And if you can’t separate gaming from real life, that’s a whole other issue.

          • Separating gaming from real life is a real issue for gaming addicts, I don’t see this helping them.

            The potential for abuse in my mind is when you get people doing something in real life to achieve an in-game goal, then you are very close to being able to do lots of other nefarious things. Doesn’t mean you will, doesn’t mean the players will go along with you (oh, look, there’s a portal in the middle of the dinner for the Queen, guess I’ll leave that one alone), but it is something that should be as talked about as the positive benefits of “identified” gamers is.

            Pretending that your mind isn’t affected by what you do is ignorant, and must make you figure that all learning is pointless? Computer games train your mind and body, no differently to sports or any other training.

            I recommend you research cognitive bias, cognitive programming and then do some soul searching about why you do some of the things you do yourself, you might just be surprised at what you find. Most people find they are not as much masters of their own minds as they believe they are.

          • 1 The inevitable data mining that will be doneI re kon there will be AR advertising. Virtual billboards only able to be seen “in game”.

            1. I guess nefarious activities that could result could be the big data possibilities.
            2. People are more likely to know where you are and when…. Theft possibilities.
            3. Ability to coordinate large groups of people to unknowingly gather in one location. Mobile audience etc.

            At the end of the day though, this is just simply a new technology and whilst potential for abuse is possible, I doubt the doomsday views will eventuate.

          • Millions of people per year die in car accidents. What do you think the response would be if they were invented today? “We’ve done some research, and we believe this new invention will be responsible for only 1 million deaths per year.” To me, this kind of response is just a form of change aversion. “I don’t know why anyone would enjoy playing this kind of kind. I don’t understand how it works, but I know I don’t like it.”

            I feel like you’re constructing strawmen here based on a misunderstanding of the game, or not even bothering to research the game at all. Portals can be hacked from up to 40 metres away and portals are only added to the game after being reviewed by a human. The documentation clearly states that one of the criteria for a portal is that it “should be safe and accessible to the public”,

    • funny what you wrote, you are not serious, are you. if you or any of your friends feel that way you should seek the advise of a doctor. other than that, it was pretty entertaining to me what you wrote, and let me guess, you are from the US ?

  4. got a invite, looks like i can invite others using their email address, give me yours and i send you one, hope that works

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