Jul 16, 2014

    Visit, click and win global game

    MANY of the best video games create distinctive places for their players to visit: Rapture, the cratered libertarian society on the bottom of the ocean, from BioShock; Liberty City and Los Santos, the funhouse mirrors of New York and Los Angeles, from Grand Theft Auto; the jungles and savannahs of Central Africa, from Far Cry 2.

    As beguiling as those places are, the tourism in these games is entirely virtual.

    Ingress, an ambitious mobile game from Google that was released for Apple iPhone and iPad on Monday, wants its players to get out of the house. In this game, the landscape really is the physical world where we live.

    After downloading the free app, Ingress players participate by venturing into their communities - walking or driving (or skateboarding or unicycling) to parks, historical markers, libraries, churches, commuter stations and more.

    The fictional conceit is that the earth exudes a substance called exotic matter, perhaps the most literal name for a science-fiction element since Avatar gave us "unobtanium". Exotic matter is being used either to enslave humanity or to evolve us into a higher consciousness, depending on whom you believe.

    When you download Ingress, you are asked to decide if you want to ally yourself with the Resistance, which is trying to stop exotic matter from controlling us all, or the Enlightened, who seek to harness exotic matter's power.

    Once you have picked a side, you cannot change, unless you start over with a new Google account. But do not get stressed over the choice: In practice, it just means you are on the blue team or the green team.

    You then use the Ingress app to find nearby portals, as the game calls its selected sites. Those closest to my house in Rhode Island, for example, are a trailhead and the grave site of a reputed vampire. Once visited, these portals can be linked to form triangles that are called control fields.

    The fields generate points for the Resistance or the Enlightened based on how many "mind units" - that means people - reside within them. Google does not count, at least not yet, the number of individuals who live within an Ingress control field. But the score is determined by population density, so urban triangles are worth more than rural triangles of the same size. The global score, at the time of this writing, was 236 million for the Resistance and 203 million for the Enlightened.

    Ingress players must actually visit the portals and press a "hack" button to acquire the keys needed to create a control field. Physical visits are also required to recharge the "resonators" that defend a portal or to attack an enemy portal.

    So, to be a great Ingress player, you need to have an enormous amount of time on your hands, or - and this is what Google wants - you need to collaborate with others, who can be found by using the app as well as by joining local communities of Ingress "agents" organised on the social network Google Plus.

    The game was released for Android devices in December and has been downloaded more than four million times.

    There is a YouTube channel that includes, among other videos, a weekly news report on the war between the Resistance and the Enlightened, as it has unfolded in ways that involve real players as well as fictional characters.

    I found it difficult to engage with the game's story. While playing, I did not feel that I was involved in a mythical battle for global domination, or even in a local battle with my neighbours.

    Perhaps it would help if the game asked me to do something, to engage in a small, finger-based video game challenge when I needed to hack a portal, instead of just showing up and checking in, as you would in Foursquare.

    Instead, my favourite way to use Ingress is as tourist guidebook. Beyond that vampire grave in Rhode Island, Ingress also led me to a home on the Upper West Side of New York City where Babe Ruth once lived, and to the site of Thomas Paine's death in Greenwich Village.

    The looming "Internet of Things" is supposed to link all our objects - our cars, our refrigerators, our books, our shoes - into a seamless network that improves our lives. Ingress points to a less prosaic vision for such a world, one where ordinary-seeming places and objects are dense with fiction.