Ingress

Much of my thesis research into locative media over the past several months (conveniently) overlaps with some of the major themes of this week’s readings — specifically, my work on the massively-multiplayer, location-based augmented reality game Ingress. Like its successor, the (for a time) hugely popular Pokémon Go, Ingress is essentially a video game transposed onto real space. The game accesses a player’s smartphone GPS receiver, tracking them as they simultaneously move through the space of the game — displayed on the game’s “scanner” as a minimal, cyberpunk landscape — and the physical space of the real world, where actual locations, ranging from public art landmarks to infrastructure and storefronts, correlate to places of action within the game. Its plot and mechanics are complex, and beyond the scope of this assignment, but suffice it to say that Ingress is not unlike an elaborate version of “capture the flag,” mediated by a highly-stylized map interface and an immersive science fiction narrative

Following the logic of “capture the flag” — or warfare for that matter — Ingress’s spatial intelligence is oriented around the concept of territory. There are two opposing teams in the game’s universe, and players on both sides are not only compelled to capture “portals,” but to link them into “control fields,” requiring one to physically triangulate territory by walking around urban space — a literal enactment of networking. Though Niantic Inc., the game’s developer, maintains that Ingress is, in part, a tool for urban exploration, effective gameplay often compels players to be more immersed in the game’s interface than the surrounding environment, facilitating an experience of space as relatively decontextualized bits of locative information (i.e. coordinates). Playing Ingress, then, with its transgressive blurring of reality and representation, can amount to a kind of performative reification of Cartesian mapping systems. Digital humanities scholar Brian Greenspan frames this tendency, common to many locative media projects, in political terms :

“By breaking down our subjective experience into easily commodifiable atoms of time-space, and positioning us in relation to local sites of commerce and exchange as tokens of our medial progress, such devices allegorize our contemporary obsession with the here-and-now, and our inability to perceive any socio-political organization beyond capitalism.” (1)

In the context of Ingress, this argument is supported by both the rather normative criteria by which portals are located within city space (very often in proximity to “sites of commerce and exchange”), and by the ability for  to pay for a portal to be located in the vicinity of a place of business — a sophisticated form of in-game advertising.

Still from Ingress promotional video (2)

Example of interconnected Ingress “control fields”

Ingress “intel map” (3)

However, despite these problematic aspects, Ingress has also inadvertently become a social platform for the formation of communities that extend past the “magic circle” (4) of the game’s narrative. Genuine networks of solidarity and friendship have been established through shared play, resulting in meet-ups, hangouts, and even large-scale events organized by players themselves, autonomous from any influence by Niantic (or its former parent company, Alphabet). Ingress, then, can possibly serve as an example of the creative, organizational power of networked, spatial play, and its lessons could be instructive in considering performative and interactive modes of exploring spatial intelligence in highly-mediated “hybrid spaces” (5) such as Hudson Yards. Even the territorial emphasis of Ingress could be re-scripted into something resembling less a game of war, and more a way of measuring and re-figuring the often invisible, or implicit, socially-inscripted borders which territorialize virtual and physical space (and what lies between).

(1). Greenspan, Brian. “The New Place of Reading: Locative Media and the Future of Narrative,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 5.3 (2011), accessed November 25, 2016.

(2). Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92rYjlxqypM

(3). Link: https://www.ingress.com/intel  [Note: must have an Ingress account to access]

(4). Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.

(5). Kluitenberg, Eric. “The Network of Waves: Living and Acting in a Hybrid Space.” Open 11 (2007): 6-17.

 

2 Comments

  1. Josh,
    When I think of Niantic’s games of Pokemon Go and especially Ingress I find it easy to draw comparison to the theories of Manuel Castells. In his book, “The Rise of the Network Society”, Castells suggests that in addition to our built environment and ecology, we also have a “network society” which is entirely digital and overlaps our physical environment. While technologies such as Google maps and other navigation/satellite apps function as a way to use the digital to traverse the physical, I think Ingress and Pokemon Go are even better at synthesizing the digital-physical divide. With Ingress in particular, there is a territorial aspect to the game that you have written about and discussed in class which seems to be absent from Pokemon Go. As you’ve detailed, Ingress promotes competition in an effort to claim physical space through digital means. The game is an interesting example of the ever bridging gap between the physical environment and Castells “Network Society”.

  2. This was fascinating and confusing (not due to your presentation, which was excellent but my inability to follow complicated game rules without actually playing them… if that makes sense). These games that have people coming out in the “real world” are funny because it’s like we’ve come out the other side of the common parental concern with overuse of video-games: “Go outside! See the world!”

    This is why they seem to refer to these games as “Exergaming” in some cases (of course there is much more to this game, but just in terms of mobility being a part of an otherwise digitally-immersed game-play). Fusing together the gameplay within the digital maps and menus and the real-world play of walking around and finding things makes a new kind of thing altogether, and helps drag questions of digitality away from questions of abstraction and ephemerality, and more toward things and places.

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