Shadows dance along the vaulted Spanish Colonial-style arches of Pasadena City Hall. It’s 8 p.m. on a Friday last month, and one lone man, then another, then a couple stop on the steps. They ask each other tentatively, “You playing?” Then a whole family arrives, and as the group swells to twenty, the sound of friends laughing and catching up overwhelms the echoing splashes of the courtyard fountain.
This is the San Gabriel Valley Enlightened, a “faction” in Google’s augmented reality game, Ingress. Tonight, the team will roam all over Downtown Pasadena fighting to protect their turf in a worldwide competition for the future of humanity.
Ingress’s fictional premise is this: As a by-product of the particle collider at CERN labs in Switzerland, portals to another dimension have opened up all over the world, spewing exotic matter (XM). The game includes a glowy neon version of Google Maps to show you where these portals are in the word around you.
When you download the free game onto your phone (iPhone or Android), eerie lines of green DOS code envelop the screen as an woman’s urgent voice explains that you must either join the Resistance (Blue), who want to destroy the XM and the mysterious Shapers who use it to control human thought, or the Enlightened (Green), who want to harness the matter's power for good and work with the Shapers.
Portals are located at places of architectural, artistic, or historical significance around the world. Since players must physically go to a portal to win it for their team, Ingress becomes not only a game, but also an interactive guide to a city’s hidden gems that can be played anytime, anywhere — even by yourself.
“We learn a lot about local history,” enthuses Agent GreenLite, an electrician who jokes that he and his wife take the "Ingress route" to work or the grocery store in order to hack portals. “You don’t usually stop in all these little corners. We’re always discovering something new.”
Agent Greenlite is part of the "Lites," a multi-generation family of players, well known in the local Ingress community. Tonight they’re out in full force: Agent GreenLite, his wife, mother, sister, and two kids: WhiteLite, NanaLite, Boogerlite, AuraLite and Ravelite respectively.
The teenagers especially enjoy the big Google hosted events called Anomalies, held every few months in cities around the globe. The story of the game is continued through weekly YouTube videos called Ingress Reports and organized into seasons much like a TV show. Anomalies usually come at the end of a season, so hundreds, sometimes thousands of agents attend to battle over portals in order to influence where the story will go next.
John Hanke, who created Ingress with his start-up team within Google, Niantic Labs, attended the finale of the second quarter in Downtown Los Angeles, featured in the video above, this past March.
“We started right in front of city hall and wound our way all over Downtown, ending in Japantown. That’s such a hidden gem! I had no idea it was there,” Hanke says. “That truly fulfilled the mission of the game for me. It’s an excuse to spend an afternoon outdoors discovering new parts of a city.”
Hanke, who is also the former director of geo for Google, continues, “I’m a fan of video games and have kids who play video games, but I also love the outdoors and hiking and exploring. As a parent, I saw the opportunity, and perhaps the need, for a game that would encourage players to get outside, moving and exploring.”
Hanke’s vision seems to be a success. The game has been downloaded over 5 million times in over 200 countries with over 74,000 miles (more than three times the circumference of Earth) walked, run and biked during the 65 live events hosted by Google around the world.
Players are not only competing for number of portals, but also for Mind Units (or people) within triangular areas linked by three portals of the same team. Hundreds of players, often in different countries, work together to create these triangles. In the meantime, battles over turf are fought by players on a much more local level. Pasadena is mostly green, thanks in part to the San Gabriel Enlightened team’s efforts, while Downtown L.A. is constantly changing hands and Boyle Heights is a Resistance stronghold.
That Friday last month, the San Gabriel team works its way from portal to portal along the crowded nightlife of East Colorado Blvd. while Bartholomew, the team’s four-legged Saint Bernard player, sniffs at the food at an outdoor cafe. Suddenly there are rumblings among the players: “Look who’s behind us.” “The trolls are coming!”
Ten yards back, two phone-clutching men, one with long hair in his twenties, another in his thirties, follow the group, smirking. They're Resistance agents, JuuMex and Corelok, out to destroy any hard work done by this Enlightened team.
“I was here in this area a few hours ago, deploying portals,” explains Corelok. “Then I went home. But I barely sat down when I saw in my game notifications that [the Enlightened] were here. So I came right back out.”
Corelok saw JuuMex’s name pop up in the area on the game map and reached out to him through Google Hangout. The two met up to track down the Enlightened team and thwart their efforts. It's an amicable rivalry, however, and the two teams are soon talking and joking with each other.
“When you first start playing, they are the enemy. You even think someone with Resistance friends must be a spy,” explains WhiteLite. “But as you play more, you realize it’s really about the socializing. I’ve made some good friends on the Resistance side.”
This local Enlightened team seems far more interested in the joys of turf warfare than in the ultimate goal of turning the whole world green. When asked how she would feel if her side triumphed, agent AmbyrRose muses, “I don’t think there’s any such thing as winning or losing this game. Maybe the only way to win — or lose — is to stop playing.”
The creators of Ingress do plan to announce a winner eventually, however. “The story will come to a conclusion,” assures Hanke. “That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a sequel, but we don’t want to leave people hanging forever. We created this story with a lot of inspiration from J.J. Abrams, but as much as we gained inspiration from Lost, we also want to bring this story to a satisfying conclusion. It’s still a year or two away, but there’s a global score and there will be a winner.”
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