timothy wells



    Ingress - The game and why I'm playing it

    A friend of mine, Greg Peters, aka The Reluctant Networker (www.thereluctantnetworker.com), recently introduced me to the smart phone game Ingress (www.ingress.com).

    Ingress is a location-based augmented-reality game created by Google (you know their url). 

    First off, the game makes you have location mode turned on on your phone. This is something I am not a fan of - big data, making it easier for all the web entities (and others) to keep track of your movements.  And yes, I know, they know these things any but it makes me feel like a rebel and retaining just a smidgeon of control of their access to my movement and interaction in the world if I have location turned off. 

    But based on Greg's description of the game I thought I'd give it a shot. For research.


    Yes, I enjoy playing the game a bit but in all honesty, I don't find it any different than most pointless online games. I learned early on in Windows-based slot machine games, "why not bet everything you have on each pull?" because there's no penalty for losing (or reward for winning.) It’s not like money came spilling out of your computer if you hit a jackpot. 

    This mentality carried through with Mafia Wars, an early game on facebook. It was more interactive, but boiled down it was doing repetitive tasks to earn more money which was needed to buy more things so you can advance to more levels so you can do the repetitive tasks some more. It did add an interactive element by attacking at first game-placed villains - the same missions and tasks all the other players had to complete and if you started the game over, would be identical to the last time you played it. It evolved to where you could attack other players (and they could attack you) and allowed you to form alliances and teams to help each other out and attack the other groups.

    It was at this point in the game where it became unfun for me. I'm not a team sports kinda person. In high school I ran track and played tennis. I liked playing one-on-one Trivial Pursuit but greatly disliked Pictionary. It's just who I am and the types of games I enjoy. It's about personal achievement for me.

    However, based on my installation art and interest in making interactive and immersive experiences, augmented reality games and gizmos are of interest to me. The creation of a compelling backstory and a fictional overlay to the real world that makes you question “is it real or part of the made up world?” are of great interest to me. It’s something I study and research and contemplate to add to my installation experiences. And Greg’s description of Ingress hit on several of my areas of interest.

    A few years ago, Disney released an augmented reality game / blog called The Optimist which I followed externally. I didn’t participate in the missions (one reason was the vast majority of the external activities to complete the missions took place in L.A. and I’m not), but followed the blog, the forums, discussions, etc and was greatly impressed with the level of thought and effort that went into the design and backstory of the game. I attended a conference and had the chance to chat with one of the Disney Imagineers who was part of the The Optimist team. He told me that once the game got up and running, they did shift and change the course of parts of the game based on the game play of and comments by the die-hard players. One thing I noted or felt from reading the forums was that the veterans (people who had been around for awhile or from the beginning) were very unforgiving to “newbies” coming into the game, asking questions, and disrupting the style of game play that was in place from the veterans. As an outsider who may have wished to engage with the activity, it was very off putting to see newbies bullied by the veterans and it wasn’t policed out by the game controllers.

    The Optimist project was part of a bigger plan that was based on the movie Tomorrowland that came out in 2015. Based on the AR (augmented reality) game and being a big fan of what Disney is able to create with their experiences and theme parks, I went into the movie very excited. I left the movie less so. There was so much potential and it felt to me like they wasted a great opportunity to truly make a unique movie. 

    But this isn’t a movie review. It’s a commentary on Ingress and what I’m garnering from it for my art installations.

    After only playing the game off and on for a few weeks and nearing achieving Level 5, I have the following thoughts.

    I enjoy the simplicity of the game. You pick of one of two teams (factions) to join. It’s not a game of good vs evil, right vs wrong, so the faction you pick just kind allows you to form an allegiance with strangers without really picking a personality trait (aggressive vs passive, thinker vs fighter, etc) or a location (home team vs visiting team).

    Using your smartphone (with the Ingress application running and location mode turned on), you explore your area finding portals. The portals can already be claimed by one of the two factions or be unclaimed. If it’s unclaimed, you claim it and install resonators (and protections) and the portal now belongs to your faction. Someone from your faction can come along and bolster the levels and protections of your portal, and members from the other faction can attack your portal and try to claim it for their side.

    Portals shift factions frequently. You can also link portals of the same factions to make their stronger and start to claim zones of territory for your faction.

    Like Mafia Wars, it starts out being an individual player game, allowing you to explore and figure things out on your own (or spend countless hours scouring the web for official and unofficial guides, tips, communities, manuals, stories, etc etc etc). As you get more experience in the game and higher level, you need to become more engaged with other plays to attain higher levels and protect your portals by attacking the other faction’s portals more, developing larger strategies, forming alliances, and well, depending on others for your advancement in the game and therefore your enjoyment of the game.

    I’m at that level and am reaching burned out on the game. It starts requiring more and more time and energy to maintain what you’ve built and perpetually seeking the carrot on the stick of the next level, badges, items, etc.

    All that being said, it’s a very well thought out game. It’s simple but has serious levels and depths of complexities.

    But I’m playing this for research and experience for future art projects. Really. I’ll admit there is a level of enjoying the game, but that fuels my analysis and thoughts on what I want to do in the future with projects.

    Recently, hypothetically, I was out driving around with my Ingress map up which I don’t recommend because you start seeing the world through the augmented reality (portals and links and zones show up on your map as you move through the world) and kind of forgetting that the car you almost hit is real or you don’t think anything of stopping in the middle of the road to hack a portal. 

    Hacking lets you hack a portal and receive items for your inventory. It doesn’t damage a portal (from what I can tell.) You can hack portals owned by either faction, usually from what I can tell getting more and better stuff from friendly portals than unfriendly.  You can hack a portal protected by someone of the rival faction much higher level than yourself and not have them alerted of your presence. If I at level 3 attack someone who has created a super high level portal for the other faction, they are alerted I attacked them and that puts me on their radar. If they aren’t fond of me being attacked by a gnat, they may start seeking out my portals and demolish my marks on the world. 

    When I picked my faction (Enlightened, for full disclosure), it was just the description that interested me. I apparently live a very heavy Resistance (the other faction) area, populated by some very high level players.

    As I’ve explore rural settings and city settings, I’ve noticed how the game play shifts and changes in each setting. In rural, people seem to set up kingdoms they hold onto. In the city, portals are constantly changing hands particularly in areas of lots of players. If I’m stuck out in a cow field in eastern Colorado, it’s very unlikely there will be many or any portals and unlikely there will be many players to team up with or attack. However, where I live is a very active area with lots of portals.

    One local high level Resistance player seems to be fine with the nice empire they’ve set up. They understand there are us gnats and vultures out there who will pick up morsels that aren’t  claimed or the local high level player doesn’t want. But as soon as I started making some inroads to making a small empire for myself near the player, they came out of their cave, slapped my hand (ie took back the morsels I snatched from under their unwatching eye, and destroying the links I’d created as I started to form a small empire.) They allowed me to keep most of what I had claimed and they didn’t want. They just didn’t want me setting up a kingdom in their backyard. 

    There are some players I’ve run into that have taken my portals for no apparent reason other than to destroy my hold on them. They didn’t claim them as their own or begin to build an empire. Just took out my portals, “just because” from what I can tell. 

    There are as many strategies as there are personality traits. And the game allows for each type to flourish and play.

    All this to get to these few points of where I am thinking/analyzing right now.

    In creating a game/experience, 

    1. Keep the concept and backstory very simple to enter. 

    2. Add enough complexity to train and tease players as they progress

    3. Account for a wide variety of personalities, perceptions, and traits people bring with them

    4. Determine what the penalties and rewards will be and if they will be virtual (and meaningless) or find a way to make them real

    This list is still growing, but I’ve been doing structured analysis of my Ingress, The Optimist, Mafia Wars, and other game experiences and how they relate to creating art installations/experiences. 

    I can look back on some of past installations and see where I missed the mark a bit and what I’d do as I continue to grow my art practice - which when I step back a bit could benefit from following these simple steps too. It’s an infinite loop, but one that will spit out jackpot coins.




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