Ingress: not the game I wanted to play

For the past few weeks, my partner and I have been striving to get out of house more, a tonic against the crushing isolation of Newport in winter — made all the worse on us as newcomers with few local friends. A couple of weekends ago we attended a board game meetup at my favorite local coffee house, our first such event since leaving our Boston-based circle of tabletop-loving friends. We didn’t know anyone there, and had a great time.

In the same vein, and at the same time, I decided to finally try Ingress. More than one friend of ours treats this game as a significant personal pastime, and I’d felt curious to examine it for months just from my usual semi-pro game-studies perspective. Ingress presents itself as an augmented-reality game that gets you exploring your neighborhood in a new way, and I imagined something like Geocaching: the RPG. It seemed like just the thing to escape a wintertime rut, at the cost of stomping around through snow and sub-freezing temperatures.

Well: the game is ostensibly like that. I had terrific fun for the span of a single weekend, but it ended up souring on me quickly. Before a week had passed, I had deleted the game from my phone, and found the willpower to keep it off. My problems with Ingress stemmed from how I found myself unable to stop playing the game. I don’t refer to addictive, repetitive play, here, even though it does involve a bit of level-up grinding. Rather, I mean that I felt literally unable to enter a state where I was not playing Ingress. I would put my phone away, I would get back to work, and yet I was still playing Ingress. I found this total bleed-through of game and life initially novel, then uncanny, and finally uncomfortable, especially once I started interacting with other local players. This culminated in an angry and cowardly action my part, the last thing I did within the game world.

Before describing this negative effect any further, I shall describe three inarguably positive experiences I enjoyed via Ingress during that first weekend.

I truly enjoyed the experience of capturing my first neutral portal, which required me to wander onto the snowy grounds of The Elms — a mansion-turned-museum, also my next-door neighbor — and mosey over to one of its outlying utility buildings, trying my best to not look like a conspicuous gate-jumper. I kept my phone on and in my hand as I crossed the mansion’s very wide yard, keeping an eye out for actual real-life security staff while the game’s narrator (a U.S.S. Enterprise-style computer-lady voice) counted down the meters remaining to the target, against the sonic backdrop of an increasingly desperate faux-radar ping. Even as I wondered what I would say if a groundskeeper did round the corner and inquire as to my business, I couldn’t help but feel a genuine, cinematic thrill. (Nobody bothered me, of course. I would walk the same route unmolested several times while milking the portal over the next few days.)

A couple of days later, I succeeded at my first capture of a portal out of the hands of the opposing faction. (The green one; I chose to join the blue team, when I started.) The well-defended portal lay inside a bar at the end of my street, and I’d prepared for the assault the day before by wandering around downtown Newport, looting a variety of in-game weaponry enemy portals that clump thickly there. (You can always “hack” a portal to get goodies from it, no matter who owns it.)

I spent some time loitering and pacing around outside the bar’s plate-glass front windows to wreck the various enemy devices defending it. Each of these objects, while imaginary, existed in a precise location around the portal, and attacks against them work better when one stands closer to them. Thus, to anyone on the other side of the window, I must have looked like an unusually nervous person texting a friend, walking around rapidly in different directions and then halting for a while, leaning up against walls or wandering partway down alleys, always with my head down over my phone.

Sadly, I ran out of ammo before I could finish my attack. I decided to walk back up the street to my apartment, grab my laptop, and then just set up camp as a paying customer at the bar — hitting the portal every five minutes, per cooldown rules, gradually wearing its defenses down — while getting some unrelated work done. After I ordered my Lagunitas and took my seat, to my surprise the portal fell after a single further attack. My reason for idling gone, I put my laptop away and figured I’d just read Twitter. The bartender, though, chose to strike up a conversation about Macbooks, and we ended up trading names and talking about her master’s thesis at the nearby university. So I ended up making up a new neighborhood friend due to this game that made me act like a squirrelly weirdo in front of her bar, and I will never deny this.

While at the bar, I noticed that I’d apparently received a Twitter-style @-message from another player. After returning home, I wrestled enough with the game’s communication interface to finally read it, and had a brief, friendly conversation with a player of the opposite faction. This person welcomed me to Newport, and observed that there aren’t many blue players in town, since “Yarbo usually converts them all” to green. (Here I replace the game-username they mentioned with a made-up one for the sake of propriety, whose need shall become more obvious presently.) A handful of local blue-team members had also noticed the alert of how a new teammate had just stolen the bar’s portal for their side, and sent me their own greetings; one told me that they’d added me to the whitelist of a Google Hangout just for Newport’s blue faction.

All the above adventures made my decision to start playing seem like the right one. In the span of just a couple of days — and despite my never actually joining that Hangout — I’d interacted with my neighborhood and some of its real-life citizens in entirely novel ways. Six months after leaving Boston, and in the tail end of a brutal and lonely island winter, it felt like good medicine.

And then, just as that friendly rival had predicted, Yarbo contacted me. After a polite greeting and a welcome to Newport, they got down to business: “Any reason you chose Resistance?” Resistance being the name of the blue faction, in the game’s paper-thin lore, to counter the Enlightened green faction.

“My friend who told me about this game likes the color blue,” I replied, which was true enough.

“Ahh, too bad,” Yarbo said. “There aren’t active Resistance agents in Newport to help you out. If you were Enlightened, I’d be more than happy to lend a hand!”

“Alas! Well, I dare say I feel only too happy to provide a (very) little competition, then.” (I took a screenshot of all this, if you’re wondering.)

Yarbo continued: “Ask @EnlightenedJoe, best decision of his Ingress career yet!” This being (my pseudonym for) the person who had initially greeted me, the day before.

“I should imagine so,” I said, “lest his name raise a lot of awkward questions.”

“He used to be CaptainJoe, until he saw the light.” This last utterance, as much as it delighted a friend of mine, felt like a good point to let the conversation lie, and it proceeded no further.

Minutes later, I realized that while Yarbo was trying to entice me over to the green side, my Ingress app’s “Alerts” tab filled up with news of my fellow blues hitting targets around Newport. Yarbo had been straight-up lying to me, apparently hoping that, through some combination of my new-player naiveté and Newport’s undeniably green tint in the game map, I would see my team choice as an error and switch sides, thankful for the company.

And I clapped and cheered at the novelty! I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d been socially engineered at so brazenly outside of a petty-criminal context, as when a gentleman possessing a certain miasma tells you that he needs five dollars to buy a bus ticket so he can visit his wife in the hospital. I started to see hints of Ingress’s metagame — in this case, the strategy to bolster your faction’s hold on an area not through the game’s explicitly encouraged methods, but by ganking noobs through concern trolling. Convincing them that, through a perfectly understandable beginner’s mistake, they have set themselves up for a lonely time in the game world — unless they switch factions now, before they have much to lose in doing so. (Switching factions carries the penalty of losing most of your accumulated power and possessions.)

This despite the fact, as several experienced Ingress players assured me, one levels up a lot faster when one can attack and capture enemy portals as well as work among friendly ones. But a new player just getting their bearings would likely not know that, and who are they to disbelieve a friendly and much more experienced player kind enough to offer them help?

As the days went on, however, I began to feel much less sanguine about this exchange. On Thursday morning, five days after I’d begun playing, I saw how Yarbo, EnlightenedJoe, and the other local greens had inevitably undone the territorial gains I’d made during my usual commute the previous day, returning my neighborhood to the emerald tint it had when I first joined. (They had also taken back The Elms’ outbuilding, which stung.) And I could see, on the local communications channel, Yarbo cordially greeting other blue players with names I didn’t recognize.

I started worrying that I was witnessing potential teammates — potential family, in this never-ending game of permanent, land-bound allegiances — lured away right in front of me through overtly deceitful manipulation. This worry grew into angry certainty, all the more frustrating by knowing that this kind of attack didn’t send an alert to my phone, and that I couldn’t reverse it by hitting some more portals on my lunch break. I tried to return to my work, but couldn’t. I could only stew about my inability to counter this off-the-books style of play, as I posted increasingly furious messages to Twitter.

I began to feel regret that I hadn’t responded to Yarbo in a more demonstrative fashion, days before. One friend suggested that I take this opportunity to enthusiastically and publicly invite them to join the blue team, but for me Vonnegut’s Slapstick came to mind more easily, with the objectively irrational kinship I observed myself starting to hold for the blues, and the corresponding alienation towards the greens.

In my self-stoking anger, I didn’t recognize the subtle brilliance of my friend’s suggested retort, so what I ended up typing into the local Ingress communications channel instead was: The Resistance is alive in Newport. Do not believe their lies. And instantly I felt like I’d just chugged poison. Not just a monstrous thing to say, but phrasing it in the most succinctly dorky way I possibly could. I felt like my only valid routes included either apologizing to the whole game-world for my outburst, or just resigning from the game in quiet disgrace.

I chose the latter path in part because I saw in this ugly incident a reflection of how, years earlier, playing Dark Souls would turn me into a hateful jerk. I hung that game up as soon as I saw the problem, back then, and fancied that if I hung this one up too then I would, through providing multiple examples, create a new generalized rule: If a game makes me act like a monster, stop playing it immediately and permanently. I could not — and do not — see anything to disagree with here, and so I ratified it into my personal guidebook by deleting Ingress from my phone and tablet.

And still I play, a week later: My fingers itch when I walk past the west wall of the post office, or that weird statue in the park I hadn’t noticed before the game pointed it out. I know exactly which work-table in the public library lies in hack-range of a nearby portal, and I tell myself I have no reason to sit there. It’s not easy; I kind of miss all that!

But beyond the ha-ha-so-addicted nature of the Ingress portal-farming grind lies its insidious metagame, all the more dangerous for being a wholly undocumented and unadvertised feature, despite its prominence within actual gameplay. Perhaps I could have benignly amused myself with the basic game for some time longer, and may very well have enjoyed more positive encounters and mini-adventures as I did that first weekend. But the game’s by-definition unending nature make it hard to avoid the other stuff. It’s not the game I signed up to play, and, for now at least, I choose to avoid it altogether.

Even if I do catch myself thinking now and again of how good anti-Enlightenment agitprop would look, stapled to select telephone poles downtown…

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