Several hours after the sun has already set, I find myself pulling into a small village in the countryside. I drive a 1999 Buick Park Avenue, a luxury car with features that put even some modern vehicles to shame. A car like this stands out in a town where everyone drives a Toyota and a Subaru. It doesn’t matter though, because everyone is asleep at this time of the night, oblivious of the digital war being fought around them. No one notices as I step out of my car and walk over to the porch of the local post office, where I take my seat on the steps and power up my tablet, placing my earbuds into my ears. I’ll be sitting here for the next hour, enjoying the peace and quiet of the countryside at night.
As my tablet comes to life, an abstract representation of the post office appears on its smooth screen. My face is illuminated in a green color that makes me frown. It’s not that I didn’t expect the portal here to be green; that much I already expected after talking to my teammates, who are already in position in towns several miles from here. What I didn’t necessarily anticipate was the powerful modifications the enemy player had put on this portal, making it difficult to capture.
Nonetheless, the next ten minutes are spent fighting the portal as quickly and brutally as possible. At some point, the player who turned it green realized what was happening and he began to recharge it from far away. I didn’t notice this right away, and as a result I’ve wasted some of my precious weapons. When I finally noticed, I began to walk away from the porch of the post office, standing in just the right locations to completely obliterate the portal’s resonators before the enemy player could possibly save them. After enough fighting, the portal turns gray, signifying that it’s unclaimed.
And as I take my seat on the porch steps once more, a smile creeps across my face as the portal turns blue. I switch over to Slack where I quickly notify my teammates that everything’s good on my end. Within minutes, blue lines shoot out from this portal to distances far beyond the horizon, the hills and valleys in front of me on my screen being blanketed in an aura of a matching color. The Mind Units scored by these fields will be enough to put us ahead of the enemy team in this region. Now I can sit back, relax, and farm items from this portal.
None of this would be happening if it weren’t for Ingress.
Ingress: the Mobile Experience
My previous attempts to explain Ingress to my friends seemed to make them pass it off as
just a different version of Pokémon Go. After all, the game is not played from one’s living room couch. Instead, you must go out into the real world (the horror!) to interact with the in-game entities. For Pokémon Go, such entities include the titular creatures that players are attempting to catch and collect. They also include Pokestops to collect much-needed items and Gyms to be fought over to make catching more Pokémon easier. The games were even developed by the same company, Niantic Labs.
However, the similarities end with the idea of going out into the real world to interact with the game. Where Pokémon Go is about catching and collecting adorable creatures, Ingress is a massive game of Capture the Flag played by millions of people around the world. Players fight over portals, in-game representations of real world places of importance, and will attempt to capture those portals for their team. Players split apart into two teams from the very beginning, and will learn to work together with their teammates to be as effective as possible out in the field. “Teamwork” is the name of the game here. No one makes it far playing as a lone wolf.
Interestingly enough, the game’s central focus isn’t entirely on one’s level or gear. Gear is ranked in levels, ranging from Level 1 to Level 8, and higher level gear is certainly more powerful than lower level gear. You can only use gear of your level or lower. However, what’s more important than your level or your gear in Ingress is how you use that gear. The game rewards efficiency and tactical planning that comes from experience gained not in the form of Action Points (the game’s equivalent to Experience Points, which are required to level up in the game) but in the form of real-world experience from going out and playing the game.
Take glyph hacking for example. Players may hack portals to acquire much needed gear, but they may also choose to glyph hack a portal. Doing so initiates a minigame in which a series of symbols will quickly be presented to the player, and the player must draw them on the screen from memory in a limited amount of time. The faster the player achieves this, and the more accurately he or she does so, then the greater the rewards are. There’s a trick to making those symbols stay on screen for a slightly longer amount of time, thus making them easier to memorize, but there is nothing else that makes glyph hacking easier for a player than simply doing it as often as possible. Learning the glyphs and recognizing what they mean makes glyph hacking easier, which yields greater rewards for the player.
This design philosophy that real-world experience from playing the game is what matters more than the player’s level is something we’ve seen in video games before Ingress. Dark Souls, for example, is notorious for being a game that punishes the slightest mistakes made by the player, forcing the player to learn from their mistakes if they hope to overcome their obstacles. However, I would argue that this design philosophy was not quite so inspired by games like Dark Souls but was instead inspired by hacker culture and the cyberpunk movement of the 1980’s and 1990’s.
After all, Ingress practically screams of cyberpunk themes and popular conspiracy theories from back in the day. One team, the Enlightened, serves an Illuminati-esque force that has secretly controlled humanity, influencing society to develop in a specific manner. The other team, the Resistance, seeks to free humanity from the influence of that force. There are clear similarities to the cyberpunk counterculture, telling of the evils of governments and corporations and presenting protagonists fighting back against the rigged system. Portals are hacked and fought over like data nodes in William Gibson’s vision of the Internet from the early 1980’s, itself an abstract representation of the real world. Even the very aesthetic of the game feels very sci-fi in nature, the screen littered with green and blue points, lines, and fields in an otherwise colorless void.
As for a hacker’s skill, that could never truly be taught by one to another. They could certainly share information with one another (much like how the more experienced players of Ingress will regularly help the new players find their bearings among the game’s various mechanisms and nuances), but the true way for any hacker to get better at what they did was to simply do it. Reading helped for sure, but what hackers did was much like a muscle that needed to be exercised to become stronger. This is the very same as the experience one faces when playing Ingress, receiving generally useful information from more experienced players and various resources of information online, only to realize that the best way to improve in the game is to simply go out and play it.
Perhaps what threw me off the most about my expectations of the game versus what the game actually is (and what inevitably lead to me comparing the game to cyberpunk and hacker culture) was a single word I heard used. I was fortunate enough to attend a local First Saturday, a live event in which players from both teams in the local area gather together to fight over some of the local portals for two hours. Afterwards, everyone met in the park and had a cookout, chatting and catching up with each other. It was an amazing opportunity that I’m glad to have been a part of, as I had a great time and met some amazing people. Yet just prior to me leaving for the day, one of the players I hadn’t yet talked to asked me a question: “What’s your handle?”
What’s in a Word?
I’m a writer, and as such I highly value the written word. There are almost always multiple words that could easily be chosen for use at any given moment, but the writer is often forced to think of subtle meanings behind these words that the reader may never be aware of. In January of 1920, weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft wrote a short guide to writing titled “Literary Composition,” and inside he wrote:
“But in enlarging the vocabulary, we must beware lest we misuse our new possessions. We must remember that there are fine distinctions betwixt apparently similar words, and that language must ever be selected with intelligent care.”
Lovecraft was writing about the sort of distinctions that I may best compare to how the painter may define certain colors. To the untrained eye, the colors Mint and Celadon certainly appear to be similar enough that either one would work just as well as the other in any given situation. In fact, the uninitiated in such matters may be unable to identify either color and may be unable to tell the difference between the two were they not next to each other. While the artist may agree that the colors are similar, their experience in such matters may give them a sort of trained instinct regarding when and how to best use each color, preferring one over the other in certain circumstances. To be clear, I’m not an artist by any means, and I even found myself consulting my artistically-inclined friend for help on such matters.
Similarly, a writer must consider particular nuances regarding the meaning and historical usage of every word they choose. The untrained in such matters may see no real distinction between the words “beautiful” and “attractive” as they are easily identified as synonyms of one another. The distinction lies in their actual definitions and historical uses: “beautiful” is defined by a simple Google search as “pleasing the senses or mind aesthetically,” and can be used as an adjective in reference to just about anything with that particular meaning; “attractive,” on the other hand, is defined as either being “pleasing or appealing to the senses” in regards to a thing or “appealing to look at; sexually alluring” in regards to a person. Because of this, “attractive” in regards to a person is more often used in the context of a person, simply enough, being attracted romantically or sexually to another person. “Beautiful,” however, may be used to describe one’s appreciation for the general aesthetic of another person without the romantic or sexual ties that such a word as “attractive” brings with it.
This is the sort of consideration that came to my mind upon hearing the question posed to me. “What’s your handle?” Anyone else I might have talked to would likely have asked me what my screen name is, or perhaps what my user name is. Never in a million years did I expect the word “handle” to come into the conversation. To those I’ve spoken with about the matter, the results have been mostly the same as what I’ve described above; to the uninitiated and the untrained, there is little distinction between “user name” or “screen name” and “handle.” Perhaps it’s because of my exposure to these words in specific environments that the words “user name” or “screen name” seem so modern and clean, with images of YouTube, Twitter, and Tumblr flashing across the front of my mind’s eye. Yet when the word “handle” is mentioned, a very different picture comes to me: one of forums in far corners of the Internet; or of hacker spaces in which people from all around come together to work on whatever newest projects they’ve undertaken; or of a massive convention held every year in Las Vegas with people all around the world mingling and sharing with one another while government agents seek to arrest or recruit these special people with their special talents. Or, if I’m to be completely honest, images of that cheesy 90’s film Hackers might slip through the cracks.
The word “handle” itself is defined by Google as meaning “a name or nickame,” and this is quite different for the everyday hacker than a “screen name” or a “user name.” Where those particular words are entirely used in an online context, a handle for a hacker is something far different, something stretches out of the boundaries of the digital realm and into the one of flesh and blood. The hacker lives by the unspoken rule that he may only ever use his handle in the presence of other hackers, lest someone learn his true identity and decide to break into his accounts or turn him in to law enforcement should what he be doing happen to be illegal. This rule has become so deeply embedded into the minds of hackers everywhere that their handles have, for many of them, become the name they identify with more than the name on their birth certificates. It is because of this that the word “handle” truly does refer to a “name,” because many people find that their legal names are more of a pseudonym than the handles they go by otherwise.
The Bigger Picture
This is where the true ramifications of a game like Ingress come entirely into view. Many players treat Ingress as more of a lifestyle than a game, purchasing merchandise, getting Ingress-related tattoos, and spending as much of their free time as possible playing the game. These people simply can’t imagine a daily routine anymore that doesn’t involve the game in some way or another, and there are many reasons for that, all of which are certainly understandable as many will agree that the game, at the very least, can be seen as a hobby unto itself. For these players, their teammates — both local and far away — are more than just teammates in a game on their smartphones or tablets. For them, these people are family. For them, their user names — or more appropriate, their handles — aren’t merely names they go by in the game, but they are also the names they identify as. This certainly meets the definition of “counterculture,” which is given as “a way of life and set of attitudes opposed to or at variance with the prevailing social norm.”
I think this is what makes the comparison between Ingress, hacker culture, and the cyberpunk counterculture so strong, not only because of the clear nods to cyberpunk fiction and the hacker ethos, but because Ingress itself is in many ways the cyberpunk future manifested into reality, even if it’s merely within its infancy. Millions of users around the world log in to a massive world-spanning network, itself an abstract representation of the real world, to fight over points like stars in the night sky. They wander city streets in cargo pants and hoodies without labels, carrying only their smartphones with earbuds plugged in, hoping to draw as little attention to themselves as possible as they furiously attack enemy-controlled portals, hoping no opposing players notice and try to stop them. They trade and smuggle ADA Refractors, a very rare item in the game that was recently made even rarer, like digital goods might be smuggled by netrunners.
Meanwhile, this is perfectly topped by the group-consciousness made manifest by the game’s focus on teamwork. Portals are never truly captured for yourself, but for your team. Portals are never truly linked — fields are never truly made — for yourself, but for your team. Anomalies, massive live events held in major cities around the world, (the results of which, by the way, can have dramatic effects on the game itself, such as the recent shortage of ADA Refractors) are treated with absolute seriousness by both teams, so much so that players who can’t attend will often donate their most powerful and precious gear to those who are attending. All of this, of course, is not done for the individual, but for the team.
Born out of all of this are stories shared by players that must have felt to be taken directly from cyberpunk fiction when they were experienced. Such stories include one found in this particular article, in which the writer describes a live event in Hong Kong he attended in 2013. As well as coordinating with smaller cells of teammates outside of Hong Kong, this player also lead a group of teammates around the city. They found themselves sprinting from one place to the next, even moving between different altitudes in the vertical jungle that is Hong Kong, desperately trying to fight back against the enemy players for control of the portals. It’s stories like this that paint Ingress as a war being fought by players around the world on a digital front, something that many players take quite seriously, with cells and groups coordinating at large distances for massive field operations.
I love Ingress. In the weeks that I’ve been playing, I’ve met incredible people who have only helped to make the game an even greater joy for me than it already was. In fact, I give this game quite a bit of credit for helping to get me out of my house, something that has been quite difficult for me in the last few months due to certain anxieties I suffer from. As I read around online, I’ve found that I’m not alone in this particular situation, that there are plenty of other players out there who, like me, owe a lot to Ingress for helping them to overcome anxieties when faced with everything outside of their bedroom. All of this is thanks to Niantic’s dedication to creating a location-based game making use of some of the greatest technological achievements mankind has produced in the last century, those being the Internet, wireless connection to that same network, and global positioning systems honing in on handheld devices. Just thirty years ago, such things came straight out of literature written by the likes of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, but today they are as real as you and I.
And for those who are not involved in the game despite having an interest, perhaps out of an inability to play due to lacking an appropriate device or being unable to afford a reasonable data plan, a particular quote comes to mind:
“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” -William Gibson