Ingress: A Story, A Review, an Appeal

by Lev Lafayette

First Portal Captures: An Ingress Story

It was a party in North Melbourne that information was given to me by an old friend that would change everything. He told me that following the Higgs-Boson experiments a new type of matter was discovered at CERN; "exotic matter", that included "structured data". This data, or exotic matter, was seeping into the world through "portals", locations of public art or notification. Essentially, any place where a type of communication was being tempted. These portals were located through an simple smart 'phone application.

The communications were being sent by an alien intelligence, which my friend argued cogently that we should be assisting. After all, who wouldn't want to help aliens communicate with us? Well, plenty of people apparently. A faction had arisen that called themselves "The Resistance" and their stated purpose was to use the exotic matter, or "XM", to block portals from what they considered to be an attempt at alien mind control. In contrast the people who supported the alien communication attempts called themselves "The Enlightened", and saw this is as the next stage in human evolution.

The following night I downloaded the application, listened to the initial agent transmission, and went outside of my estate. The initial scans were good; no less that six portals were in close proximity. Only one was controlled by the Resistance, the rest unowned. Despite the darkness and inclement weather, I took the opportunity to wonder down to the riverside where three of the portals were located, passing a gaggle of teenagers in the park who were drinking cheap alcohol-pops and generally being loud and silly.

It should be emphasised that it was particularly dark and windy night and the tree branches swayed and creaked, as I made my way down the unlit path to the deserted road that led to the three portals. Two were notifications for parkland and, as per my training, I deployed resonators on them and linked them together. I then hacked the portals using the scanner application, and received more resonators and bursters; the former used to empower the portal for the faction, the latter used to destroy an opponents control. The third portal was a little less accessible, a lot closer to the river's edge, a notice for a bat colony. Again, I deployed the resonators, hacked, and linked it to the other two portals. A field appeared on the scanner covering the triangular region, covering the colony. I wondered what would happen to the bats with their newfound connection with an alien shaper intelligence.

I made my way back up the path to the main park, and approached the fourth portal, repeating the process. This time however two of the teenagers came up to me, a young woman and apparently her boyfriend, or maybe at least someone who wanted to be her boyfriend. "Whatchya doin'?", asked the young woman in baggy clothes and brown regrowth in her yellow-blonde hair. I didn't bother turning to them "Hacking portals", I responded. I paused a bit and thought of things from their perspective. "With an 'app'". That would be at least that was within their language.

They looked at each confused, so I showed them the scanner, and explained how it worked. As I started to head towards my final portal for the night (the one that was already owned was too well protected) they outloaded a barrage of questions to me; what's the app? where can I download it? what's a portal? where's the portal? why is it a portal? what's a resonator?, and then the clincher. "Why are you doing this?"

I stopped dead in my tracks, turned to them and said, with all seriousness: "For the aliens".

Perhaps it was a forlorn hope that would see them off. But I'd made the mistake of actually showing them the scanner and instead of writing me off as some crazy middle-aged guy who wore too much black, they were genuinely interested. "Really?!", said the young woman, her eyes opening wide as she giggled. "Tell me more!". So, I went through the back story, filling in some gaps as I went. I admit I was slightly horrified when they told me they didn't know what CERN was, let alone the Higgs-Boson.

As we approached the final portal, the wind picking up even further, and dark clouds began to block out what little moonlight was previously available. It is important to mention at this stage that where I live is a converted Victorian-era asylum, and the last portal is the remains of the morgue located outside the grounds. I explained this to the youngsters as we travelled in the dark. It was well known that the asylum itself had been subject to at least three Royal Commissions for the mistreatment of patients. Had the bodies been mistreated at the morgue? It seemed almost certain.

My mind started to wonder further. Were all the bodies brought the morgue actually dead? What tortures had been inflicted upon them? Would these tortured thoughts remain at the ruins, a psychic record of time in the universe which exotic matter can reveal? Could the aliens 'read' this history, if the resonators were installed? What would the aliens think of us if they contacted these spiritual remains? Disconcertingly, as if I my thoughts had been transmitted, the young woman asked "Can the aliens talk to ghosts?". Perhaps by joining the Enlightenment the Shaper influence had given me a limited form of telepathy, which I had no conscious control at this stage. Or it could have been just coincidence.

It must have been a series of coincidences then, as possum rattled off its demonic howl, there was a sudden pickup of the wind, and almighty flash of lightning illuminating the swaying oaks and firs, the stark branches from the former reaching down and touching the young man on the shoulder, causing him to leap forward in surpise and fear. A heavy rumble of thunder rolled afterwards, and from somewhere deep inside me came the instinct to throw my head back and laugh and scream as another lightning flash exploded.

The youngsters turned and ran, and I can't say I blame them. That was not my voice; that was the voice of a mad woman from decade's ago, a voice that was now part of me. So in a way the Resistance was right - joining the Enlightenment had changed my mind, but perhaps not in the way they expected. I deployed resonators on the morge and offered a short apology to the victims of those who died under the knife of 'rationality' for their madness. It is alien within us that so many fear.

Ingress : A Review

Ingress is a real-time augmented reality game produced by Niantic, a subsidiary of Google, played by at an estimated several hundred thousand people that has been in beta-mode for the better part of two years now. Heavily deriviative from the game "Shadow Cities" (some say 'ripped off'), it makes use of Google maps as an overall for a massive multiplayer game. At the moment, it is only available for Android devices, but it is expected that Apple iOS phones will be available soon.

The basic backstory is as follows; following the Higgs-Boson experiment, "exotic matter", or XM, has been entered the world at the behest of an alien species. This exotic matter especially appears at portals, locations of public art or other expression. A US government agency, NIA (National Intelligence Agency) established for low probability / high effect risks (such as alien communication), become aware of XM and assembled a team to study it, especially noting the productive effects on those in the presence of XM. According to the backstory it was this team which developed the detection and manipulation program that could be converted into a simple mobile 'phone application. Part of the team, having been exposed to a large amount of XM, decides that they must escape the project but are hunted down and killed by NIA operatives; however the body repairs itself and the teammember (Jarvis) continues to appear at portals. Jarvis argues that we must accept the alien intelligence, and whereas NIA seeks to prevent and control it.

Two factions thus have arisen in response to these alien "invasion"; the Enlightenment who believe that the aliens are seeking towards a transformation of the species, and the Resistance, who argue the aliens are taking over people's minds. The factions compete to control the portals through deploying resonators, rated from level one to eight, an destroy opponent-controlled portals through using bursters, also rated from level one to eight. Portals can also have modifications applied, such as shields, defensive weaponary, heat sinks, and so forth. Portals can also be linked through portal keys; when three portals are linked in a triangle, then the area within is considered be controlled by the faction, adding to the "mind units". The distance that a portal can link depends on the strength of the portal, plus any additional enhancements added.

From the Ingress invitation:

Life seems “normal” but your world is being infiltrated. A mysterious energy has been unlocked by a team of scientists in Europe and is spreading around the world. The origin and purpose of this force is unknown, but some researchers believe it is influencing the way we think. We must control it or it will control us.

There are two factions. The Enlightened seek to spread this influence. The Resistance struggle to protect what’s left of our humanity.

The World is the Game

Move through the real world using your Android device and the Ingress app to discover and tap sources of this mysterious energy, acquire objects to aid in your quest, deploy tech to capture territory, and ally with other players to advance the cause of the Enlightened or the Resistance.

Gameplay is based on players (or "Agents", in Ingress parlance) travelling to the portals and capturing, modifying, and linking them. Actions require XM energy to carry out, but fortunately this stuff can be found lying around all over the place - but of course mostly near portals which generate a fair amount. Adding to a fairly good backtory, this is perhaps the best feature of the game. The game requires for players to go outside, an unusual activity itself for computerised games in its own right. Furthermore, the game encourages exploration and, if interesting portals have been assigned correctly, it enables individuals to discover places and monuments which they may have previously not been aware of. Who knew there's a "Fountain of Contemplation" behind the Orica building in Melbourne? I've walked past it for over twenty years and had no idea. With a seamless Google Maps overlay, there has been more than a few times I've been able to use Ingress as a navigation tool for non-Ingress related activies, not the least being for finding parking.

Another positive feature of the game is the level of social interaction that it encourages. They game is certainly playable and enjoyable as a person going out and doing their own thing, indeed for an introvert who enjoys going on long walks in an urban environment but not necessarily interacting with people, it's great. For people who desire more social interaction however there is plenty of opportunities; communication channels are available for "all" and "faction" groups (and don't confuse the two), groups organise farms of factional deployment and raids on opposing faction's strongholds. Even in small groups it can be nicely integrated with normal life; at our Enlightened-based workplace we tend to take a post-lunch walk around the city, engaging in a bit of a 'smash-and-grab' activity on the way. Some of the more impressive social activiies include massively co-ordinated actions throughout entire cities, regions, and even continents to build "megafields" which cover vast areas, albeit usually for a relatively short time. The "Green Marble" is one such impressive international effort that spanned a huge proportion of the northern hemisphere.

The game is not always competitive however; there is a number of examples of cross-factional social gatherings and cooperation. A relatively popular activity is for the two factions to come to an agreement to allow for signwriting constructed from portal fields. For example, during the recent crisis in the Ukraine, as the proposect of a military conflict with Russia increased, agents of both the Enlightened and Resistance factions let their feelings be known with the message "Stop War". Whilst the game can be intensely competitive at times (don't get attached to your portals, they will be taken down), in most cases players are sensible enough to realise that it's a game of walking around and visiting places and really not worth getting terribly angry about. Only in one case have I encountered a player who was abusive because I had *failed* to take down their portal, and they were getting annoyed by the noification messages. When such people are encountered, the game does give one the opportunity to block communications. Unpleasant players are, of course, a situation that occurs in any multiplayer game. It should be mentioned that from what I've seen Ingress – and it's an awful state of affairs that this even has to be mentioned a review - doesn't seem to be as bad as other games when it comes to the treatment of female players, either; it seems that the demographic tends to a little older and more mature.

So far this review has tended towards the positive. However Ingress is not entirely the land of milk and honey due to some utterly perplexing interface and design decisions. Until recently, for example, mass recycling of resonators and bursters was not possible. Recycling is a common activity for agents who find themselves short of XM energy due to activity, or counter-attacks from enemy portals. Given that each player has a maximum cap of some two thousand items, it is not unusual for a player to have well over a hundred items that they wish to recycle, typically low-level resonators, bursters, or portal keys in locations they are unlikey to visit soon. The tiring process of recycling each one of these items individually what somewhat frustrating. Certainly this has now been improved, and the less recent addition of capsules (a container for items) was long overdue. The standard intel map that the game offers is notoriously bad, lacking in most useful information; much-improved third-party intel maps and clients have been made available, but as recently as March 2014 Niantic was sending out Terms of Service violation letters for using such improvements. There are many user interface improvements that could be introduced; a grid-based layout of inventory, key filtering, notification filtering (I don't care about the portals I took on the interstate holiday, but my 'home' portals are something different), and a portal with time of ownership marker.

Whilst the user interface could do with some major improvements, this is not the major drawback of the game. That comes down to a design which is significantly unbalanced to the faction in a region which has numerical superiority. Whilst one would expect that the faction with the greater numbers would have an advantage, in Ingress it is disproportionally so due to deployment limits and resulting portal strengths. Individuals are only able to deploy two modifications, one level 8 resonator, one level 7, two level 6s, and two 5s on a portal. Because portal strength is based on this deployment which in turn determines the strength of goods received, the team with numerical superiority will gain better protected and more powerful portals faster - not to mention that faction-aligned portals provide more goods than oppostion portals. The only advantage for the numerically inferior faction is that opposition resonators provide 100 AP, albeit with XM damage - this is handy a low levels, but pretty useless from mid-level onwards.

Overall, cleverness in play is relatively unrewarded compared to sheer numerical superiority. As a result of these biases and utterly artificial restrictions the game is a lot less enjoyable than it could be, and cities tend towards being dominated by one faction or another, rather than a contest being in place. Not only is not fun for the losing side, who are subject to their small collection being smashed by overwhelming numbers, it is not fun for the winning side either, as relatively no strategy or tactics is involved. The game becomes boring and indeed, this is where activity in the game grinds almost to a halt. If one faction wins, effectively the game is over.

By way of illustration consider a small hamlet consisting of three players and three portals, two resistance and one enlightened. For purposes of the discussion the three players do not leave the village and nor are there any other landmarks that can be used to increase the number of portals. Each player is equally active and equally competent. In a balanced game, the game will tend towards two portals being owned by the Resistance and one by the Enlightened. There will be some changes of course, as it is dynamic game partially governed by luck, but that would be the general trend. However in Ingress, one has to take into account the fact that the Enlightened player is limited to what they can deploy on their portals; two mods, 1 level 8 resonator, 1 level 7 etc., as previously shown. The Resistance players will be able to fill up their portals with mods and deploy twice as many high-level resonators. Their portals will be stronger, they will be of higher level, able to mete out more damage, and very soon the game will result in 3 Resistance portals and 0 Enlightened.

There is no easy solution to these design flaws. Altering the portals so that factions-owned portals distributed resonators and enemy portals distributed bursters would provide some evening and in-game plausibility, but not the main design bias. Removing the deployment limits as it currently stands would result in the creation of increasingly massive individually constructed high-level portals, removing the social aspect of the game and discouraging new players as they encounter extremely well-protected high-level portals. But this is mainly because all portals are considered equal; the Great Pyramid of Giza is just as legitimate as a portal as someone's graffiti tag on a back alley in Fitzroy or a favourite curry restaurant. If portals were assigned level limits based on their significance (Giza L8, graffiti tag L1, for example), it would provide the ability to remove the artificial need deployment limits, it would create a situation where players of different levels sought different portals to take over and aspired for level increases, and it would better suit the internal game story.

Such a change however would require quite a few fairly skilled assessors, and given Niantic's track record on administration the chances are it being implemented are not high. Portal submissions can take a very long time to be accepted; my first submission, a monument to the the Kew Cottages Fire in April 1996 took almost six months to be processed; I was about to ask the question "How many mental patients need to die in a fire before Niantic will accept their monument as a portal?" in the very week it was accepted. In the converse, there are many examples of "joke portals" that have been accepted, including strategically photographed toys, live animals (my portal moved!), and thoroughly normal fixtures like bollards and park benches.

Finally, there is the question of whether existing technology is up to scratch for Ingress. Players can often be frustrated by the sometimes remarkable inaccuracies of GPS as they attempt to capture or deploy a portal. Ingress is also quite notorious at rate it chews through battery life; regular players tend to keep their 'phones charged whenever possible and/or carry extra battery packs. Also, the game itself is not exactly stable, perhas as one may expect with a real-time MMO using relatively low-powered technology. All of this is not exactly the fault of Niantic, except in the sense that they are desparate for (if so inaccurate) massive data collection that must provide at least some sense of a business case for this game.

Overall, with a good background, an semi-innovative approach, and deliberate structures to encourage compelling game play (such as territoriality, incremental improvement, availability, and and social connectivity), there is a lot to said for Ingress. Sometimes these compelling features can be downright dangerous; at least one person has been killed whilst playing Ingress (run over by a bus) and there's probably those who engage in dangerous driving whilst playing. On the other hand, the user interface, technological limitations, and especially the game design stand as very significant negatives to the game. It ends up being fun for a short while, and as part of the occasional social gathering. But after that it becomes more a part of habit (“Go for a walk after lunch, hack some portals”) with increasing distinterest in how the game is actually developing. To put it bluntly, when it's good it's very good, but when it's bad, it's bloody awful.

The Resistance: An Appeal

To members of the Resistance,

You are winning this world. Each checkpoing, each cycle, I see the strength of the Resistance. Sometimes the Enlightened are ahead, but usually it's you. In my home town, you're usually ahead by a ratio of 4:1 - far more than the global average which seems to hover around 55% to 45%.

You see, I understand you. As the Scanner was first turned on you had a choice; Enlightenment or Resistance - and you chose the latter. I would have as well on first reaction too, if I was not suggested otherwise by a friend who told me the story of how things came to pass.

Resistance is the first instinctual reaction for people in the modern age; it's deep, it's visceral, it's a reaction to a world which seems controlled by others, typically government agents, corporations, or both - and we know what the term of the system of government when the corporate world is fused with the state, don't we?

We think of resistance movements, where civilians stand up to an organised military invasion. We have pride in such people, it invokes righteous thoughts of determined but average people stand up to defend themselves against an overwhelming foreign invasion. In a more contemporary sense, we think of people standing up to various governmental conspiracies - secret agents, "the men in black" and so forth. Perhaps we think of series like the X-Files, where governmental conspiracies exist to protect and enhance aliens takeovers. Surely we want to resist that?

We also have a negative reaction to the notion of "the Enlightened". Too many people in the past have used this as a cloak to seek control, and we are justly suspicious of claims to enlightenment among others, "we are doing this for your own good". We hear of conspiracies by the Illumaniti. To oppose such "enlightened" individuals, one applies Resistance.

The forces behind the Resistance are very clever indeed at their marketing. Just to realise how clever, we need to examine the story of Ingress.

After the discover of Exotic Matter at CERN, the US National Intelligence Agency sent in a group of agents to investigate what appeared to be attempts by aliens to communicate with earth. The NIA neurobiologist, Dr. Ezekiel Calvin, assembled a team including Dr. Oliver Lynton-Wolf, who developed the Scanner.

Two members of the team, Dr. Devra Bogdanovich, and the artist Roland Jarvis, realised that the experiments being conducted by the NIA team where not aimed at reaching any sort of peaceful understanding with the aliens, but rather they sought to harness the XM for their own ends. Escaping NIA clutches they were hunted down and killed, but with the exposure to XM, Roland Jarvis lived on in spirit.

The scanner algorithm has been leaked, and Jarvis encourages people to find XM and harness it themselves to be able to communicate with this new alien species. The Resistance seeks to prevent that.

Let me make this quite clear to you, Resistance agents: By supporting the Resistance, you are backing a conspiratorial group within the United States government to prevent individuals from harnessing XM and communicating with aliens.

That's what you're being used for. You're the conspiratorial government agents in this, stopping people from being given access to the power and freedom that comes from XM energy.

Like I said, good marketing by forces behind the Resistance. Good marketing NIA; you have been trained well in damage-control and public relations, I am sure.

But then there is the argument, I hear you say, "The alien communications are being used to change our minds! They're engaging in mind control!".

No, they're not. They're communicating and mixing their minds with ours; that's how they communicate and that's how we as people and as species evolve. What have we called aliens in the past? Strangers, foreigners, sorjourners - people who we are not familiar with, who speak a strange language, who have unusual customs. We used the term to describe the mentally ill and insightful in the past; those who studied their minds were called "alienists".

But it was from encounters with such people that we have grown as a species, that we have come to understand the different nuances and approaches that comes form many minds in communication with each other.

How different is this now? It's just one more step for even further evolution. It is one more step to go from communication within the species, to that of a new species - an intersteller species in that incredibly vast region of space.

All of our lives we have gazed to the heavens wondering if anything is there. Surely we could not be the only life, the only minds, in the universe, a mere speck on a lightbeam, a pale blue dot in the enormity of the universe?

Having encountered such minds are we really so small, so inward looking, so backward, that we reject them? Is our future really just to remain as we are? A species incapable of even coming to peace with itself even though it is nothing in the cosmos?

Don't we want to go beyond this?

This is our chance, to evolve. Perhaps it will be our only chance. If the Resistance win, the aliens will turn away; "we gave them the chance, and they rejected us - we shall leave them on their speak of dust suspending on lightbeam, lonely and cold in the far reaches of space".

Do you want to be responsible for that?

To be Enlightened, as the philosopher Immanual Kant, described it in the following terms: "Sapere aude! (Dare to know!) 'Have the courage to use your own understanding,' is therefore the motto of the enlightenment".

If you have the courage to reach out to the heavens, you should join us.

Retire from Resistance. Join the Enlightenment.

- Transmission from agent montebanc