Virtual war games
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Jul 16, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Virtual war games

Stratford Gazette

Chet Greason

Next time you step out your door to grab the paper from the end of your driveway, glance down the street. See the statue in the park down the road? Or the bridge over the creek? You may have glanced at them a thousand times and not thought twice about them.

What if they weren’t just statues and bridges? If each of them were a kind of portal, seeping invisible energy into the world? What if you had a device that could help you see the portals; help you harness the energy, the control of which would shape the future of humankind?

That’s the basic premise of Ingress, a new game that has become fairly popular in the area over the last few months. The game was produced by Google and can be downloaded onto both Android and Apple iOS smartphones as a free app. It utilizes the phone’s GPS to link the player to an ongoing battle between two factions.

Rather than being confined to a virtual world, the playing field for the game is the very world around us. The world of Ingress, as displayed through the screen of a smartphone, illustrates the immediate vicinity of the player as would any other map program with roads and lakes and landmarks. However, there are also huge fountains that glow either green or blue depending on which faction currently holds them. These are the portals, and it’s your job to conquer them. The game is an example of a kind of interface known as augmented reality.

“Augmented reality games (like Ingress) are certainly not new; but what’s new about this is that it’s a really complex game system,” says Dr. Neil Randall, director of the Games Institute at the University of Waterloo. “I’m excited to see what we can do with it.”

The two factions at war with one another are The Enlightened (the green team) and The Resistance (the blue team). When installing the game, a player is given the choice as to which faction they wish to belong to. Some regions with high populations, like Stratford, see the power balance between the two armies shift back and forth as they conquer and reconquer portals. Other areas, like nearby St. Marys, have been painted a singular colour; and the dominant faction therein aims to keep it that way.

In the war room

A casual boardgame between friends hides the strategic machinations of a braintrust that oversees the powerful Resistance faction in St. Marys. LameBacon, Hodgko, Visdalen, and SpoonyLuv (real names withheld) discuss strategy on keeping the area blue amidst Enlightened raiding parties that have been invading from the green hotbed of nearby London.

“The Enlightened are lazy,” says LameBacon. “They’ve been in power too long.”

LameBacon has been playing the game almost since its implementation in 2013. He’s since got his friends and family to join as well. Now LameBacon, Hodgko, and Visdalen are all amongst the top Resistance players in the region. SpoonyLuv, meanwhile, is an Enlightened double agent, who plans to jump ship officially in the near future. He notes, however, that doing so takes time.

“I like St. Marys,” he says. “You can walk everywhere.”

Visdalen agrees. “The portal density here is insane.”

The four men are all in their 30s and have families of their own. LameBacon’s wife, BrillianGemus, also ranks incredibly high on the regional roster, which cuts a swath from here to the shores of Lake Huron, and south to Essex County and Lake Erie. The region is overwhelmingly green, with a recent tally pegging the Enlightened’s regional score at more than double that of the Resistance. Still, the Stonetown faction remains keen to ensure its corner of the map remains blue. They’ve even gone on raiding parties into London with other Resistance members that they’ve met online.

LameBacon says it was an odd experience getting into a random stranger’s car; someone he had only previously known by their anonymous Ingress alias. Some team-up stories end better than others. On one trip the players picked up a sickly and dreadlocked faction member who smelled funny and needed a ride. On another there was a random encounter in the park when two team members noticed each other hacking the same portal and ended up spending the afternoon together.

“It’s all about who’s the craziest,” says Visdalen. “There’s no real skill involved. It’s just how much time are you willing to commit to this.”

All four of the men have stories about getting caught playing in public.

“It’s pretty obvious when people are playing. They’ve got a very distinct walk,” laughs LameBacon, emulating someone with their nose in their phone, darting around from place to place.

One player heard cries of “stranger danger!” from a group of children after lurking in a park too long. Two of them have even been stopped by police on several occasions for their strange behaviour, such as sitting in their cars in the parking lot of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame late at night, hacking away at their phones.

“We’d like to get some of the cops to start playing the game,” jokes Hodgko. “Those guys move around a lot.”

Real world consequences

Constable Kees Wijnands of the OPP Perth County detachment says he’s not familiar with Ingress, but he’s dealt with comparable gameplayers in the past. He cites Geocaching, another GPS game played on people’s smartphones, as an example. In Geocaching players hide small strongboxes (or caches) for other players to find using GPS coordinates, kind of like a global treasure hunt.

“We’ve found people in the weirdest places hiding the weirdest things,” says Wijnands. “I haven’t talked to the officers who have dealt with this particular thing, but it’s similar.”

Ingress has strict rules against placing portals on private property, and Wijnands acknowledges that trespassing normally isn’t an issue with these types of games. He does, however, remind younger players of the 16-and-under curfew.

“Keep in mind that if there are younger kids in a public area at night between midnight and 6 a.m. they can be picked up and held.”

Wijnands also warns of a lesser known law regarding trespassing by night. Basically, people of any age can be charged with trespassing for loitering outside of a private residence between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., even if they’re not actually on the property.

Wijnands says that, if you are playing a game like Ingress, “It’s great to do it during the day, as long as it doesn’t put you close to a dwelling place.”

He encourages residents to continue calling in suspicious persons. Sure, the guy on the sidewalk in front of your home could just be a harmless Ingress player … or he could be taking pictures of homes and garages, scoping them out with the intent of robbing them later.

Stopping and questioning game players, he says, is just a safety precaution.

Hacking potential

Perhaps one of the best residual effects of Ingress is that it gets people out of their houses and exploring their neighbourhoods. When creating a portal, users are required to take a photo of the location, and include information as to the historical or cultural significance of it.

LameBacon says it’s great for finding interesting spots while on vacation. He and his family now plan “Ingress trips.”

“On our way to Whitby one time, we hit every small town on the way,” he says. “It was fun. It took longer, but it felt way shorter.”

SpoonyLuv mentions that he’s celebrating his wedding anniversary on the weekend. His wife, Momamouse, also plays the game, and the two are planning their romantic getaway to the Hamilton/Toronto area around Ingress.

So does this mean that communities like Stratford and St. Marys should be capitalizing on augmented reality game players? Will doing so bring more tourists to the area?

“Do I think it actually generates tourism? I’m not sure,” says Eugene Zakreski of the Stratford Tourism Alliance. “It certainly generates social interaction; but I’m not sure if it’s the destination that drives the player, or it’s just the game-playing that defines the destination.”

In other words, why travel for the sake of a game you can play anywhere?

“This is a great idea, though,” adds Zakreski. “It’s a phenomena we’ll probably keep an eye on. It’s like hockey. You play at home with a team, and eventually you get better and want to start playing against other players.”

Dr. Randall, meanwhile, sees great potential in the growing popularity of games like Ingress. He cites numerous examples of mass gamification on the island of Manhattan, such as a group of programmers who modded the Foursquare app to create a pan-city game of Risk pitting the five boroughs against one another, or a team of NYU students who turned Washington Square into a giant game of Pac-Man (called Pac-Manhattan), complete with onsite ghosts and pac-pellets.

He says games like Ingress will only increase in number and complexity as programmers find new ways to engage locality into their creations.

“This is a golden opportunity for anyone who wants to get into game design,” he says.

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