Two Factions Are Battling for Control in an Alternate Reality Game

The aliens are here and some want them to stay

smartphone in city
Scott Stulberg/Corbis

Imagine a game like Capture the Flag or Risk, where two teams compete to claim locations and control territory, except the entire world is playing it across city parks, malls and neighborhoods all over the entire planet. It would make day-to-day life slightly more epic. Well, that game is real.

For Mic, Jack Smith IV reports on "Ingress", an alternate reality game players dive into via the portal of a smart phone. It’s overseen by a Google startup called Niantic Labs. And the game is gaining steam: It’s been downloaded over 11 million times in the past two years and boasts an average of 1 million players daily. Smith writes:

Players are divided into two factions — the Enlightenment (the green team) and the Resistance (the blue team) — and they run around the city, collecting keys, weapons and upgrades, and capturing portals for their faction. 

Each portal is tied to a real-life landmark: a famous sculpture, popular storefront, train station, whatever. But players are tracked via GPS, and to capture a portal, a player needs to be physically near that landmark. So if you want to capture the local bus stop across town for your team, you've got to put sneakers to pavement. 

Control for cities and portals is measured in daily cycles worldwide, and each captured portal contributes to your team's global score. Triangulating and linking portals for your team lets you set up control fields, which rack up more points for your faction.

Ingress has a sci-fi backstory, where the discovery of the Higgs Boson also revealed the presence of Exotic Matter (XM) and mysterious alien beings on Earth, but the game play seems to be fairly similar to modern life. The only complication is that occasionally players step up competition in some locations during "anomalies," which represent times of unusually high XM concentrations and a corresponding need to control portals.

Ingress isn’t the only alternate reality game that has players simultaneously taking in the digital world in their hand and the real one surrounding them. Dillon Baker writes about a multi-chapter saga called "The Institute" that unfolded in San Francisco at Readwrite:

Made by avant-garde artist Jeff Hull, the game lasted for three years and included more than 10,000 participants. Players were first sent down the metaphorical “rabbit-hole” to the game via suspicious flyers that led potential participants to a cult-like induction ceremony hidden in the backroom of a downtown skyscraper.

The players then worked their way through fake protests, puzzles and a confusing blur between reality and game. Games like this even started before smart phones became ubiquitous, using clues posted online.

The bonus for many of the players is that these games offer a new way to explore the world. In "Ingress" portals are landmarks and the players are future friends. Even rival faction members meet up for drinks.

“The game itself is the motivation," says John Hanke of Niantic Labs in a Guardian story by Tom Hatfield. "But it’s the social interaction and exploration that the game encourages that are the real payoffs. People who meet up with other players and go on adventures together have the most fun and therefore tend to be some of the most dedicated and enthusiastic participants.”

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