Niantic Labs, 2013
Recommended? Yes, and it’s complicated.
Observation and Analysis of Revolutionary Tactics Being Unintentionally Transmitted via Video Games: Ingress as a Tool
While I have observed many useful skills and tactics being transmitted through games, particularly tabletop RPGs, I’m focusing in Ingress in this piece.
Ingress is an alternate reality game based on Google Maps. If you are interested in a more detailed description of the game itself that includes some of the lore I recommend checking out the wikipedia page. The game mechanics depend on visiting real-world locations, called “portals” in game, and interacting with them within the app on your phone. There are two teams competing for control of the portals physical turf along with magical in-game “mind units,” or how many human minds you are controlling within the territory you have claimed. Ingress is a massively multiplayer game with a lot of social and technological aspects I will get into in a bit here. The two teams are cleverly labeled, with the Resistance being the over-populated team with conservative leanings and the pretentiously-named Enlightened being the smaller, more agile, forward thinking early-adopter-of-alien-technology team (that is also possibly serving as alien overlord snack foods / tools / skinsuits). I’m going to split this piece into two sections; the first on the useful skills unintentionally taught and how they relate to revolution and horizontal organization, the second on the dangers and wider consequences of the game itself.
Observation and Deployment of Guerrilla Street Tactics
The nature of Ingress being a location-based game played in physical space means that it’s not as accessible to people with physical disabilities or chronic illness as most MMOs, but it’s addictive nature and hip video game status tends to attract individuals I like to call “indoor kids”; people who tend to spend most of their time in front of screens of various kinds, with very little exposure to, or interest in, radical politics or street-based protests. (With a few notable exceptions.) Many Ingress players find they lose weight; gain community and sometimes romantic partners; and learn about local geography, history, and public art. While this can result in a some interesting interactions depending on the player’s cultural competency with the neighborhoods they play in, actively playing Ingress is like a constant urban (and sometimes rural) adventure whilst immersed in a slightly different reality where aliens interact with humans via interdimensional portals & magical science energy.
The urban adventure aspect is where I want to focus my analysis, because the nature of the game mechanics force players to develop tactics for movement and people organization that mimics horizontal political coalitions and urban guerrilla and asymmetric warfare tactics in a nonviolent environment. Higher level players often mentor lower level players, teaching them the tactics and mechanics and helping them reach a level where they are the most effective. Players form communication channels outside of the built-in game comms for operational security when planning a strike on enemy territory or for high-level supply farming, which takes at least 8 players of high level. Players will often ignore the rules of play and keep more than one account to attempt to monitor the movements of the other team. This results in people forming autonomous cells made up of trusted players, an affinity group if you will. Because of the nature of the game to allow both casual and hardcore gamers, and for affinity groups to be loose and ops organizing social and friendly, hierarchies are rarely allowed for very long, other than a pseudo-hierarchy related to level and badge achievement.
The game includes a browser-based Intel Map which is used to plan out attacks and gear farming. A discussion on how different players use the Intel Map could go on forever, especially if you buy an Ingressor a drink. There is a player-built semi-game-legal tool that scrapes and displays more data than the map usually shows, which is also widely used to plan tactical strikes. Because many of the players are programmers and other tech people, there is a plethora of illegal-within-the-game hacks built to aid in turning the tide to your team’s side that are whispered about and used to varying degrees depending on the personal moral alignment of the affinity group or individual.
Ingress teaches players a particular combination of skills that I usually only see in activists or, rarely, military personnel.
The nature of the game being both competitive and cooperative, based in physical space and encouraging both tactical planning and tactical opportunism, teaches players a particular combination of skills that I usually only see in activists or, rarely, military personnel. (Never police, so far.) But Ingress is nonviolent. There is never any game mechanic that hurts a living being (unless you have decided that portals are sentient), and I never noticed the players themselves being aware that their Ingress skills were similar to ones used in protests and warfare unless I mentioned it to them, even the few players who were ex-military or themselves activists. I started to feel that the game itself was unintentionally subversive, teaching tactics and comms skills used by protesters, revolutionaries, street medics, and guerrillas in a nonviolent fashion completely disconnected from the treacherous waters of political identity.
Surveillance, Gender, Soft Crowd Control, Ingress
There is no place or time where we as a species have not had a complicated relationship with technology, whether digital or no. Video games have spectacularly been no exception to that, including Ingress. Ingress is location-based, played on phones, and is a video game with an overwhelmingly cisgender white male player base. This makes for a various levels of danger inherent to your gaming experience based on your gender, gender presentation, melanin, income level, and general paranoia.
I have heard several first-person accounts of female Ingress players being stalked or followed by male players.
Ingress is made by Niantic Labs, a startup within Google. The founder of Niantic is John Hanke, who has a background in startups funded by the US military and the CIA, in geomapping, and in governmental “foreign affairs” work domestically and abroad. With Google already surveilling their users for the US govt, if you have a smartphone and/or use Google maps and are a person of interest, the spooks most likely already have your location data and playing a game probably isn’t going to be much of a threat vector. But it doesn’t stop nerds from theorizing about what the True Objective of the game is, with theories ranging from soft crowd control experiments to Google Maps finding better routes between fixed points to a possible secret human terrain mapping project (little bit of WTF with this theory) to just making a really cool alternate reality game.
A far more present and dangerous surveillance threat is from other players. It is incredibly easy to get to know the movements and daily schedules of the players near you, both friend and foe. If you have the ability to write scripts and bots to scrape the map/app of all player movement with time stamps it becomes even easier. If you happen to be femme-presenting while interacting with a mostly-male gaming community this can get really awful really quickly, because privileged cisgender men tend to think being really fucking creepy all the time is acceptable behavior. If you happen to have intersections of oppression, like being brown or a sex worker or queer or transgender, and also female- or femme-presenting it gets even more creepy because white men (and especially white men who are close to you) are statistically far more likely than other categories of people to commit violence against you. I have heard several first-person accounts of female Ingress players being stalked or followed by male players, including one in which the male Ingress player’s on-duty cop friend threatened to run her car’s license plates so the male player could find her exact address. In gaming communities with more diverse gender balances this sort of abuse seems to happen less often, probably because players on both teams speak out about it, but it is still a persistent threat in my opinion.
Using games for uses that are not just games is not new, and many, many people have done really interesting things in that field. Some people find great joy in using systems and tools for new and unintended purposes, and for some of us it is also a teaching tool or a survival tactic. Ingress is a great example of all aspects of that urge. I encourage people to learn unusual and useful skills in any way they can, and games can be a great gateway drug for street tactics, tech skills, storytelling, performing, social skills, and affinity group building as well as a way to explore tactics and theories you are simply test-driving.
And don’t worry, it’s just a game, right?