Ingress, the wonder and disappointment of virtual war

How can I inspire the people who live around me to explore, improve and celebrate their local area? This has been the question driving two years of, what I call ‘Space Exploration’. Well, I certainly could get people exploring by encouraging them to play ‘Ingress‘. Ingress is a game, played on mobile phones and tablets with GPS, that requires players to leave the comfort of their homes and travel around the actual, real world outdoors. You might start a game sitting on the sofa, but there is very little you can achieve without getting up and walking fifty meters down the road. If you want to make any progress in the game, you need to travel considerable distances to collect resources that are only available at public landmarks such as play parks, churches and sculptures. I played the game for the first time yesterday and visited two churches that were completely new to me, as well as two play parks that I already knew about. I played while cycling to and from an appointment, but the game gave me reasons to take turnings, to ride up roads, that I wouldn’t normally use. It took me to places close-by, but previously unseen.

I became very excited, imagining all the new Space Explorers that this game would inspire. Young people leaving their habitual hang-outs and hiking around their neighbourhood and beyond. Using the very screens that inform their understanding of the wider world, to lead their investigation of the real, physical world of their immediate surroundings. A growing community of over seven million players are becoming better connected to and informed about their world.

Unfortunately, the game’s content is less inspiring. With all the world as a canvas, the game’s developers have come up with a global turf war between two rival factions. Players choose their side in the conflict and then travel miles, building up defences and breaking down their enemies defences, claiming areas of local population for their side. It is tragic that with such an innovative game concept, the game’s story is as old as the phenomena it embodies; personal greed expressed through tribal conflict. Tragic, but perhaps unsurprising. Space Invaders is arguably the world’s most famous video game, but 18 years before Space Invaders was Spacewar, one of the first video games ever made. ‘Kill the other guy before he kills you’ has been the overwhelming obsession of computer games from day one, perhaps because it is so simple. Survival is our basic motivation, and the everyday survival issues of food and shelter do not give the adrenaline rush of ‘shoot that dot before it’s too late’.

But the reason that we have short, exciting video games comes from their history in arcades, where a good game was one that kept players pushing in coins at short intervals . Now that games are mainly played on devices owned by the player, there is no need for them to kill us off quickly so that we go back for another try, seeing if we can get a bit further. Ingress itself is an ‘always-on’ game; no beginning, no end, no turn-taking. Millions of players, all in the same world, all playing in their own time. But still stuck in the old story of conflict.

So here is a game concept that I believe has incredible potential, which is as yet unfulfilled. How would I improve it? Would I send players to churches to meet people? To help out with flower arranging? Would I have them visit play parks, to exercise or litter pick? Could I send them to deliver groceries to the housebound, to take part in community activities? To appreciate public art? To create public art? How could the game reward players for making an effort to make their world a better place? Or to come to a consensus of what a better place would look like? I think that what I’m asking here is this:

Could a game replace our inefficient, skewed, top-down attempts to organise our world, with a real, people powered digital democracy where all are rewarded for the good they do, and all have a say in what ‘good’ is.

If it could then I, for one, would be happy to pay 69 pence to download it.

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