Getting out of the house and meeting new people is hard. For a long time, I let inertia limit me to the same neighbourhood and daily routine -- until I started playing a mobile, augmented-reality game from Google called Ingress. In just a few months, I've explored places I'd never seen before, met heaps of new and interesting people, and walked hundreds of cumulative miles -- all because of a simple video game on my phone.
What Is Ingress?
Ingress is a story-driven, real-world augmented reality game -- which is short for "you install a game on your phone, and the game takes place in the real world so you have to get out of the house to play." The video above gives you a quick primer to the story of the game, complete with the whole "you're a secret agent" vibe it has. Here's the breakdown:
This world around you is not what it seems. Our future is at stake, and you must choose a side.
A mysterious energy has been unearthed by a team of scientists in Europe. 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.
"The Enlightened" seek to embrace the power that this energy may bestow upon us.
"The Resistance" struggle to defend, and protect what's left of our humanity.
I'm simplifying (a lot) here, but in the game, most of the action takes place at "portals", or places of human creativity that draw people together. That's why you'll usually find them at museums, sculptures, historic landmarks, parks and public spaces, and other places of interest. The story and in-game lore is a lot of fun, but you don't have to love it to play. If you are though, it spans several books and comics, and it has heaps of video background.
Ingress is GPS-based, which means that in order for you to play, you have to move around in the real world. As you approach portals, you can "hack" them for equipment, capture or reinforce them for your team, liberate them from the opposing team, and link them together to form "mind control fields". Doing these things earns points for your faction, and like any good RPG, earns you the points and achievements required to level up and access better, more powerful equipment.
I should mention here that Ingress is by no means new. In this article at Vice, Niantic noted that there are over seven million players around the globe. Our own Eric Ravenscraft wrote a review of the game at Android Police a few years ago. Lifehacker alum Kevin Purdy loves the game, and wrote a great getting started guide here. While it was invite-only for a long time, in the past year Ingress opened its doors to all players, expanded from Android-only to Android and iPhone, and has grown its userbase significantly. Niantic has even teased a follow-up game. There're a lot to the game and its learning curve can be a little steep, but if you stick with it, there are a lot of real-world benefits.
Play Hard and Discover New Places: Let The Game Be Your Guide
Ingress encourages you to get out and explore your community. In order to play, you have to be physically present at portal locations in the real world. In the beginning, you'll level quickly and earn badges and achievements, and it's really satisfying to see the results of your work. Plus, in the game, you have a limited range of action. That "action circle" is relatively small -- only a few metres, and any portal you want to interact with needs to be inside it. You can't just sit at home on your phone (unless you're like me, and have a few portals in range of your couch -- but that's boring!)
The game also rewards exploration, so you have an incentive to try new restaurants, visit museums, or just go for a walk. You get in-game badges by hacking or capturing portals you've never visited before. There are also "missions" (which get you special badges for each mission you complete) that involve interacting with multiple portals in a given place. For example, if you go to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, you'll find a number of missions you can complete while enjoying the exhibits (and in some cases, it will even direct you to ones you may have overlooked). Some missions are easy to do, while others require some real strategy before you start them. Some of my most entertaining afternoons around town started with "hey, let's go find some missions to do today", and ended up at the Washington Monument, for example.
Plus, because many portals are in parks, museums and other public spaces, you have an incentive to enjoy your time there while you're playing. There's definitely an "experience the world... while poking at your phone" aspect here, but as long as you remember to look up from the game now and again, you'll have a blast. The exercise is good too, especially if you're normally sedentary. We've discussed how beneficial walking can be, especially for creativity and mental health, and Ingress is a great way to work some light walking into your day while simultaneously doing something fun, and exploring new and interesting places in your neighbourhood or city.
Make New, Real Friends: Join Your Faction's Community and Get Involved
When you start playing, you might feel like a single person looking at your phone, but you're on the verge of a huge community of players. When you sign up, you may even get messages from players offering to help you level. As soon as I started playing, a friendly player reached out with an intro to the local community. I even got messages from a nearby enemy player encouraging me to switch teams and join his side.
I can't tell you how many times I've been out ingressing and stumbled into someone else playing the game too -- either accidentally because I saw it on their smartphone (or they saw mine!), or because someone was in the area and we decided to say hello to one another. I've stumbled into enemy players fighting over the same portals I am. We call a temporary ceasefire, say hello and introduce ourselves, maybe share a beer, and then resume hostilities.
If you're a little put off by any that, I should also mention this mostly happens in text, and everyone I've interacted with has been great about giving you as much space as you need. After all, the Ingress community is pretty large, but I like to refer to it as the biggest collection of extroverted introverts I've ever seen. Everyone plays at their own pace, and while some people are aggressive, others are laid back and casual -- and that combination makes the game great for all types.
For more, check out the Ingress Google+ page. It has over 3 million followers and the Ingress Google+ community has close to 200,000. But the really close communities are the location-specific ones. For example, my local "Enlightened" and "Resistance" players have their own Google+ communities, where they help one another level, talk strategy, share screenshots and accomplishments, plan events and cheer each other on.
Take It to the Next Level: Participate in (Sometimes Global, Sometimes Local) Live Events
When you're ready to take things to a new level, you can participate in an Ingress live event. Live events draw in hundreds -- if not thousands -- of your fellow players from all over the globe to play together. Sometimes they're massive, coordinated, strategic events that can affect the story of the game, and sometimes they're fun, local, cross-faction events.
Ingress "First Saturdays", for example, happen every month (on, as the name implies, the first Saturday) that are part social and part competitive events. Similarly, #NL1331 meetups (#NL1331 is the name of the mobile Ingress van, which you can see at those events and in the photo above) happen at a restaurant or bar, are open to players of all levels, and only last for a few hours. They're a great way to meet people, get a badge or two, and just have a good time.
XM Anomalies, on the other hand, are major, global events that influence the lore and course of the game. They only happen every quarter or so, but they involve thousands of players. Part of the inspiration for this post was the Persepolis XM Anomaly here in Washington DC, just one of a series of coordinated global events on the same day. It was my first major live event, and I met dozens of people, made new friends, and seriously can't wait for the next one. These events are massive campaigns, complete with operations centres, dispatchers, and boots on the ground doing the dirty work of capturing portals and defending them from enemy players. You have the option of getting as deeply involved as you want during events like these, so you can be as active or as passive as you prefer, it's up to you.
Whatever you choose to try, you'll meet people from all over and all walks of life, visit places you've never been (especially if you travel to one of the event locations -- I was lucky enough that my first major one was in my own city!) and get involved in the game on a level you hadn't before. Before this event, I would have never thought to participate in anything this massive, but suddenly there I was, planning, fighting on the ground, and helping keep my teammates hydrated and fed in the field. Best of all, as the day progressed, I met people I shared other interests with too, and we traded contact information so we could hang out.
Remember, Ingress Is Just a Game
Even though Ingress has real-world components to it, you have to remember that it's still a game. That means it comes with all the things that multiplayer games have. There are super-aggressive players who take the game way too seriously, trolls who make your life difficult or insult you, creepy people and other bad actors. Some players will hunt your specific portals, and others (the worst, in my opinion) maintain databases just to make it easy to hunt other players. There are plenty of jerks, but they're an extreme minority. You have to keep a certain separation from the game.
The game encourages that separation too. You can only influence your immediate vicinity, and while you can recharge and defend far-away portals from attack, you have to be ready for enemy players to undo your work -- sometimes moments after you finish. You can even get into slap-fight duels with enemy players. It can be tough, but it's all ephemeral. You have to let it go and develop a kind of Zen mindset towards it all.
This was extremely hard for me at first. I used to get really frustrated, and I got close to quitting the game several times. Getting involved with your local community can help (especially to give you a place to air grievances and plan your next attacks!), but I've coined a saying that my local friends like to repeat: "Trash talk doesn't get you AP." Stick to the positive aspects of the game, ignore the bad actors, and have fun. Remember to use Ingress to get out and get exercise, but look up at the places you see. Use it to get together with people, but talk to those people when you do.
I've met people for whom Ingress is their primary source of interaction with others. I've met people who are disabled and use the game to find a community they can get involved with, and people who are socially anxious and prefer to talk through text long before meeting people in person. I've met people who have lost weight thanks to all of the walking they do while playing Ingress. I've met people who used to never get out of the house (much like me) until they started playing. When I say it takes all kinds, I mean it, and I've found a welcoming, extremely diverse community that I don't feel strange or alone being a part of. If you stick with it, I bet you will too.