Ingress, for those unaware, is an augmented reality game from Google’s Niantic Labs that started in beta for Android users only. If it weren’t for Ingress I likely would not have met my Managing Editor Justin Jelinek. For that matter I wouldn’t have met many great people online and in person. But there’s a dark side to Ingress that some talk about, others don’t and some just choose to ignore. How safe are you playing Google’s data mining game?
Niantic Labs, a Google startup project, launched Ingress in closed beta back in November 2012. I happened to get into the closed beta in the earliest days back when there were very few portals and capturing and destroying portals was less complicated (agent name Mortem one of the first L8’s in Chicago). The game (played on mobile devices) is based around augmented reality “battling” opposing teams for portals, which are either places of historic significance, pieces of art or simply local places of interest. For more in depth information check out the Ingress Wikipedia page.
While Google made a game for enjoyment for the users they also asked players to submit new portals to bolster their Google Maps and Google Search results. Players could take a picture of the landmark, art or local place of interest and upload that along with their GPS coordinates to Google’s servers. Niantic would approve or deny the request but Google still had the information they needed to improve their Maps and Search. Most players are OK with this aspect of the game and gleefully submit as many portals as possible. But the fact remains that Google’s primary intent for Ingress is data cultivation to improve its services.
While Google’s main intent for the game has always been data, Niantic has a genuine intent for social interaction between players. They often hold “anomaly” events where members of both factions are invited to battle and earn bragging rights for their respective sides. It’s also a great time to interact and get to know fellow players from both sides and these events are often successful and well managed. As a matter of fact, many Ingress players I know enjoy the social part of the game as much as or even more than the gameplay itself.
While I haven’t been active in many months I have watched the Ingress community grow and heard first hand stories of events and interactions. People seem to enjoy the events put on by Niantic and enjoy meeting the creators and managers of the game. And while there’s much enjoyment and good coming from Ingress there’s also the darker side of the coin which has been there since the start but seems to have intensified since then. A darkside that some won’t talk about, including Google and Niantic.
The Dark Side
Back in the beta days it wasn’t uncommon that you ran into an opposing player, sometimes you spoke and sometimes you avoided each other. Because the game is real time you know what is happening the instant it happens and if your portal is being attacked you know someone is close by. In the heat of competition you sometimes do things that aren’t advisable or just down right rude. Crap talking into the games built in chat box is one thing that happened early on. That progressed into threats made in the chat box. Further still some players would follow the opposing player destroying the work they just did, all for competition’s sake and for fun. It is a game after all.
Before we continue it is important that note that Niantic and Google do have guidelines for player conduct and gameplay. You can find those guidelines in the Ingress Community Help Page.
While the actions taken by some players was questionable, most of it was tolerated as just aggressive gameplay and part of the game. But since those days it seems people’s actions have escalated to the point of stalking, recording license plate numbers and following people even out of town. While many still remain silent about their experiences one man, Bob “Bosco” Johnson has gone public with his and reached out to me to tell his story.
I was taking a slight detour into Fowler IN to attempt some takedowns of P8s. I never made it past the first portal. I did find out that as “awesome” as Verizon’s service may be, it is dismal in this town. I arrived at the first portal, Fowler Southern Baptist Church. It was my prime target since it had many fields and links off it connecting well outside of Fowler itself. Take some decent fields down and gain a nice chunk of AP. My attempt was a failure that is for sure. My stubbornness managed to help me go through more bursters than I should have wasted for what it is worth but that is my weakness. I would rather go down fighting than to run away.
This is also when I was able to “meet” the Fowler locals. Within a couple minutes of firing on the portal I had 2 vehicles approaching fast on the church. The church itself has 2 entrances/exits. Each vehicle pulled into a separate entrance and sat in their trucks blocking those entrances. At the time, no big deal. I had no plans of leaving soon. They were rapidly deploying shields as I was blowing them off. Not much later 3 more vehicles join in on the action. Now I had one behind me blocking that entrance. Three other vehicles lined up side by side across my front end. The remaining vehicle just seem to randomly circle around or stop and chat with his buddies and such. All during this late night event leaving their headlights on pretty much blinding me from seeing much outside my car. This persisted until I got pissed enough to state in comm to back off and give me space or I will be contacting the police. That is when they first said anything at all in comm. In fairness, the first statement was offering me snacks but in all seriousness, would you consider getting out of your car under those conditions for snacks?
I gave up on the battling after some time. At one point I believe I had it within one more burster before the fields would have dropped but was out of XM. By the time I used cubes and got back to firing it had been redeployed, re-shielded, and fully charged. I sat for awhile after this point. I was in constant communication with my home area players and they were messaging me the number for local police if necessary. I also had a player that lived in that area find out I was in the area and spoke with him for a bit as well. He was good enough to get me into their local hangout and was provided the low down on these local RES Fowler people.
I ended up deciding to call it a night and left the church headng back out to Rt 18 then taking Rt 52 North out of town. Shortly after leaving town I noticed headlights of a truck coming up behind me but suspiciously staying behind me. I decided to do the pulling over manuever slowing down and he FINALLY pulled ahead of me and acted like he was turning left at the next country road turn (this is a divided highway so typical u turns are not possible). I started moving ahead again and noticed he was sitting in the middle for longer than normal but once I got past him he quickly pulls a u turn in the opposite lanes to then get back on my side following me AGAIN. This is when I had enough of this and pulled over for good this time and dialing up the police. I noticed him in my rear view pull across the country road exchange I had just passed and then disappeared from view. The police showed up a few minutes later and I explained the situation even that it was all over this whole game thing. At the end he offered to give me an escort a few miles up to the next county and even said he could contact them to provide an escort even further. I ended up refusing the need for the escort and continued on my way. The officer did provide me with his card and said to contact if I had any more information on the vehicle. The best I knew was that it was grey or silver but not much else I could definitively add.
You can read Bosco’s entire account on his Google+ page.
How Safe Are You?
According to Bosco and others, Niantic’s response to their complaints has always been just to contact your local police. While this is sound advice and advice that Bosco has used, the case above is proof that it seems some players are undeterred by this. While it seems most of the Ingress community are good and decent players there are now small factions within the factions who choose to keep to themselves and conduct themselves under their own rules.
So how safe are you? Especially playing in an area with a rogue faction who does not answer to any other faction leadership but themselves? Should Niantic and Google start banning players when proof such as Bosco’s shows their guilt? Should players go beyond just calling police and pressing charges? We’re not quite sure what the answer is but it’s evident that some players are becoming more aggressive and it puts everyone’s safety in jeopardy.
We contacted Niantic’s leadership several weeks ago for comment to this story but have received no response. While we agree that the community is mostly made up of good decent people it is clear that the dark side is there but unclear on how they should be dealt with.
What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below or on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.
Disclaimer: I would like to clarify, for those who might get the wrong impression, this story has NOTHING to do with factions….it is not intended to paint either faction in a bad light….Resistance or Enlightened.
Both sides have a dark side to them, this just happens to be an account from an Enlightened player, feel free to reach out with your own stories if you have them, doesn’t matter what side you’re on.
If you read this story and immediately go into defense mode because of factions….then you’ve missed the whole point.
This is about a small group of rogue agents who could very well threaten the safety of others, it’s really no joke and should be taken seriously.