Niantic Labs, Ingress, Pokémon Go, and What Are All These People Doing on My Lawn?

Or: How location based gaming can make the world a better place. 

About three years ago, I found a postcard in the Davis Square T stop that said “Join the Resistance.” Well of course I’m going to take that card. It was the beginning stages of Ingress, a location-based game created by Google’s Niantic Labs, where players collected points and portals for their team by going to different locations and claiming them for their team. 

At that time it could only be played on Androids and I have an iPhone- but my husband was on the task and while I was away for the weekend, he was out capturing portals and eating pizza with complete strangers in our neighborhood. I can’t express how unusual this is. 

A few weeks later, my father-in-law was hooked. A retired hotel exec, within weeks he was driving around Beverly MA at 3AM with “Bubbles Manifest” a 21 year old man who was albino and couldn’t hunt portals during the day. My father in law would drive while Bubbles hacked portals. It was a happy alliance and I think it’s pretty clear that it may not have happened in the regular non-Ingressing life of either Bubbles or my father in law. 

He continued to develop a virtual community with Resistance team members all across New England, visiting towns he’d never gone to and discovering hidden gems in plain sight. Together he and the Resistance planned – and still plan- strategic hacks.

Fast forward to Pokémon. Currently I have two dozen people standing in the park outside my window. They’ve been there every night this week until about 2AM- even in the rain. Pokémon Go has even a greater reach that Ingress did and it’s currently doing something that not many things do right now: it can put you in the pathway of people who are very different from you. Or maybe just people you don’t regularly meet.

These days my community has gotten so homogenized that I’m shocked when I hear pop music and I realize that people listen to it- or realize that people still watch baseball. And when I tell people about Escape Rooms and VR/AR and they’ve never heard about it, I wonder what rock they’ve been living under. Technology has facilitated my ability to exist in a strong circle of people who are just like me. But below you’ll see a bunch of posts from people who are making friends who aren’t just like them, thanks to a silly game.

This is an idea I was exploring with another game a while back, which I called “100 things in common”, inspired by a community-building game called Macon Money. Maybe it’s not the BIG ties that bind us “we’re both American!” big deal. Maybe it’s the small ties: we both like Depeche Mode. We both like to swing dance. We’re both searching for squirtles. Maybe something- like a game- could put me in different pathways and give me something different, something nonpolitical and non upsetting and completely innocent to have in common with new people. 

So in this time of things that seem to be pulling further and further and further apart in ways that feel so inexplicable, I humbly offer you the “pointless”, “childlike” and extremely important Pokémon Go. In strange times like these, maybe it’s worth playing with the little things that connect us. So don’t scoff, get the app and go make a new friend. (And join team blue. Obviously)


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