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The Wilderness Is a Really Weird Place to Play 'Ingress'

But that's not stopping me.
March 29, 2015, 11:00am
​Image: Norm Clark/Flickr

I first heard about ​Ingress through a friend, an early-adopter and extreme geo-nerd. This would have been last fall sometime. I signed up because, hey, it's the future and I'll sign up for anything (that's what the future is: signing up for things). The game was immediately disappointing, however, given the fact that I live in the woods. There wasn't a portal around me to hack and my trips to town are made only once every few days or so, depending on how badly I need seltzer. But Ingress isn't a game for casual or intermittent players; being able to properly interact with the game requires steady advancement and advancement requires frequent play.

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To step back a moment, Ingress is Google's now-smash of a free game centered around something like casual LARPing on an augmented reality gameboard. There are two teams and they span the entire globe: the Enlightened (green) and the Resistance (blue). The factions are warring over a substance known as "exotic matter" (XM), which is a mysterious energy-substance that's leaking into our world and can be tapped via portals, which are locations where XM can be harvested and are controlled by one of the two factions. There are various game mechanics for capturing and holding portals.

Google establishes the portals based on player requests, and they're meant to be collocated with things like historical markers, landmarks, public art, monuments, and so forth. (The game app takes the role of an XM scanner, revealing portals and other game features.) Necessarily, this would seem to mostly exclude my isolated little realm in southwest Washington state (the aforementioned friend lives in Maryland), and, several months ago, the local Ingress map reflected that. No XM to be found.

That map changed suddenly, over the course of a couple of weeks. Last month, another friend had gotten hooked so I thought I'd take another look. The updated map wasn't congested by any means, but portals had sprung up at the entrance to a nearby campground, a trailhead parking lot, and a roadside marker. One was even within walking distance. So, I stuck my toe in, hacking my local portals and even establishing a link (one of the most satisfying game mechanics).

The portal growth since then has been near exponential. More trailhead parking lots, a Lewis and Clark historical marker, the coffee drive-thru, an RV park. The game was getting to be pretty fun, particularly as Ingress seems to favor rural users who can control less-frequented portals more easily (at lower levels, with less points). Soon, I'd turned my mountain neighborhood into an impressive subnetwork of linked portals.

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A week ago, I was running on Dog Mountain, one of the more popular area hiking destinations for Portland daytrippers. It was a fairly gross weather day, with drizzle at the bottom and sideways rain and fog at the top (as is often the case). We'd ducked off the ridgeline to get out of the wind and process some Instagrams and in procrastinating a return to the storm, I tapped open Ingress. There it was, right above us: a portal.

Image: courtesy of the author

It wasn't just any portal, but a reasonably heavily used portal (erm, hard to explain). It was a bit higher on the mountain than I'd planned on going, but we stomped a few more yards up through the screaming wind and hacked like gods, even deploying a pair of "mods" (even more hard to explain). The points came rolling in.

Dog Mountain is heavily trafficked, in fairness. But, on Thursday, I found myself in less travelled territory across the Columbia River from me, in Oregon. The place is Nick Eaton Ridge, which is far from ignored, but not quite the superhighway of outdoor recreation of Dog Mountain. And yet, there were two portals waiting for me, both fairly used and neither in remarkable locations: trail junctions. Dirt and a sign.

One of the portals was a big score, enabling me to create a cross-river, interstate link to my more local portals. It was like 1,500 points in one move.

Among wildlands administrators and rescue orgs there's a continuing anxiety about the rapid expansion of GPS capabilities enabled by smart-phones. This mostly has to do with hikers and campers getting in over their heads in the backcountry, where maps, even with the most up-to-date databases, are often inconsistent and-or incomplete. What on a map looks like a chill shortcut just up and over that ridge may in real life be a torturous slog through a maze of deadfall, too tempting animal trails, and unmarked hazards. Maps make things look easy and the backcountry is never really easy.

(It's a story for another time, but even as someone that thinks they know what they're doing, I've managed to fuck myself in the most classic sense of the above GPS delusion. There is no reason to be shortcutting through southern Utah's highly untraveled Blue Mountains days after a snowstorm, at least without a snowmobile. Did I mention I have a college degree in recreation management?)

So, it's peculiar being up somewhere like Nick Eaton Ridge, at the threshold of one of Oregon's more crucial wilderness areas, and playing an augmented reality video game. It's not that it's a bit dirty or not in the spirit of the landscape (or not entirely), but it's perhaps the most true and harsh example of augmented reality as a concept of interweaving digital realities in with "real" reality. In a city, an Ingress portal is a portal to a gameboard, but, out there, it's a portal to technology itself.

That doesn't make it bad and I'm pretty happy to be able to play Ingress finally, though it is, indeed, really weird. It's also poised to be one of the more interesting organic developments of the game. (Ingress is interesting in part because much of its gameplay is emergent rather than prescribed explicitly by the game). This new realm would be the "hard to get to" class of portals, a feature that would make the game nod even more to geocaching than it already does. It seems inevitable.

The Ingress tagline is "The world around you is not what it seems." It turns out that in some places this is more true than others.