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Ingress - A Truly Virtual World

By Paul Nadin on October 06, 2015 | Columns | Comments

Ingress - A Truly Virtual World

Today, I’m going to talk about myself for a little bit. Do not panic, I’ll start talking about games really soon, and you’ll see that when I was talking about myself I was really talking about all of us and videogames.

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I moved to a different city last week. From the sarcastically industrial heart of my country to the chipper birthplace of the weekend at the beach. It’s been a bit of a culture shock, the people here walk upright, buoyed by the confidence of Southern superiority and lungfuls of sea air. Back home we prefer to shuffle around in the the grey half-light.

I had spent the vast majority of the previous 25 years in the city that we moved to before I can remember. Birmingham, West Midlands, UK has been the setting for the bulk of my life. Everywhere I go in that city has a memory attached. I can take you to the place I lost a small piece of my finger, or to where I was offered a job for the first time. I can take you to the exact spot I was standing when I saw my wife for the first time.

The relationships we have to places are just that, relationships. I’d never pretend Birmingham was the greatest place in the world (no true Brummie would), but I’ve grown accustomed to her face, and I love it despite knowing the worst thing about it.

Now, I’m in a new place and it suits me better. Brighton, East Sussex, UK is just a better fit all round. I look forward to building my relationship with this twin city, and maybe that’s the reason I downloaded Ingress.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Ingress is a mobile based cyberpunk MMORTS. Two factions are vying for control of various points around the map. The difference is, the map is the whole world. Not a representation of the world, a 1:1 overlay that uses GPS to track your location.

‘It's happening all around you. They aren't coming. They're already here.’ The official website ominously intones. It’s like you’re in The Matrix but you don’t need to know kung-fu or own a silly coat.

To play you have to move around, using your preferred method of transport, and get close enough to the points (known as portals) to interact with them. There’s no fast travel, yet, but it will be interesting to see how it affects the game if it’s ever implemented.

If you haven’t, I suggest you try it. Maybe when you’re waiting for a train, or if you’re going on a long walk. If you’re in a new place, it can make you forget that feeling of always being a little bit lost.

There’s a small clock tower just off the high street in Brighton, near the Pavilions. I don’t know what it is, what’s inside it. I’ve never done anything but walk past it before. But now, and forever, it’s the place I first came into contact with an enemy portal. It was confusing, and exciting. I felt like a massive nerd, but that only added to the sense of being part of something clandestine, being one of the few who could see behind the veil.

People walked by as if nothing was happening, it was a moment between me, that clock tower, and someone else in this city. Someone else cares about that clock tower.

Lots of them look pretty, some have interesting geography that’s fun to explore, but it’s hard to think of examples of areas in MMOs that make us feel connected to a space in the way we are to physical spaces. Is it reasonable to expect they would? Is it even possible?

Ingress has done it, Pokémon GO means that children (and adults, let’s be honest) will remember where they caught Pikachu. The experience, and the relationship it creates, are no longer bound to the screen. They’re out in the world, just as real as any other memory.

If you think I’m being unfair to games still shackled to the PC or living room console, you’re probably right, amazing things will continue to happen on established platforms. At the same time I don’t think there’s much value in being precious about the form that anything ‘has to’ come in to attain an arbitrary standard of legitimacy.

I’m very interested in the idea of what an MMO can be. I don’t think MMO should be just a name for a genre that means ‘a bit like WoW’, and treating it that way is a waste of our time.

I get the feeling we’re doing something, or getting very close to something, that our languages don’t really have words for. If we use objects in our real world as pieces in our virtual games, what are we doing? I think along with elements of augmented reality, we’re essentially playing structured pretend like D&D. We’re playing in a virtual space, connected by the internet, while moving in a physical space, connected by our physical presence.

If you’re like me and you remember a time before smartphones and Facebook, you remember what the world was like before all of this. To us these concepts of virtual spaces and physical presence may seem disconnected, but to someone born today? You couldn’t tell them the internet isn’t the same as real life.

We’re moving into a time when our relationships with our environments are becoming inextricably woven with both our physical and digital presence, and videogames are bigger than ever. I can’t wait to find out what this means, what it’ll be like living in this 4th dimension we built for ourselves.

I’ll always get misty eyed and nostalgic for the days that came before, it comes with the territory of being human. Maybe that’s what Birmingham will come to represent for me; the simpler times before we realized the best way to build a virtual world was to use the physical one as a foundation.