Last week, The Pokémon Co., Nintendo and Niantic Inc. jointly released the augmented reality game Pokémon Go.
Played via a smartphone app that pulls in a mapping function, this is a "real world" game that requires players to consult the Pokémon Go map of their neighborhood (or wherever location they are visiting), then capture Pokemon characters. By visiting certain sites, including historic landmarks, the play is enhanced; some activities become possible only at higher levels of achievement in the game.
Monday's Washington Post headline says it all: "Pokémon Go Craze Sweeps the Nation."
Suddenly, it seems that Pokémon Go players divided into three teams are everywhere, #PokemonGo is the cool new hashtag on Twitter, there's speculation about the game as a new tool in the toolbox fighting against childhood obesity. There's even a hope that "archaeoegaming" will benefit public science and history as more families discover cool sites around them.
But wait a minute!
Ever hear of Ingress?
Ingress is played by millions of people in more than 200 countries, divided into two teams set up around a storyline involving what's called XM or Exotic Matter. It's augmented reality, it's mapped and interactive (to achieve certain goals players have to work together), it features 16 levels of achievement with "portals" all over the world to visit up close (and capture from the opposing team).
This design overlap is no coincidence: Ingress, too, is a Niantic game. Niantic CEO John Hanke said this last month to The New York Times about Pokémon Go:
"There's a lot of Ingress in it — the idea of building it around certain locations, and those locations are what give you the things that you need to play the game and where the action takes place."
Some Ingress agents, as players are called, play the game in a sustained way and take it very seriously. Stephen Wood of Arlington, Va., a level 16 player, has (as of Sunday night) visited 9,068 unique portals and walked 7,465 km (4,638.5 miles) in the four years he has played Ingress on the Resistance team (the Enlightened is the second faction). Wood described for me in an email message why it's so much fun to play:
"For starters, it's such a well-designed game, the view of the Ingress map from your phone is both beautiful and elegant. The game receives constant tweaks, and improvements keeping game play fresh and compelling. Although the game can be played solo, it is enhanced by playing cooperatively; I've made some wonderful friends since I started playing. Besides being an incentive to get outside and walk — before the game I'd been far too sedentary — it's also a great way to get to learn about local history or, when traveling, to spot points of interest."
For years, Wood had invited me to play Ingress. I was pretty skeptical. I'm not a gamer at all, and I figured in my free time I'd rather get out in nature while disconnected from a screen, or stay in and read books.
But a few months ago, I started to think: "Why not?" As an experiment, I joined the Ingress Resistance team in February. My stats right now don't remotely compare with Stephen's: I'm only level 7, having visited 784 unique portals and walked 81 km.
It's been way more fun than I ever expected. I don't care much about the XM storyline but I'm delighted to be more aware of parks, public art and historic landmarks than I've been before. For example, Tyndall's Point Park in Gloucester County, Va., is a small area with trails and historical signs only 3 miles from my house — but I'd never noticed it much. Walking on the banks of the York River and reading about a 200-year sequence of forts on the very land where I was standing was a cool experience that I owe to Ingress. And I've done other similar things both close to home and away on travels.
Some aspects of Ingress give me pause — or worse. Early on, locations inside German concentration camps were turned into portals, a gross error that was quickly corrected. In 2013, the average Ingress player was a 30-year-old male who spoke English as a first language. More women, though, are playing the game all the time, and the internationalization of the game is quite intense. One of the regular Ingress "live events" is coming up this Saturday in Tokyo.
Another issue: My husband and I frequently visit Colonial National Historical Park, especially the Yorktown battlefields near our house. We enjoy observing the turtles, small mammals and birds in a series of ponds and streams. Now, though, I sometimes feel pulled toward gaming — the park is peppered with portals that glow blue (Resistance) or green (Enlightened) on the small screen!
I don't want to be that person who travels with family or friends to a beautiful park or vibrant city with my face planted in my phone, firing away at enemy portals. Granted, I did smile at the name of the Facebook group called "Wives of Ingress Players Praying Portals Die" — but I know that when gaming addiction happens, it's no laughing matter.
Pokémon Go isn't all roses either. As the Washington Post notes, incidents of robberies and injuries are being reported.
So, writing this piece is my way of sending out some words of novice-gaming wisdom to all the new, excited Pokémon Go players out there. Go out and explore, and don't let anyone tell you you're wasting your time. It's fun and there are real benefits.
Just don't succumb to the lure of the small screen so much that you miss the real world on its own terms.
Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve, and her forthcoming book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape