As I entered the pavilion of Ault Park in Cincinnati, I wasn't sure what to expect. Google decided to use this venue to kick off an organized round of Ingress, an augmented reality game with a seriously devoted following. Wandering the crowd of several hundred, I asked around—trying to figure out where they came from, what they did, what made this game their thing to do.
Surprisingly, even though the majority of players came from a hundred-mile radius to descend upon the Queen City, quite a few traveled long distances. A pair ventured from Quebec City, a man in a bicycling outfit was on business from Moscow, an Ingress fansite owner and organizer from Montreal drove thirteen hours just to play for an afternoon. That’s dedication.
Turning to the development-representatives-on-hand, with their Mercedes Sprinter done up with an Ingress and Google livery, the topic turned to the concept: it felt a little like Geocaching and Tower Defense. “We see it more like Foursquare, and World of Warcraft,” responded Bill Kilday of Google, before getting breezed away by another responsibility. And so, my afternoon was set—I saw a team, and embedded with them.
Team Nine, to be exact. A group of young and old from Cincinnati, with two coming from the Notre Dame area. Their team leader was an anxious man, terse with this words and quick to action. He wore a camelback, carried a binder, and covered his gaze with sunglasses. This was the man who had all the plans, all the strategy, all the attention of the group.
So for an hour at a time, the teams stood in public areas battling it out on a virtual map on their cell phones and cell-phone-enabled tablets. Groups of similarly colored shirts hung around stoops, around restaurant entrances, in parking lots—just to get the upper hand in an imaginary battle unfolding on their cell phone screens.
Naturally, this drew some odd looks from locals and visitors alike. “What are those people doing?” whispered a wife of a passing Phillies fan as they walked to Great American Ballpark. “What’s so important on your phone?” inquired a street vendor who was getting hot at the fact people crossed the street to avoid players—which cut into his day’s business. As the day moved up and out of the Central Business District into moving-towards-gentrification neighborhood Over-The-Rhine, the looks and derision trailed off.
Then again, it was also at this point that one of the team broke off. In what is known to be not the safest area of Cincinnati, one of the team lagged behind to keep fighting a battle that wasn't there. Team 9’s team leader started throwing out expletives, curses, wiping his brow from the sun beating down. Organization started to break down. He lamented the sleepless nights setting up for this game, the stress it put on his relationship, the fact this was his first and last ever game of Ingress. Another team member went to retrieve the first.
Delayed by nearly half the game-time allowed in the last area, Team 9 recouped and tried to push forward. Batteries were dying due to the aging cellular infrastructure of Cincinnati. Even though team members had extra battery packs, they’d been sucked dry for quite a while. But this was the last area, where every team met up. It had to work.
And work it did, because one gaunt man with a 16,000 mAh external battery and five open USB ports showed up on the scene. As other players tapped into the weighty power source, he started talking about his past experiences—about a time he walked past a SWAT raid in Cleveland and went into a cemetery to play the game. How he found other players there, at the same cemetery, doing the same thing.
And it was then that the World of Warcraft connection was very real. The sacrifice, the self-loathing, the gameplay perpendicular to social norms, the sheer passion for the game. They were all here. I knew that the leader’s first and last claim was a lie as soon as the game was over, because everything was worth it for him for the final moments of the afternoon winding down in a local brewery. Even if everything else failed for the day, there were five hundred people in one room that felt the same exact way. It was something bigger than individual grievances: it was community.