Future Tense

Play On

This video game inspires people to go outside, and hike, and bike …

Gamers in Ishinomaki, Japan.
Gamers in Ishinomaki, Japan, on May 12, 2014.

Courtesy of Niantic Labs

For almost as long as video games have existed, they’ve been criticized for keeping kids indoors, sedentary, eyes glued to screens. The Nintendo Power Pad or Dance Dance Revolution could be seen as responses to that criticism—DDR is even offered in a Classroom Edition, which the developer, Konami, says “has been recognized by leading researches [sic], schools and doctors as an innovative and fun solution to promoting a healthy lifestyle and fighting child obesity.” These games may get you moving, but ultimately, they still hold you in one room.

A few years ago, a new type of game emerged. It’s changed my life—and it’s about to reach a new generation of players.

Niantic Labs was a unit of Google founded by John Hanke, who joined the company when his startup, Keyhole Inc., was acquired. Keyhole was responsible for the application that became known as Google Earth, as well as other technologies that survive today as components of Google Maps.

Hanke had a vision of pulling a game off the screen entirely—getting people out touring their cities and the wider world. In keeping with that mission, he created Ingress, a game that has been downloaded to more than 11 million devices worldwide since its original beta release in November 2012, boasts more than 1 million active players on a typical day, and recently won the prestigious Game Designers Award at the Tokyo Game Show.

I’ve heard it described as a combination of geocaching, capture the flag, and Risk played for the actual surface of the Earth. The game presents something a bit like the Google Maps mobile interface but gives the world a fictional overlay, in which the Shapers, an alien race from another dimension, have opened “portals” into our world, through which they transmit Exotic Matter, a form of energetic particle that affects thought patterns. The portals were originally seeded using a Google Maps database of points of interest, and players have contributed new portals over time. There are “missions” (either designed by Niantic or selected from player submissions) that require you to visit various portals. Many of these are designed as tours. One favorite of mine is a tour of notable graves in the necropolis of Colma, California. Players are divided into two factions that battle to control portals and connect them into control fields. Members of the Enlightened believe the Shapers are beneficent and seek to spread their influence. Members of the Resistance believe humanity should be shielded from such influence.

Ishinomaki, Japan, on May 12, 2014.
Ishinomaki, Japan, on May 12, 2014.

Courtesy of Niantic Labs

You can ignore the plot and treat the game as a casual time-waster. However, as you level up, there are incentives to join in the team game. For a start, the best (virtual) items can only be acquired when at least eight different players all visit the same portal. Furthermore, if you want to claim wide swaths of territory at once, you have to learn to coordinate with dozens of players, helping one another out with what are affectionately known as BAFs, or “big augmented fields.” (What did you think the A stood for?) Here’s a more detailed explanation of basic gameplay.

As a player—an agent of the Resistance—I am acutely aware of how this addictively entertaining game has changed my habits. My iPhone scanner has displaced my PlayStation 4 and driven me to bike dozens of miles a week. Recently it sent me off to the wilderness around the Yosemite Valley, for a 12-mile hike with 2,500 feet of elevation gain, so I could hit a rarely visited, strategically valuable portal.* During my 16 years in California, I kept meaning to visit the nation’s oldest park but never made the time. I’m not sure whether it reflects badly on me or well on John Hanke’s vision, but Ingress got me to go see this. Others have written eloquently about how Ingress pushes people to explore their towns and get out and meet people.

This power to motivate exercise and exploration is about to be focused on children. On Sept. 10, just after being spun out of Google (or Alphabet), the newly independent Niantic Inc. joined with Nintendo and the Pokémon Co. in announcing a mobile game for Android and iPhone called Pokémon Go, which will combine Ingress’ location-based gaming mechanisms with the collecting, trading, training, and combat of the Pokémon card and video games. For those not familiar with the franchise, the concept is that players track down wild “pocket monsters,” capture and tame them, train and improve them, and then send them into arena battles, eventually earning the championship title of the Pokémon League.

The preview for Go appears to suggest that, instead of doing this in a virtual game world, players will find wild Pokémon roaming the landscape and compete against players they encounter. The video also suggests there could be large events in which all players close to a particular location are offered the chance to join a cooperative battle against one of the franchise’s most powerful creatures.

Considering the popularity of the Pokémon games, Go looks like it has the potential to become a massive hit. And this may be great news. When the kids were playing Angry Birds, they might beg Mom and Dad to buy them the in-game purchasable Mighty Eagle. With Pokémon Go, they’ll instead be begging to be driven to the park so they can run around catching and training pet monsters. One can imagine the game establishing destinations like National Parks as nesting grounds for particular rare types of monsters. Time to take the whole family to Yosemite!

But this new kind of game also raises some troubling issues. Parents struggle to track the content of kids’ games, and many continue to fear the possibilities of negative encounters with adult players of online games. Very few are prepared to deal with a game that may encourage tweens and teens to interact with other players out in the real world. By definition, a GPS-based game knows where you are, any time you’re playing. In Ingress, a lot of location traces are visible to other players. For instance when somebody attacks a portal I control, I’m alerted almost immediately, and if I’m nearby I might come mount a defense … and say hi to my opponent. (By and large, Ingress players are a friendly lot—we tease and troll one another a bit, but people very rarely take “portal kombat” so seriously as to actually get mad.) Furthermore, by following the stream of notifications published to the “Intel Map,” any mildly tech-savvy person could probably figure out where I live and work, as well as the timing of my commute.

While Go may be much more cautious about revealing players to each other, Niantic and Nintendo will have this data, and we don’t yet entirely understand how such information might be valued by marketers. Even if they lock down the data and never sell information about players’ locations to third parties, the game will still offer new avenues for marketing—suppose every franchise of some fast food company became a site where certain monsters could be hunted? Of course, if the designers wanted to, they could make privacy choices visible and encourage players to think about these issues, providing an educational tool that might raise awareness of how other apps, like social networking tools, collect similar data.

I emailed Niantic and Nintendo to ask whether they have started thinking about these issues. “We’re not quite ready to talk in more depth about Pokémon GO than what was revealed in the announcement press release and assets,” replied Niantic representative Evan Dexter. “Come mid-October we’ll be able to start going into more depth about our plans for the game, and about our plans for real world gaming overall.” Nintendo did not respond.

As an enthusiastic Ingress agent, I have high hopes that Pokémon Go will be a hit for Niantic and provide bookish, nerdy kids—the kind of kid I once was—a reason to get out and face the dreaded Daystar. Considering long-standing concerns over the health of sedentary kids, and the declining use of public spaces (municipal pools, skating rinks, bowling alleys, and so on), the prospect of a popular game that draws young people out seems promising. I just hope that both its designers, and the general population, are prepared to manage this new genre’s hazards. For good or ill, games are about to jump out of the screen and into the world.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Correction, Sept. 25, 2015: This piece misidentified the area where the author hiked for Ingress as part of Yosemite National Park. He was in an area slightly outside of Yosemite.