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Waging virtual war with real NZ landmarks

DEREK ROSE AND KATIE HUMPHREY
Last updated 13:27 15/05/2014
Ingress.com/Intel
Links cover the Auckland area in advance of Saturday's anomaly.

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There’s a battle raging in the streets around you.

Two passionate factions are fighting for control of the planet — and the Newtown Playground slide.

In a contest that mixes geocaching with a high-tech version of capture the flag, ‘‘agents’’ armed with Android smartphones are locked in a 24/7 struggle to dominate some of our most cherished landmarks: ‘‘Kakapo Kids,’’ the Red Rocks, memorial benches everywhere.

It’s a mission so compelling that hundreds of people across New Zealand — many of them IT workers — give up their lunch hours, evenings and weekends in an attempt to take over the virtual landscape of the augmented-reality game Ingress.

Like many video games, Ingress is wildly popular, with more than 2 million agents in 132 countries. It has a complicated, continuously evolving back story and a language all its own.

But hiding behind the keyboard isn’t an option. This game demands that its players get up, get out and explore.

Claim a portal for the Enlightened team, turn it green on the smartphone screen. Or join the Resistance team, and make landmarks glow blue online. But above all, be social and have fun.

That's what 28-year-old Alana Duckett was doing this morning as she took part in a circuitous road trip to Auckland, where a four-hour "anomaly" is set to strike on Saturday. Around 150 players from across the country will be battling for control of various "portals" scattered throughout Auckland, as well as in Melbourne and Brisbane in Australia and two cities in the Midwestern United States.

Duckett was picked up in Palmerston North last night by a van that left Wellington around 9pm and travelled through the night so the 11 Resistance players inside could collect virtual "keys" to real-life landmarks and link them together.

"It's pretty crazy, driving around a loop of the country, playing on a cellphone, but it's lots of fun," said Duckett, a Massey University employee. "Every person in the van, aside from my husband, I didn't know before I started playing."

AUCKLAND UNDER ASSAULT

The van was originally set to arrive in Auckland tonight after a 20-hour road trip through the North Island, said organiser Ryan Lea. But efforts by the rival Enlightened team forced a last-minute change of plans and rental of a second van that will divert to the Coramandel.

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Enlightened agents based at a landmark there - the Mahamudra Centre for Universal Unity, a Buddhist retreat - have been throwing up links that have enveloped much of Auckland in green on the game's virtual map.

Both factions have been working throughout the night, jockeying for position in advance of Saturday's anomaly.

LURING GAMERS OUTSIDE

The green-vs.-blue battle is Ingress at its most basic.

When Niantic Labs, a start-up within Google, launched the free game in 2012, it came with an elaborate science fiction back story. The tale is still unfolding through weekly YouTube videos contemplating a substance called ‘‘exotic matter’’ that spills out of the portals and an alien force known as ‘‘Shapers.’’ Play on the ground affects how the plot unfolds, with the Enlightened helping the Shapers and the Resistance, well, resisting.

But the overall goal is more ambitious than a game: Use technology to lure people out to explore the world around them. Players have to be near portals to attack them and collect keys to link far-flung landmarks together.

‘‘So much tech pulls you into these online networks, and games in particular really suck you into an alternative reality,’’ said John Hanke, a Google vice president and founder of Niantic. ‘‘Ingress is a reason for people to get together.’’

Operations can be local, with one person claiming and linking portals in his or her neighbourhood, or global, with elaborate plans drawn up by international players chatting within the game and through Google Hangouts.

Hanke said the social aspect of Ingress ‘‘has been shocking, frankly.’’

‘‘We thought folks would play with people they already knew,’’ he said.

‘VERY MEANINGFUL’

Stacy Blasiola, a Resistance player and a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been researching the social dynamics of Ingress.

‘‘It’s very common to run into other players that play the game or get pulled into these online communities where you’re making plans for events in the game,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s very meaningful for a lot of people. You can see why, because of the relationships that are formed and the global nature of the game.’’

In Wellington, members of the Enlightened and Resistance factions chat online constantly. They work stops at landmarks into their daily routines, roam during lunch hours — Telecom building is a hot spot — and arrange outings to other parts of town with lots of portals, like the Katherine Mansfield Gardens. 

Players jockey for control of street murals and transformer boxes while waiting for red lights and plan long-distance runs to the Hawkins Hill radar dome to claim it for their faction.

Christophe Baudet, 37, an IT worker from Newlands, Wellington, has been been playing the game as "Mishkin" since January 2013 and is a rare level 12 player. At first he enjoyed just the "augmented reality part of it" and that "there was nothing like it before". But he's also enjoyed the comraderie creating a community among the Wellington Resistance.

In September he spearheaded an operation involving 15 agents that linked various landmarks in Wellington together, enveloping the city in a virtual field that spanned from Porirua to Island Bay and scored massive points for his side.

Encouraging exploration? Goal achieved.

- Stuff / MCT

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