Gaming has come a long way since we first huddled around a television clicking a joystick to control a character in a virtual world. We are now mobile with our games playing them on phones and tablets and are interacting with virtual worlds through body movements and touch commands. However, although the face of gaming has changed, its soul remains the same; a disconnect between the real and virtual world.
But this can completely change with mobile phones, location based gaming and augmented reality. And Google is hoping that they will be the ones to do it.
Niantic Project and Ingress
Rather than having to visualize being in a virtual world as you have to do with massively multiplayer online role playing games (think of the world of Azeroth in World of Warcraft), imagine you are the character in the game and the landscape is the actual world around you. Although the world looks no different, the location based services on your smartphone allow you to “see” specific markers in this alternate reality which you interact with through your phone.
This is the idea of Ingress, a new location based game built by Google’s Niantic Labs. The premise is that the world has been taken over by an unknown alien power source. Along the lines of the body snatchers, this power source is changing humanity. The Enlightened feel this change is for the better and welcome this new power, while the Resistance is battling them in an attempt to retain their humanity. After picking a side, you walk around your neighbourhood following maps on your phone to locate portals. These portals are then hacked using your mobile to either hasten or delay the alien take over. Not only does this bring gaming closer to reality, it brings gaming into reality.
Details about the game itself are slowly emerging via a conspiracy corkboard style website, however, some aspects of the game remain shrouded in mystery as the project is still in beta testing and invite only.
What’s the big deal?
Alone, this isn’t anything new as games such as Shadow Cities and Life is Crime provide the same sort of location based gaming where you take the role of a wizard or gangster (respectively) to protect or your neighbourhoods.
But Google isn’t one to simply follow. Combine this game with Google Maps and Street View (which now includes interiors of certain locations) and you’ve got an awesome augmented world within which to interact. The next logical step is to add Project Glass when it’s fully functional. With all these pieces together, you’ve got a full blown real-world augmented reality game the likes of which have never been seen.
I may come across as excited and that’s because I am. I think this is the freshest foray into gaming over the last year that outdoes the Oculous Rift virtual reality goggles. But truly, I’m more excited by where Niantic Labs and Google will take this JJ Abrams Sci-Fi feel with all these pieces in hand.
There must a catch if the game is free
This game reminds of the large scale San Francisco scavenger hunt hosted by the JeJune Institute where players would interact throughout the city finding real clues and interacting with “real” people that were employed by the institute. This immersive experience is what is currently lacking in Ingress, but this level of integration is expensive and may be one of the reasons why the JeJune Institute no longer performs their version of augmented reality. It, like Ingress, was also free.
Google is one step ahead it seems and has numerous corporate sponsors, and there lies the reason that Ingress and other similar projects launched by could survive; brand power. By investors purchasing locations where players would have to visit or even purchase an item to continue playing, Google creates a niche investment market for augmented reality gaming. This means players will likely be inundated with advertisement in a very directed way which is likely to outperform the banner advertising on Facebook as it guarantees actual visits to a store location.
One concern is that augmented reality, especially when used in this fashion, blurs the line between virtual worlds and reality more than ever before. Watching individuals frantically looking for non-existent portals throughout a city tends to elicit questions about schizophrenia from onlookers. Whether such gaming behaviour could lead to a sort of dissociative disorder, or push individuals with a more tenuous grasp of reality towards some psychological disorder is unlikely; but it may lead to individuals spending more time in augmented than real realities.
This idea of addiction to video games is unlikely to go away as new technology becomes available for individuals to step aside from reality. As the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is adding video game addiction as an entry, it suggests that the public is becoming wary of how much individuals are spending time playing games. Fancifully wandering through an augmented reality world on the way to work or over a weekend is fine, but will individuals be tempted to do so during work hours?
One undoubted benefit from all this extra exploration is that individuals gain exercise they normally wouldn’t and may find new areas and neighbourhoods they never knew existed. I personally am looking forward to trying the early versions out, but I think the non-augmented reality of two young children and university work is going to keep from putting in the effort that’s needed to really make a go of it.
And to be honest, I’m not too disappointed about that.