Of Portals and Places
In early 2012, the National Intelligence Agency assembled a special team at the European nuclear agency CERN to begin investigating a newly discovered form of matter, known as exotic matter or XM, which had come to light in the wake of the recent discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle. This project, which was named the "Niantic Project," was composed of two NIA agents and eleven subject experts. Along with five scientists, mainly physicists, the team included a semiotician, a theologian, a musician, a sculptor, a stage magician, and Hank Johnson, an archeologist, historian, and "former special forces operative." Through their study, this team determined three things. First, they were able to isolate a pattern in the emission of XM that suggested something like intelligent communication: someone or something, they concluded, was trying to communicate through the patterned pulsation of these particles. Second, that the emission of XM particles was happening on a much larger scale than they had initially supposed. As they studied the phenomenon in greater depth, they began to see that XM particles could be found on a global scale. Yet there too, they found patterns. The particle emissions were "clustered around key sites, places of cultural, intellectual, and religious significance around the world." Finally, they also determined that exposure to XM particles had a very specific effect on human mental function. It "seemed to increase intellectual ability, creativity, and insight in some, but brought out darker aspects of the personality in others" (Niantic Labs 2013).
On November 30th, now known as "Epiphany Night", everything changed. The Niantic lab at CERN was exposed to a massive dose of XM radiation, sending the researchers into frenzied bouts of creativity, like Enoch Dalby's musical compositions. Whatever the researchers saw that night irreparably splintered the team: some researchers went on to work for Hulong Transglobal, IQTech, and Visur Technology, while others (like Roland Jarvis) ended up dead. The schism of the team was due in large part to philosophical differences about the true purpose of XM, exacerbated by their exposure to massive quantities of XM through Epiphany Night. To the team members who went on to became the core of the Enlightened faction, the Shaper's influence on sensitive individuals through XM was viewed as the next step in human evolution. For the team members who chose the path of greatest Resistance, the Shaper's influence was in XM [and] was deemed a "Shaper Mind Virus" that must be countered (Andersen 2014). (2) This is the setting backstory for the 2013 release of the locative augmented reality game Ingress. Created by Niantic, a software development company that began as a subdivision of Google in 2010, the game is played primarily using a GPS-enabled application downloaded on to a user's mobile phone. (3) During initial set-up, the player must choose to embrace one of two "factions" in the game, the blue-themed "Resistance" or the green-themed "Enlightened." Depending on the player's chosen faction, s/he will receive specially-tailored information about the "Shapers," the mysterious intelligent beings who are thought to be responsible for the emission of XM. In a nutshell, Resistance members receive information which suggests that the Shapers are an invading alien force, while the Enlightened receive information suggesting that the Shapers are a race of saviors, who are coming to bestow knowledge and meaning upon human life. Regardless of the factional information a player receives, however, gameplay is the same for both factions. The objects of play include taking and defending control of "portals," sites in the physical world from which XM is emitted, and creating "links" and "fields" between portals, XM connections that strengthen the energy and value of portals.
In a certain way then, as it is described in some of Niantic's promotional materials, Ingress is a giant digital game of capture the flag. Players must use their mobile devices to locate portals, which are keyed to specific physical sites that can only be accessed once a player is in physical proximity. Then they use their XM weaponry to attack and take control of the portal in the name of the faction. While the game can be played anywhere in the physical world, in-game social groups tend to form around physical areas: counties, cities, or neighborhoods might each have their own Resistance or Enlightened player groups who will work together to take and defend portals, exchange supplies, and create higher-scoring links and fields across larger physical territories.
While folklorists and ethnologists, following Robert Glenn Howard, have already begun to explore the dynamics of institutional-vernacular hybridization in digital spaces (Howard 2008a; 2008b; 2010), it is useful to consider how these dynamics, in turn, structure our everyday cultural understandings of the physical world. (4) There is an important dimension of the Ingress platform that suggests this further approach to the study of locative media that is relevant to folklorists and ethnologists: it does not just allow access to users who can construct and experience spatialized knowledge through their own annotations and interactions, but it also actively constructs a user experience of localized spatial knowledge. For instance, Robbie Campbell, a 29 year-old restaurant manager from Beaumont, TX told a reporter for National Public Radio in 2014:
"I'm from a relatively small town. I was born there. And I didn't know until I started playing this game that Thomas Edison actually came to Beaumont and turned on the first generator to power the first electric lights," he says. Campbell found out this history "at a museum that is a portal that I never knew existed before I played this game" (Sydell 2014). While the role that these games play in shaping user experience of space is perhaps currently most pronounced in Ingress, it is a tacit feature of all locative media platforms, especially games. (5) Inasmuch as Ingress and other platforms shape user experience with physical spaces in very specific ways, then, I want to suggest that we might usefully consider these games not just through the vehicle of individual user experience but also as spatial "regimes," value-encoded systems of power that play out in the individualized user's experience of space and place. (6) In other words, we must consider the role that augmented reality games, as well as other kinds of locative media, play in setting up the everyday conditions under which users encounter and come to understand spaces and places, how these technologies allow users to shape those experiences, and how users respond to the conditions set forth in these platforms. Along the lines of the Michel de Certeau's dualization of urban space, I am proposing that we consider not just the vernacular tactics of interaction that are facilitated by locative media applications, but also the institutional forces that strategically structure how users encounter the physical world (de Certeau 1984, 91-110).
In order to do so, this article examines two main examples of digital applications that augment or annotate reality to guide users to specific sites as part of a game: Ingress and Geocaching. An application that facilitates the practice of "geocaching," a pastime which relies of GPS technology but built on much older traditions of spatial gaming (McNeil 2007), Geocaching is a popular mobile phone app. The app allows users to upload information relevant to finding cache sites, as well as a variety of other kinds of user-defined information and discourse. Although in very different configurations, both programs lay out an in-game geography of sites in the physical world through the means of a mobile application that users can access to guide them through physical space. Furthermore, to a greater or lesser degree, each application allows users to take part in the process of geographic construction. Both games also lay out clear but tacit official systems to control how in-game geography is defined and how users can interact with, edit, or construct this geography. These systems fuse together the pragmatics of gameplay with certain governing ideologies that shape user experience of space and place in the context of each game. In the case of Ingress, the corporate, legal, and pragmatic elements that are encoded into the game's basic design are cloaked by a larger narrative which proposes the game as access to a very specific kind of spatialized experience: the experience of cultural heritage. By contrast, the Geocaching app, less rigidly but still importantly structured by ideology, presents a user experience less defined by narrative, and therefore somewhat more open to the imposition of vernacular values and knowledge on to in-game geography. The argument presented in this essay, while instantiated in the analysis of these two platforms, is not married to any single device, platform, or software version, however. These two apps have been chosen for analysis only because they represent two popular but somewhat different systems for shaping user experience with space and place, or with the concept of cultural heritage. In exposing these differences, I am not intending to criticize or praise either platform; I simply wish to show the ways in which different configurations in the hybrid structures of digital technology, invested as they are with the pragmatic, legal, or corporate concerns of technology companies, quietly overlay physical spaces with cultural value systems.
Because locative augmented reality games like Ingress, games that employ GPS technology to overlay gameplay onto physical spaces, necessarily require users to move through physical spaces to engage in gameplay, they must make use of what Marc Tuters and Kazys Varnelis have called the "annotative" function of locative...