Why you should care

It’s a combo of Risk and capture the flag. And West Side Story.

Next time you’re out walking around, take a good look at your fellow citizens — especially the ones mesmerized by their smartphone’s screen. A common enough sight these days, to be sure, but what if they’re operating as agents for one of two factions currently battling for supremacy of an invisible world?

Sounds like the plot of a Mission: Impossible installment, but it’s actually an augmented reality game called Ingress, a cross between popular strategy board game Risk and capture the flag. Players choose to belong to either the Enlightened or the Resistance, two competing factions in a fictional world that coexists virtually with our own. The goal? Capture and defend as many objects known as “portals” as possible for your faction. But here’s where virtual meets real life: Portals are real-world objects, such as public landmarks, works of art or buildings of significance. The app shows the location of these portals and where to get energy (an alien material called Exotic Matter, or XM), but not other players. Hacking a portal lets you establish “links” to other portals and create control fields for your faction. You get serious points for doing so and, more important, your faction owns larger chunks of your city than your rivals — thus the Risk comparison. At times, it’s even got a bit of a West Side Story feel to it.

Players join forces in real life on an ad hoc basis or more formally at events known as “anomalies.”

Be prepared for exercise: Almost all of the game’s activities — especially getting more XM — require you to be within a short distance of the target locations, which might make Ingress the healthiest video game on the planet. The physical element of the game “forces people to get off the couch and out in the real world,” Archit Bhargava, product marketing manager at Niantic Labs, tells OZY. Ingress was created by Niantic Labs, an under-the-radar Google team, in 2012. The concept came to its founder, John Hanke, after watching his kids spend too much time indoors playing Minecraft, says Bhargava.

Community is another benefit. Players join forces in real life on an ad hoc basis or more formally at events known as “anomalies.” Longtime player Andrew Krug, a defense industry product manager from Arlington, Virginia, says that when the game launched, “there was nothing like it,” and he was attracted to the community aspect. He has traveled as far as Alaska and Germany to play. Kelly Kolton, a marketing professional from suburban Chicago, has also traveled extensively while playing the game.

Before diving headfirst into Ingress, there are a few caveats: Don’t ignore the real world while playing, warns Kolton, and “remind yourself constantly to pay attention.” And use caution when meeting up with other players. While Krug says he’s comfortable inviting fellow players whom he has never met to carpool with him, Kolton is less carefree and would have to “talk to someone online” before hanging out with them. Be aware of cross-faction hostility, which, though rare, Ingress newcomer Scott Davis describes as bullying: “It can be stressful and time-consuming,” he says.

If you’re interested in playing Ingress, you won’t find much Resistance. It’s as simple as downloading the free app (iOS and Android) and taking a walk around your city or town. Just remember: Stay safe out there.

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