The writers of “Pervasive Games: Theory and Design: Experiences on the Boundary Between Life and Play” write in their introduction that “playfulness is seeping into the ordinary. Everyday life is becoming interlaced with games.”
This post isn’t going to sum up what a pervasive game is and is not, though it will seek to expand that term, so some familiarity with the notion of pervasive games is assumed. Check out the book’s site to learn more about pervasive games.
I. What Is Ingress?
Ingress is a smartphone game from Google’s Niantic Labs. Players download the app, which uses location information to place the player onto a map of the area. Players join one of two factions, competing to control “portals,” set by players at points of interest (ie, a mural, a statue, a famous building), and by linking those portals. The players can only act on portals within a 50m radius, so the game motivates exploration of the local area.
Ingress is a textbook pervasive game: It uses the extant world, represented by maps and interpreted by players’ selections of points of interest, as the backdrop for a game. While playing Ingress, you are both in the real world and in the game world.
This aggressive liminality is the status-quo for pervasive games — the examples cited in “Pervasive Games: Theory and Design” all explore “the boundary between life and play,” as the subtitle puts it.
But Ingress is also pervasive in another dimension: Time.
II. Time Pervasive & Endless
The notion of games that are what I call “Time Pervasive” is not new or even that exciting. Massive Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft, for example, do not stop when one player stops playing. The game-time runs on, whether the player is playing or not.
For a player of this sort of game, when to play is not merely motivated by desire and circumstances (as, for example, playing a board game is), but by the realization that absence from the game is an in-game decision. That is, choosing not to play the game will have in-game ramifications.
Additionally, games like WoW and Ingress do not end. Unlike a console video game, which has an arc and can be “beaten,” regardless of multiplayer modes that give the game legs beyond its primary arc, the story (if any) in a game like Ingress is endless. There is no victory condition. Both factions will continue battling over portals until… Google alters the format of the game? Smartphones are eclipsed by another technology? The apocalypse occurs?
WoW is ten years old, and spawning competitors and spinoffs every year, so the idea of a game being both time-pervasive and endless is not new, even if the use of the term “time-pervasive” is (and some brief googling suggests that it).
III. Space-Pervasive & Time-Pervasive
Ingress is interesting in that it is both space- and time-pervasive. It is certainly not the first game to combine these traits, but it is the first one that I have played, and it may be the most popular of the group.
As noted earlier, pervasive games (or, as I’ll call them going forward, to differentiate, space-pervasive games) blur the boundary between the physical, “real,” world and the game world by mapping meaning onto real-world places. For example, a mural in my neighborhood was not just a mural, but a portal, which I had to fight to control when I was in the Ingress game-world.
By adding a time-pervasive element, Ingress pins the game not only onto the map, but onto the clock. Game strategy in Ingress takes into account real-world schedules and actions (ie, during rush hour, I need to make sure my portal near the bus stop is well-guarded).
This synergy is useful to the game, and unusual, as far as I know. Most space-pervasive games tend to be on an “event” model: The players arrive, the game begins, the game ends.
Ingress is made more interesting by the fact that it is always on — new players are entering and leaving the space and time continua of the game. I went on vacation and found that my neighborhood had been overtaken by the enemy faction. My playing of the game had not changed from the perspective of my own input (while on vacation, I captured enemy portals, etc.), but because of the game’s pervasiveness in time and space, my physical presence at the appropriate time(s) made an impact in my gameplay.
IV. Endless & Space-Pervasive & Time-Pervasive: Ingress’s Undoing?
I really enjoyed playing Ingress, but ultimately, I stopped. The game’s endless quality made it begin to feel like work — and not quite the same kind of work as “grinding” (performing easy in-game tasks in order to level up).
Rather, the game, in part because of its space- and time-pervasive-ness, became a chore. On my way to the train, I checked all the portals in my neighborhood, restored links that had been destroyed, shored up shields where necessary. The conflict only occurred when I left my routine routes.
Perhaps this is the game’s intent: to motivate breaking of routines. This is often a goal in (space-)pervasive games, and it is an admirable one (see my post on Journey to the End of the Night). But for me, at least, the game’s time-pervasive nature undermined it. I knew that if I wasn’t maintaining my neighborhood, it would fall to the enemy. I also knew that I didn’t want to spend every waking moment playing Ingress, so when I broke my routine, I didn’t boot up the game. I only played when I was in my familiar areas. As such, the game became boring.
V. Ways of Playing
Ultimately, I think my boredom with Ingress was my fault, not Ingress’s. The game is well-designed enough, motivating engagement with real-world objects and creating opportunities for conflict between the teams (notably, it is easier to destroy a portal than it is to control it).
The problems I had with Ingress were mostly with the ways I chose to play it — not deviant ways, ways designed to break its rule structure, but in a fairly mundane way. This undid one of the game’s central attractions: Exploration of new parts of the city. By playing in this fashion, I only undid my own play experience.
Ultimately, the experience of playing Ingress confirms my dislike for digital gaming (even when it cleverly interacts with the real world) and pushes me towards a more active engagement with analog gaming.