A free location-based game for both Android and iOS mobile devices called Ingress has millions of users interacting worldwide, with each person adding to the game in their own way. However, what is the result of such a player-influenced game, and should it be viewed as anything other than a fun game? Based on Ingress’ large player base (currently at around 7 million active players with over 12 million downloads) and the sustained interactions between players, I suggest that we take Ingress seriously. Instead of brushing it off as an insignificant pastime, I will evaluate Ingress for its potentials as an effective tool for learning about another culture.
To start, an integral part to every culture is language, but Ingress keeps the built-in language to a minimum. The default language is set by the geographic location, although each user can manually change their language, the game relies on the physical location of each player. The premise of the game is that there is a new technology called “Exotic Matter,” XM, which players must pick up by walking, and it allows players to interact with portals and capture or link them for their team. To play, individuals walk to portals or local missions, all of which are created by other players, where users will do up to four actions. They can “hack,” which gives them useful items, “deploy resonators,” which is how a team captures a portal, “attack,” which destroys the other team’s resonators, or “link,” which joins two to three portals from the same team. The goal of the game is to create links for your team and to destroy links for the other team. However, with only these four actions available for basic game-play there is almost no language, so how would this be an effective activity for the language classroom?
The key to second language or culture learning lies in the social interaction based around the game. On a basic level, there is a forum where people can post messages for players in their area, but this is only the surface level of interaction. More integrally, all of the portals and missions are created by players and usually linked to landmarks of cultural or social importance. Usually, this translates into portals centered on unique buildings, landmarks, and pieces of art in a community. In many cases, these portals can show hidden or more creative aspects of an area, e.g. street art, beautiful plants, or unusual sights. In both of these examples, forums and portals, Ingress pushes players to interact individually with their surrounding area and community and collaborate around a real-world common task – community exploration. As a tour guide, Ingress serves as a means to discover a new, or even a very familiar, area, that can then lead to language activity tied to places, experiences, and collaborative problem solving. For example, learners could be asked to find ten portals relevant to a certain theme or follow a mission dedicated to a social problem. They can then engage in interpersonal communication around this topic or create a piece of presentational writing designed to offer a formal analysis of the cultural relevance.
Many people write about using Ingress as a way to discover new cities while traveling in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, and one need only look at the Ingress world map to understand why: https://www.ingress.com/intel. Simply put, there are nodes all around the world; there is even one in Antarctica. Due to its widespread popularity and the fact that it’s curated by locals, Alissa Walker, a writer for gizmodo.com, claims that Ingress “is probably one of the best ways to get out and explore any place on the planet on foot.” Although Walker’s insight is mostly for urban areas, Ingress has been downloaded more than 12 million times (https://plus.google.com/+Ingress/), which means that local portals represent a wide variety of perspectives and interests. This could be extremely valuable for traveling and looking for urban places off the beaten path.
In addition, not all Ingress interactions are solely individual; many aspects of Ingress help to create communities over time. For example, there is a large Ingress community on Google+, but the stronger social aspect comes from local communities that meet regularly in person. Ingress is credited by many as a way to “get out of their shell” and become part of a community, while at the same time it is a tool for discovering new areas and getting exercise (Henry, lifehacker.com). Much of this is due to the role that communities of people play in shaping the overall Ingress experience. From creating portals, forums, and coordinated events, Ingress is the culmination of players’ collective participation. Furthermore, Ingress reinforces cooperation by giving subtle advantages to a group working together in lieu of many individuals.
Ingress’ model of a community-centered mobile game suggests a different outlook as to how we should think of our mobile devices. We are often told that our phones are objects that isolate us from others (Turkle, http://www.ted.com), and that they stand in the way of meaningful connection, but perhaps Ingress can be one of the many exceptions to this public opinion. John Hanke, the Ingress project lead, encourages gamers to use it as an occasion to discover and connect: “The [Ingress] game mechanic is there as an incentive, and it nudges people to get out, meet new people and discover new places” (Smith, mic.com), and in learning about another culture, does it not come down to meaningful, cross-cultural connections? Nevertheless, Ingress as a game is anything but prescriptive. Similar to how the green and blue teams in Ingress are playing to determine whether humans should either embrace or reject an unknown technology, the same could be said for the position of mobile technology in connecting humans. Are we rejecting it, or are we instead looking as to how this new technology could be used to help us connect with others? Ingress is not a solution, rather, it is an opportunity for us to discover, engage, and connect.
By Dega Westerhoff-Mason