Niantic Labs, a startup within Google, released an invite-only version of Ingress for Android in November 2012. A year later the game came out of beta, and last July, it was released for iPhone and iPad.
Tech reporters took immediate notice – mostly because, well, Google. “When you’re playing Ingress you’re playing Google, and you’re paying for it by using Google,” reads a June 2014 article in The Guardian. “Welcome to video games, Silicon Valley style.”
Garry Hare, director of the media psychology program at Fielding University, has taken a close look at Ingress and other “immersive media,” digital tech that involves users at a sensory level. Augmented reality games blur the lines between the real and virtual worlds, creating what Hare calls a new cognitive dynamic.
Before Ingress, Hare says, there was Conspiracy for Good, an augmented-reality game that invited players to do real good in the real world. The game was developed by Tim Kring, creator of the sci-fi TV series Heroes, and funded by Nokia to run on a Nokia-powered platform. The story built up over the course of several months, then went live for four weeks in London with theater and audience participation. The result: five new libraries, 10,000 books and 50 scholarships for schoolgirls in Africa.
Hare says Conspiracy for Good proved people want to feel personally invested in their entertainment, a notion called “social storytelling,” which Ingress banks on.
While many Ingress players take a casual approach, Hare says, a few are willing to dedicate both their media consumption time and their creative time to it. And that, he says, should be a warning to the entertainment industry.
“If people are willing to spend a great deal of time on an app like this – and they are – it’s an even greater argument for people to cut the TV cable,” Hare says. “This needs to be taken very seriously by the distributing entertainment companies.”
Hare says Ingress is an early example of “Internet 3.0,” bringing real people together in real space. “They’ve done that, and that’s extraordinary,” he says. “Other than house parties to watch The Bachelor, it’s hard to find other media that have succeeded. Imagine a political campaign that’s driven by a story.”
Ingress creator John Hanke says the film industry appears to be looking to the game as a model for the future. “I think they’re noticing it’s a compelling, addicting in some cases, form of entertainment for some people,” he says, “and they want a piece of that.”
Next up for Niantic: A new app called Endgame, which is still in beta but will reportedly launch with a book series and movie. As for Ingress, Hanke says, a version will soon be released soon for the Android Watch, and there’s also talk of an Ingress TV show.
In the longer term, he sees gamers using technology developed by the Google-backed startup Magic Leap, a virtual retinal display that superimposes digital images on the physical world. Pressed for details, he gets coy: “You can imagine the two experiences coming together.”