Gamers wage virtual war with real Twin Cities landmarks

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 9, 2014 - 2:54 PM

All the world is a game board for the players who wage virtual war over Twin Cities landmarks in a smartphone-powered game called Ingress.

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Smartphones in hand, members of the Enlightened team of the augmented-reality game Ingress fanned out across the grounds of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

Photo: JIM GEHRZ • jgehrz@startribune.com,

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There’s a battle raging in the streets around you.

Two passionate factions are fighting for control of the planet — and the grandstand at the State Fair.

In a contest that mixes geocaching with a high-tech version of capture the flag, “agents” armed with Android smartphones are locked in a 24/7 struggle to dominate some of our most cherished landmarks: “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” the Landmark Center in St. Paul, Snoopy statues everywhere.

It’s a mission so compelling that hundreds of people in the Twin Cities — many of them IT workers — give up their lunch hours, evenings and weekends in an attempt to take over the virtual landscape of the augmented-reality game Ingress.

Like many video games, Ingress is wildly popular, with more than 2 million agents in 132 countries. It has a complicated, continuously evolving back story and a language all its own.

But hiding behind the keyboard isn’t an option. This game demands that its players get up, get out and explore.

Claim a portal for the Enlightened team, turn it green on the smartphone screen. Or join the Resistance team, and make landmarks glow blue online. But above all, be social and have fun.

That’s what a dozen or so Enlightened players did on a recent Friday evening.

“We could go turn the Sculpture Garden green, or we could go bust up Uptown,” said Samantha Karsten, plotting over pregame beers and dinner at Brit’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis.

Most of the players at the table met each other through the game, learning screen names before real names.

Phones fully charged, auxiliary batteries in tow, they start walking to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, eyes glued to their phones, tapping their screens to play along the way.

“Look for blue,” Rachel Christianson said. “Blow it up!”

Luring gamers outside

The green-vs.-blue battle is Ingress at its most basic.

When Niantic Labs, a start-up within Google, launched the free game in 2012, it came with an elaborate science fiction back story. The tale is still unfolding through weekly YouTube videos contemplating a substance called “exotic matter” that spills out of the portals and an alien force known as “Shapers.” Play on the ground affects how the plot unfolds, with the Enlightened helping the Shapers and the Resistance, well, resisting.

But the overall goal is more ambitious than a game: Use technology to lure people out to explore the world around them. Players have to be near portals to attack them and collect keys to link far-flung landmarks together.

“So much tech pulls you into these online networks, and games in particular really suck you into an alternative reality,” said John Hanke, a Google vice president and founder of Niantic. “Ingress is a reason for people to get together.”

Operations can be local, with one person claiming and linking portals in his or her neighborhood, or global, with elaborate plans drawn up by international players chatting within the game and through Google Hangouts.

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  • James Misuraca, Fe Strait and Jason Heger (holding phone) prepared to play Ingress. After visiting and enjoying a meal and drinks at a downtown pub, the group fanned out across the grounds of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to play the game.

  • Green-vs.-blue battle: This screenshot from the Ingress Intel Map shows downtown Minneapolis. If members of the Enlightened team claim a “portal,” or landmark, it turns green. Portals showing as blue are controlled by the Resistance team.

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