By LAURA LOREK
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
Dressed in blue, the color of the Resistance, Amanda Saunders flew in from Houston to do battle against the Enlightened in Austin on Saturday.
Saunders, a level 11 Agent in Ingress, is a leader in the Ingress Houston community and the game has taken her around the world. She wears pins on her dress from the other anomaly Ingress events she has attended.
“It’s given me the ability to explore and to continue to help people,” Saunders said.
Her older brother introduced her to Ingress in December of 2012, shortly after it launched. It came at a time in her life, when she needed something to fill the void left from an injury that put an end to her job as a paramedic. She began to play Ingress to get out and meet people.
Niantic Labs, a subsidiary of Google, launched Ingress as an Android only app in November of 2012. The company released an iPhone version last year. It has quickly gained in popularity. People have downloaded the app more than 8 million times and it’s played in 200 countries.
So what exactly is Ingress? One player described it as a real life version of capture the flag. It’s also been described as a massively multiplayer augmented reality game. To play Ingress, people download the app onto their mobile smartphone and then they chose an agent name. Next they are told an elaborate science fiction backstory that involves physicists at CERN discovering something called “Exotic Matter” or XM. The Enlightened faction wants to help spread XM and believe it benefits mankind. The Resistance wants to save mankind from XM and wipe it out entirely. Players must decide which faction to join – the Enlightened is the green team, known as frogs. The Resistance is the blue team, known as Smurfs. The two factions battle for control of portals, which can be statues, artworks, historical markers, monuments and other important sites. A scanner in the game helps to detect the portals. The players then must walk to them to deploy resonators to capture them. They earn points playing the game and they can level up from Agent one, the lowest level, to Agent 15, the highest.
The Austin anomaly event lasted about six hours with most of the time spent hiking or biking around the city to fight for control of portals. It concluded with a happy hour on the lawn of the Johnson House. Some players wore masks to keep their identities a secret. Many of the players wore green or blue T-shirts to identify with their factions. Some carried flags. Players also received special pins and badges for attending the event.
Bill Kilday, known as agent BillyK in Ingress and also marketing director for Niantic Labs, presented awards to players who walked the most kilometers in a week and other milestones. And a player from India, who travelled the farthest to attend the event, received a box containing everything he needs to put on an Ingress event back home. Another guy from Iceland claimed second place. Others flew in from Boston, Wisconsin and Canada.
Kilday also announced that the Enlightened Faction won the overall Austin Shonin Anomaly.
In addition to the Austin Anomaly, Ingress held Shonin Anomalies in Atlanta and Las Vegas in the U.S. and in Medellin, Colombia, Florence, Italy, Brno, Czech Republic, Alexandria, Egypt and Bilbao, Spain. In Egypt, authorities detained Ingress players after they mistook them for protesters, according to a Slash Gear article.Two years ago, Niantic held its first Ingress Austin event in connection with South by Southwest in March with just 35 people attending, Kilday said. Last year, 300 people attended, he said. Saturday’s event was the largest Ingress event in the U.S., he said.
Austin has an active Ingress community. Groups often meetup on the weekends to go on tours throughout the city to capture portals. Niantic also has three employees in Austin including Kilday. It has 50 overall with most of them based at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco.
The game has grown in popularity through word of mouth and organically among the players and their friends, Kilday said.
“Ultimately it comes down to people having fun,” he said. “They are making a lot of friends and exploring their city.”
The game has taken Saunders to far-flung places she would not have gone otherwise, she said. She’s travelled to Finland, Bermuda and Canada to play Ingress. In the U.S., she’s visited Atlanta, New York, Florida, California and Alaska to play the game.
“With Ingress, I see a city in a whole different way,” Saunders said.
When she gets to a new city, she opens up the app and starts to explore by discovering new portals. The app acts as a guidebook of places to visit and as a journal of places she’s been.
The app identifies things that someone might know about even if they’ve lived in a city for years, Saunders said. It also gets people walking. Video games are often associated with sedentary activity like a person sitting on a couch playing for hours. But with Ingress, the app actually instructs the player to walk to discover portals and to capture them.
“You become much more in tune with your environment and your life,” Saunders said. “Underneath what you’re really doing is exploring culture and history.”
For example, Gettysburg has more than 1,000 portals, Saunders said.
“You’re really exploring where you came from,” she said.
It’s also about meeting new friends, Saunders said. The people she has met have been very friendly and helpful and she’s never felt afraid because they’re strangers, she said. In fact, she is sharing a house in Austin with 20 people and she’s only met five of them before the weekend.
“There’s a whole different level of trust because of the game. I’m meeting friends for life,” she said. “And I get to see some incredible things that make me appreciate the world a lot more.”