Digital Placemaking: Let’s Ingress

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An email alerts me to the danger: Halley’s Portal is under attack. The portal was one of many in the area, but I had taken a liking to it. It mysteriously formed one day over the grave of the Second Astronomer Royal, Edmond Halley, which is not far from my house. I was the first to claim it, so in a way I felt it was mine. The attack seemed strong and given that at this time of night the gates to the cemetery were locked (they had jumped the fence); I knew the enemy agent was high-level and seriously dedicated. The portal fell in a few minutes, claimed by the other side. The defeat steals my resolve. I will get stronger and reclaim ‘my’ portal.

Hang in there folks…I’m about to intellectualise a video game

So what I’m doing is playing a video game called Ingress. The game is an augmented reality massive multi-player game created by Google spin-off, Niantic Labs. The game is basically a “capture the flag” game played by people using their GPS enabled smart-phones to interact with a game that is transposed across the entire globe. The “flags” are called portals and they are located at places like public art, important buildings and some businesses. Players pick one of two teams (green/blue) and compete to control the portals. Controlling the portals means players have to physically visit them, which is facilitated through GPS and the game’s app. Once at a portal, players can claim them, attack them (if controlled by the other team) or defend and link them (if controlled by their team). There are other features including a narrative story line, leveling system and in-game chat, but basically it’s a classic game concept brought to the leading-edge of modern mobile computing and social networking.

So what is my interest in this and why am I writing about it here?

I came across Ingress while doing research for a new project where we are going to explore using mobile technology as a form of “placemaking”. Most designers get excited about having a placemaking scope in a project because it’s usually a chance to design some sort of higher-level intervention such as a wall murals, sculptures, etc. With this particular project the architectural programme had created sufficient landmarks to make for good wayfinding and brand presence. However, we wanted to push the boundaries of what placemaking can do and be. I wanted to know if it [placemaking] could exist in a space that didn’t physically exist, but still bring meaning to a physical space.

This lead to really questioning what is placemaking or more over what does it do and why is it important?

There is no simple answer. Placemaking can improve wayfinding; it creates a landmark which anchors a space in people’s minds and helps to form a more useful cognitive map. Placemaking can express a brand message which spurs our emotions and influences our feels and behaviors. Placemaking can help solidify our memories of an event which maintains our long-term connection to a space. Similarly placemaking often provides the backdrop (or subject) for photography. These ‘postcard shots’ form the basic currency of social networking.

The questions can go on and on, but for the purposes of the project at hand I’ve arrived a broad definition: Placemaking is any intervention that facilitates a meaningful and positive association with a specific place. These associates can be just about anything but might include navigational, emotional, memorable or social experiences.

While my own research and design progress, I’ve decided to play Ingress to see if it in fact constitutes placemaking. This sort of intervention is ‘gamification’ as placemaking. Here’s a little of what I’ve found out:

Navigation

Ingress certainly has an effect on navigational understanding as the game requires players to be at specific places to engage in the game. To get ahead in the game requires making efficient movements between locations and as the game doesn’t provide directions, only compass headings, from portal to portal, players are left on their own to devise their routes. I’ve worked in central London for more than a year and after playing Ingress for two weeks I’ve discovered scores of alleys and shortcuts I never knew about. Interestingly, Ingress also revealing to the realities of GPS and smartphone location services; being that it is still a very unreliable technology especially in built up urban areas even if backed by a company leading the field like Google.

Emotion & Memory

Ingress has a double effect in terms of creating emotional connections to place. Firstly there is the direct experience a player has with specific locations/landmark during the game. Take for example the story relayed at the start of the article regarding Halley’s grave. The second effect is more complex and interesting. Ingress (as a form of placemaking) feeds on other existing placemaking interventions. By using existing monuments and public art as locations for the portals, Ingress has basically coopted the entire “placemaking equity” of an area for it’s own use. The aspect I find most interesting about this is a sort of ‘up-cycling’ of placemaking intervention that are effectively forgotten. Take for example the ‘mystery tomb’ and subway spires in the image below.

The tomb is the bluish obelisk, the spires are above the subway entrance (to the right). These are right next to my office and I’ve always looked on them as an example of what was likely someones ‘great’ idea 10 years ago, but have quickly degraded to a sort of urban art debris. The tomb especially as it’s slowly being consumed by the shrub around it.

This is how the area looks in Ingress.


The game has absorbed the neglected monuments, which are likely passed unnoticed by hundreds of Londoners each day, and made them an active and lively hub in the game.

Social

When we hear the phrase ‘video game’ we generally think of someone alone in their living room (likely in the dark surrounded by empty bags of junk food and soda cans…if we’re honest about it) Ingress breaks away from this stereotype in that you have to be ‘out’ to play the game. Additionally, it’s a huge advantage to play with others. 74% of players claim to meet up with other players and almost third say they have ‘made new friends’ in the process. Watching the game’s activity you can find groups of players around the city at all hours of the day or night. There is plenty of evidence people are traveling from town to town and even to other countries to play with other people in their faction. Below is a screenshot of portal link established between the UK and the Netherlands. As a form of placemaking these social interactions have meaningful value and will stay with people for years to come.

So is Ingress placemaking? No, not really. It is, however, a very successful video game and I don’t see any reason to call it anything other than what it is. I think it’s a very progress piece of technology. It skillfully weaves together mobile computing, augmented reality and social networking into an easy to use package that actually works. I think that “actually works” part is key. This isn’t some future technology for elite wiz-kids or the buzzword (hollow) speak of PR people, it’s real. Although Ingress wasn’t created as ‘placemaking’, it certainly helps to (re)shape the definition of this practice. As words like “gamification” and “augmented reality” come closer to describing projects and not just “ideas for projects’, it’s nice to see where we might be heading.

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