I have been neglecting this site for this past year because, frankly, I got tired of being on the computer!!!  Since I’ve been teaching, both face to face and online, a good portion of my day is spent in creating materials, reading online discussions, and grading digital assignments.  And by the end of the day, just about the last thing I want to do is do some more sitting – either in front of the computer or one of my game consoles.  Hence …. few hours playing games and even fewer opportunities to review selections for educational purposes.

I have, however, continued to explore serious games, digital gamification, and online fitness communities.  FitBit and LoseIt have joined HabitRPG and Nerd Fitness as part of my self-improvement suite.  I’ll write more about these old and new favorites, but I would first like to introduce a mobile game that has become my new – healthy – addiction:  Ingress.

What It Is

Ingress (Wikipedia entry) is an augmented reality game for smartphones.  It uses your phone’s GPS feature to associate your real life physical location with a place in a science fiction world where exotic matter is leaking into the world through portals.   You play a member of one of two opposition factions among the world’s human population and attempt to control portals and regions of the Earth’s surface on behalf of your faction.

Game play at the basic level is pretty straight-forward.  You drive, bike, or walk around with your smart phone – and use your phone to interact with the game world.  When you find a portal, you use your phone to interact with it, supporting or trying to destroy the portal’s control system (and then gain control over it for your faction).  In essence, it is a world-wide game of capture the flag …. with millions of flags scattered on every continent and in every city.

But like any good game, there are levels of complexity available for the interested participant.  The game has a complex back-story and a current events mystery unfolding in a series of episodic online stories and organized, real life events in select cities.  And if the narrative is not of interest, the strategic creation of links between portals and subsequent control of areas is reminiscent of a game of chess played on a grand scale.  While it is fairly simple to learn to play, playing it well will take some time and experience.

The Good

There is a lot to like about this game.  For one thing, it gets me up and away from the computer.  When I talk to parents and educators about computer games for learning, one of the first objections is that kids spend too much time sitting already.  Trust me …. this game will get them out of their seats and searching for portals to control, particularly if their friends are also playing.  I introduced my husband to the game, and now one of our favorite Saturday outings is to go take a long walk in order to play Ingress together, and we are often walking a few miles in order to get “just another one.”

Portals are also placed – deliberately by the game makers (Google) – to coincide with real life points of interest, such as museums, libraries, historical markers, memorials, and scenic outlooks.  And players are rewarded with badges if they visit a large number of unique places.  This feature has prompted me to visit sections of cities – and points of interest – that I had no idea existed.  It’s been a fun way for me to get out of my routines and go some place new for a walk.  And it encouraged me to go exploring on a recent, out of town trip.  I can see this used by parents …. and maybe teachers ….. to encourage kids to go visit culturally important locations and learn more about their neighborhoods and cities.  Carefully, of course.

With the science fiction back story to the game, and the continually evolving mystery, this game could also be very helpful in encouraging students to read and write.  The narrative is engaging in itself, and students could be asked to propose theories about what is happening based on the clues that are dropped periodically in the game’s news releases.  I’ll admit that I’m usually more interested in walking around and gaining control of territory, but I can see the potential for the language arts in this game.

With two teams working to control sections of the world, there is also, naturally, room for teamwork.  Each faction has its own Google group as well as a way to chat from within the game, and teams in many locations arrange for meet ups to socialize and plan strategy.  Teams need to work together to mount strategies to control territory …. and also to block the opposing team’s strategies to gain control of the same spaces.  It is generally a lot of fun, and so far, I have not had any negative encounters – even when near an opposing team as they were trying to wrest control of a portal from me.

Cautions

That being said, as I mentioned earlier, parents and teachers (and everyone else) should use caution in playing this game.  Just as with geocaching, it can be easy to leave your comfort zone for areas that are not safe.  You need to remain alert and aware of your surroundings, not stepping off of cliffs or balconies in an effort to reach a portal …. don’t laugh.  There is a portal in my city that is barely reachable by carefully stretching over a railing.  I’m not sure how it got there, but it is a lesson in caution.

Given how the game is played, it is easy for kids to get involved and play as peers with and against adults.  As a relatively new player, I’ve probably been schooled by more children that I would like to know.  But do be aware that the game is one of competition, and new players will be at a disadvantage for many levels, having their hard work destroyed by higher level players who see an advantage …. and who don’t know that they may be playing against a kid. So long as players understand that the game really is one of shifting control back and forth …. daily  ….. it is fun.

Drawbacks

While the game does encourage movement, a lot of players – myself included – simply drive from portal to portal.  Most locations are readily accessible from the street or a convenient parking lot, and it is easy to be lazy or in a hurry …. trading a seat in front of the computer for a seat in the car.  For people who are mobility challenged, this is a blessing – you can play with the best of us.  But it also sorta defeats one of the big draws of the game.

The game also puts quite a strain on your smart phone.  I am still running an older model iPhone, and the battery does not last very long while playing this game.  My husband’s new iPhone holds up far longer, and I have simply gotten an auxiliary mobile power source to support longer gaming sessions ….. when I’m not in the car with the iPhone plugged in.

And … of course …. it does require a smart phone … or an iPad.  Originally released only for Android, it’s been out for about a year for the Apple platform.  But the requirement of a fairly robust device will put the game out of reach for some students.

Summary

On the whole, I really like this game.  It is encouraging me to get out and explore new sections of the city and to walk a good deal more than I have been during the cold winter.  I’m looking forward to reading more of the narrative and getting to know some of my team mates ….. and even members of the opposition …. in local Ingress meet ups.  If you are an educator or a parent, this game has potential to be an engaging alternative to the traditional computer or videogame, and it would be a lot of fun to do as a family.

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