The Virtual War To Control Princeton’s Historic Sites

Christ's Congregation Church on Walnut Ave in Princeton. (click to expand)

Christ Congregation Church on Walnut Lane in Princeton – which is also a key site in the online game ‘Ingress’. (click to expand)

The Pokémon Go craze has occupied many news stories this summer as kids of all ages have discovered the joys of chasing virtual creatures around real-world locations using their smartphones. Pokémon Go is a product of Google offshoot Niantic Labs, and has many similarities to their earlier game, ‘Ingress‘, which has been running since 2012. For Ingress players, Princeton is not just a cultured college town, but a battlefield for an online war to control culturally-significant sites.

Ingress players download the game onto a GPS-enabled smart device, which tracks them as they move around real-world locations. All players join one of two ‘teams’, and can advance in the game by capturing territory for that team. In practice, this requires the player to visit a bunch of sites in the real world to collect ‘weapons’, and then use those weapons to ‘capture’ the sites. This is all great fun (if you’re a geek) but the game has developed into something of an online guidebook to Princeton’s most important historic and cultural sites. Consider the Christ Congregation Church on Walnut Avenue (pictured above). In the Ingress game, it is a designated ‘portal’, which looks like the image below. We can see that at least 5 different players have recently visited it, to claim it for the green team:

Ingress screenshot showing 'portals' north of downtown Princeton. (click to expand)

Ingress screenshot showing ‘portals’ north of downtown Princeton. (click to expand)

This church is one of dozens of ‘portals’ around Princeton. Nassau Hall is also a portal, offering players the satisfaction of virtually ‘conquering’ the most famous site of Princeton University. Parks, schools, sculptures, memorials – all of these kinds of things can be portals. High-level players can submit photos of potential portals to the game administrators, and if the site is considered to be sufficiently unique, it is ‘approved’ and appears in the game. Many of these are famous, like Nassau Hall, but others are less well-known. For example, Princeton’s ‘Mother Jones’ memorial is easy to miss even though it is right on Palmer Square – but many Ingress players will have discovered it, because it acts as a portal in the game.

Map of Ingress 'portals' in downtown Princeton - each one is a unique historic or cultural site. (click to expand)

Map of Ingress ‘portals’ in downtown Princeton – each one is a unique historic or cultural site. (click to expand)

As Princeton is a place with many interesting sites, it is extremely rich in Ingress ‘portals’, and many players travel into town specifically to visit them and try to progress to higher ‘levels’ in the game. There are local players who have been battling over these portals for years – people going under names like ‘RobotOil’, ‘DrD3ath’ and ‘Compulov’. Becoming a high-level player requires traveling miles around town visiting and connecting different portals, including a whole lot of walking to reach sites that are only accessible on foot. The game has probably been more successful than many educational campaigns in getting young people out walking around and learning about the local area.

Ingress is impossible to win, because players from both teams capture and re-capture portals on a daily basis.  To move things on, more recent versions of the game include ‘missions’, which are effectively guided walking tours that encourage users to visit various sites without getting as involved in the war aspect of the game. In the future, it’s easy to imagine that smartphone apps similar to this will find more widespread use in guiding tourists around sites of interest. Or more realistically, we’ll get more advanced sequels to the vastly-more-popular Pokémon Go.

Ingress is available for Android or at the Apple iOS app store.


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