Something else about Pokémon and something about Ingress

I play Ingress casually. I know people who play it somewhat obsessively, who spend a fair bit of time, energy, and money on strategizing and building community and traveling to anomalies. I’m not in that category. It’s worth noting that it’s possible for me to play casually due to geography (for all that can fall under the umbrella of “geography,” not just actual latitude and longitude).

I live in the suburbs. Some park portals are within walking distance (and I submitted one of those portals; it’s one of several submissions Niantic accepted, back when they were taking player submissions), but my residential subdivision is portal-free. If I had to drive to get to portals, I probably wouldn’t have bothered playing, because it would sort of defeat the purpose. But when I started playing, I was working at the American Philosophical Society. In the Library, a building which is a portal and has another portal screwed into it, with another portal in the garden, and one across the street, and…well, you can’t walk around that part of Philadelphia without tripping over something of historical significance. There are a lot of portals, which became the basis for Pokéstops and Gyms.

Ingress Intel map (detail), showing the APS Library and a lamentable (if not surprising) amount of blue around Independence Hall and Washington Square.
Ingress Intel map (detail), showing the APS Library and a lamentable (if not surprising) amount of blue around Independence Hall and Washington Square.

The explosive popularity of Pokémon Go lays bare the biases and structural inequality of Ingress in specific and tech in general.1 Playing is harder and more expensive if you’re in an under-augmented portion of reality (on top of the baked in expenses of devices, data plans, etc.) It’s also potentially dangerous to play while black—really, anyone not conforming to the cis white man stereotype probably has safety concerns.2 I would love to see data on Ingress and Pokémon players. (Well, no, I guess I would not; I’d have serious ethical concerns about seeing masses of data, even anonymized.) An informal survey of Ingress players, primarily aimed at sussing out whether or not there were differences in the folks who chose to identify with one team or the other, revealed that early adopters skewed liberal, heathen, Angolophone, and male. There wasn’t a question about race or ethnicity.3 Nor did race appear in a later survey, which delved a bit more into players’ personal relationships and background.4 A more recent survey confirmed that the game is very white (close to 80% of respondents), but a bit less male (north of 25% of players fell outside the cis male category, versus less 10% in the 2013 survey).5 If I had the dream data set, I’d love to see things like the demographic data; who played where, and when, and with whom; and find out if and how the expansion from the Android platform to the iPhone changed the demographics, style of play, and geography of the game.

Since that dream data set doesn’t exist, and what does exist is unlikely to be pried away from Niantic, we’ll have to make due with more anecdata and surveys. And I’m okay with that, too—it’s digital humanities, not digital social sciences, after all, and all about flawed, quirky data sets. My hearsay anecdata set includes: concern about playing while black in a primarily white suburban neighborhood; plans to venture farther afield via Uber scuttle-able by weather; annoyance with players who felt that Busch Gardens was somehow responsible for Pokémon server crashes and, therefore, should offer refunds (Florida); outreach to very new Ingress players, generally ignored, indicates they were probably just Pokémon players who wanted to use the Ingress map (Massachusetts); Ingress player response about equally divided between get-off-my-lawn and playing Pokémon as well as Ingress (Pennsylvania). My personal contributions to that data set are unlikely to be first hand; I’m happy playing Ingress casually, and don’t think I’ll feel compelled to invest energy in playing a second AR game.

Part of that is aesthetic. My choice of Ingress team had nothing to do with backstory: friends who played locally were overwhelmingly Enlightened, so I too opted to be a frog rather than a smurf, even though I usually play solo.6 I think I have watched like one or two of the video updates (really, as soon as a portal hack yields media, I ought to just recycle it rather than let it sit there in my inventory), certainly have not bought any of the tie-in novels (though points for their existence, I guess), and have only the vaguest notion of the plotty elements underpinning the game. And yet, a game skinned with a science fictional alien invasion/uplift scenario is more appealing to me than cartoon critters. To a certain extent, I am a member of the Earthtone Coalition, except I don’t have particularly strong feelings about the Forces of Brightness; they seem to be having fun, and I have no objection to other people’s fun.7

Add to the aesthetics the fact that I missed Pokémon in the ’90s—a bit past the target age, not very into video games or CCGs, and with different taste in anime—but a lot of people didn’t. Nostalgia, brands—that matters.8 It’s a great way to pull in a big user base (maybe too big, given the glitchy roll out; though if you count Ingress, they’ve had years to work out the worst bugs in beta—I always wondered what Niantic was going to do with the player-generated data, so that’s one question answered). There’s a lot of potential in a large user base, but its very size can also obscure inequalities. That can be a big problem if you want to leverage that user base for outreach purposes.9

I have no objection to other people’s fun, and I understand that other people’s fun is not necessarily going to be inclusive—that’s certainly true of my fun—but it’s important to talk about that and try to make it better. Yeah, they’re just games. But if we can’t get a game right—or at least better—then what chance do we have on the weightier issues? Ingress and Pokémon are augmenting reality, so any meaningful discussion of them must include consideration of the reality they are augmenting.

  1. See for example Christopher Huffaker and this Kendra James thread
  2. My friend Ruth—who is much more serious about the game than me, and who remains my friend despite the fact that she is on the blue team—is quoted in this Jamie Bologna piece, which touches on some of the security threats and concerns of female players. Beth Winegarner notes that Ingress tends to encourage less sexism than other games. While it is more welcoming—or less unwelcoming—to female players, there can still be barriers to participation. 
  3. Just to reiterate, this data set is from an unscientific survey by a (probable) dude called spacespacedruid. So while I think it’s legitimately useful, maybe it’s best not to ask this single data set to do tons of heavy lifting. 
  4. The results shared by megisawsm417 were, according to Winegarner, from a survey of reddit. 
  5. Beth Winegarner noted user pushback to some of her questions, specifically negative reaction to non-binary gender identities and responses like “WHITE (HOW THE FUCK IS THIS NOT ON HERE?!)” along with more whimsical descriptions of ethnicity, including Jedi. (Which, frankly, make zero sense. Because, come on, Jedi can be a variety of species, and while you could argue for classifying “Jedi” as a religion, government institution, or other organizing social principle, calling it ethnicity just doesn’t work.) 
  6. Cf. Winegarner again, on the idea of social interaction being more thoroughly incorporated into Ingress. 
  7. See Reamde by Neal Stephenson, which features a World of Warcraft-esque game where alignment is based on preferred color palette rather than more standard binaries like Good and Evil. 
  8. For thoughts on skinning being more important than what is being skinned, see this thread from Anil Dash
  9. April Hathcock has excellent cautionary thoughts on the topic.