This past November, Google released a closed beta version of its "alternate reality" app, Ingress, which blends the real world with a conspiratorial sci-fi plot, attracting the interest of gamers who are taking to the streets in search of the next great escape. Following the encoded cues of Google's in house Niantic Project, players form an allegiance with one of two oppositional groups, the so called Enlightened faction which seeks to bring about a global paradigm shift, or its enemy, the Resistance, which is attempting to preserve humanity's status quo.
The mystery that shrouds the game itself, the appeal of turning one's technological device into a powerful and unique tool, and the mystique of becoming a member of a secret society, certainly have their appeal in a society drawn in by pop culture phenomena like Harry Potter, Avatar, The Secret, and The Da Vinci Code. And while the social enactment of fantasy world games has been around since Dungeons and Dragons, and video games have likewise been played for decades, "alternative reality games," which hold the potential to evolve into full fledged "augmented reality" worlds should be of particular concern, especially when conducted under the auspices of Google.
Google's Project Glass promises a computer screen in the form of glasses with the ability to overlay computer generated images onto the real world, thus possessing strong potential for integration into games like Ingress. This augmented reality technology, currently under development via Google X Lab and similar to prototypes developed by Hitlab, could have powerful implications for the way we live and interact in the world, from paving the way for ubiquitous, targeted advertisement campaigns, to enabling floating profiles for people, products, and businesses, to literally changing the way we see physical reality.
Project Glass is in part overseen by Sebastian Thrun, former head of Stanford's Artificial Intelligence department, and recipient of the 2005 Grand Challenge award granted by the US military's experimental technology research agency DARPA, for his team's driverless car design which autonomously navigated a 132 mile course in the Mohave desert ahead of twenty two other competing teams. The crowd-sourced competition generated research not only for what would become Google X Lab's own fleet of cars that drive themselves, but also provided vital information for the Defense Department's ongoing refinement of ground based robotic warfare technologies. Thrun isn't Google's sole connection to the Pentagon's ultra secretive research agency. In March 2012, Google hired former DARPA director Regina Dugan into a senior position within the company.
Would be participants in Google's alternative reality may not consider too deeply what it means to accept identities and be defined by the parameters of a multinational corporation with ties to the military industrial complex. And one can only speculate at this time if Ingress, or later iterations of alternate and augmented reality games will involve storyline advancement through the purchase of material goods or interactions with brands and product placements within staged zones. But with online games already in existence, like Second Life, where it is common for users to purchase virtual real estate for "real" money and purchase real products in virtual stores, it should be clear that games like Ingress will increasingly blur the lines between what is real and what is fabricated. In fact, Ingress made use of an actor assuming the identity of an artist named Tyco, who staged a conspiratorial outburst at a comic book convention, shouting fragmented Ingress plot hooks as if they were a real thing. "Tyco" was subsequently hauled off by "security," and footage of the fake outburst was later used in a story advancement video as a part of the game, demonstrating the intentional push to dissolve boundaries between the spectacle of the real world and contrived, participatory fantasy worlds.
As people in the developed world continually seek out lives of diversion and experiential novelty, relating to one another through fictional television and Hollywood productions, the division between fantasy and reality may essentially drop away altogether. The real danger here is not only that individuals are literally paying to have their behavior defined and monitored by multinational corporations that work closely with shadowy government agencies, but additionally, that this type of immersive fantasy play fundamentally widens the disconnect between individuals and the myriad crises that our society and the world at large face. While augmented reality gamers may claim they understand the distinction between what is real and what is "in game," for those who are increasingly immersing themselves in the knowledge of actual events in Earth 1.0, talk of using portal keys to link portals on city streets in the US while drones piloted by civilians in Nevada kill civilians in nations across the globe, should be viewed as a manifestation of an increasingly pathological culture.
The ancient, and so-called superstitious past, in which animistic spirits believed to inhabit a living, breathing earth were widely celebrated, has come full circle, overwritten by a techno spirit world that is inhabited by the ghosts of a brutal and manipulative reality, desperate to deny and escape itself. In such a world, it is the few who attempt to connect the dots and understand underlying problems. Ingress serves as a well crafted diversion, heading off and co-opting through clever fiction those who might have an inclination to look deeply into the dark circumstances being shaped around us. Thwarting real community and transformation, Ingress provides fodder for the rantings of a diseased culture about things that only exist on pixelated screens. Having spent years in the solitary confinement of bedrooms and living rooms in front of monitors, lacking contact with the diverse consciousnesses of a living world, the inhabitants of the Ingress game are heading outdoors, babbling about unseen portals while the planet burns. It from this deeply penetrating CGI phantasmagoria from which we are now tasked to awaken.