Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Ingress and Education

INGRESS and EDUCATION: The Experiment

- by Stuart King
- Photos by Stuart King and Paul Cifone

This blog tells the story of my experiment using the location-based game Ingress for educational purposes in Melbourne, Australia.

This blog is personal and reflects my own individual views.

First, if you do not already, you need to know WHAT Ingress is.  Read this great description of Google's app first please by clicking the link below. See you after the break!


Welcome back.

Hopefully you have discovered that a vast invisible strategy game is being played all around you between two teams, The Resistance and The Enlightened.

To set the scene, I moved from England in 2000 to teach at ELTHAM College, set high in the beautiful foothills of the Yarra Ranges.  This independent school impressed at once with its unique blend of innovative creative thinking and academic tradition.

I had been experimenting with Ingress since January 2014 and I had found it to be a fun way to get outside and explore the countryside and cityscapes of Melbourne. I knew that there had already been four million downloads of the app on Android from Google's Play Store, but the introduction of the game to Apple's iOS was too good an opportunity to miss and I put a proposition to my colleagues.

There was a lot of Maths involved.  Whilst not necessary to begin using the app, I had seen examples of students elsewhere using classic geometry to improve their game, such as this one.

I found this fascinating.  To think that the work of a first-century Greek thinker was being used to help a modern teenager deepen their knowledge of a phone app!  Then too, many of the locations you had to go to were actual works of Art.  Also, there was a science fiction back story for English teachers that you gradually discovered from 'hacking' little pieces of video from portals.  For PE staff, potentially plenty of physical exercise was to be had. 

This is the kind of thing that teachers are always looking for: the semi-mythical 'integrated curriculum project', so I wondered, how could we use Ingress in education?

Ingress seemed like the perfect choice for a co-curricular programme, something that would be perfect for evening, weekend and holiday events.  It could take its place alongside traditional College activities such as cricket, choir, debating and chess.  I gave a brief presentation to our students in Years 8 and 12, explaining the game and asking volunteers to come and try it out.  I did the same with our staff, offering possibly the world's first drive-in staff training when I invited members of the faculty to drop into our nearest township on the way home to learn about the game.  Well, out of those 850 people, just three came the first week to our mission in the tiny township of Research. 

The few early adopters had the right idea in the end because things exploded in popularity soon after, especially when the app was released on the iPhone in July 2014. Small teams started to form and students were discovering that even at the lower levels they could accomplish a lot if they worked together.  Most opted to play for The Enlightened side.  Some speculated that this was because the green colour matched the College uniform; others that it the word 'Enlightened' reflected the open-minded, positive self-image of Year 8 in particular.

A month later, I had a group of 40 with the app installed and ready to go on field trips.  They were already making progress in the game and some were approaching the higher levels under their own steam.  I had to limit numbers on our co-curricular excursions so that the staff could safely supervise everyone on our first trip to the city centre to start claiming some famous portals for ELTHAM College.

So...What are these 'Portals' like?

Let's start with a Portal in the middle of Melbourne, the Techbar Android statues in the Telstra building:

...How they look in-game.

The actual Android statues...

And here is another, the Metallic Pebbles on Elizabeth Street:

Portals can be buildings, signs, fountains, towers, statues, art installations or even unique businesses or shops.

Once you are within 20 meters of one of these portals, you can view the 'virtual reality' around that object using your phone or tablet and take ownership of it.  

Seeing the real world through the lens of a phone seems unusual at first, but in fact humans view the real world from a variety of perspectives already.

For example, everyone will be familiar with an aerial photograph.  Here's how Elizabeth St looks from the sky, which is to say the perspective of an observer in a balloon:

Here's how it looks when we overlay a different mode of perception upon that reality, a map that represents the world with a diagram:

And finally, here is how the same area of Melbourne looks through the Ingress scanner:

The streets are visible but you can also see the portals that exist in the virtual game world as flares of green, blue or grey.  It is possible to combine these views on a special version of Google maps provided for users at https://www.ingress.com/intel.

Here is another example, a view of the MCG (the 11th largest stadium in the world) captured by ELTHAM College students on a beautiful winter day in 2014:

The MCG is surrounded by statues of famous athletes, so capturing the portals around it involved visiting all of them several times.  This used to be one of the great things about Ingress: it invites you to explore and interact with the history and culture of the real world.  Whilst Ingress has something in common with orienteering and geocaching, it goes far beyond this, since participants must interact with both a real and virtual world as they play.

"It was an incredible experience; being able to play in a virtual world, all day. I have to admit it was quite different to normal school, but educational all the same. As well as leaning about the city, we captured many portals and took over the MCG. Best excursion ever." - Beth, 14

Students rapidly discovered that their definition of 'art' was too narrow as they moved into DeGraves Lane to check off the portals linked to some of the city's famous graffiti walls.

Like Tom in the photo above, they realise that there is a secret science-fiction story going on all around them, one that they too can enter.
"I really enjoyed going into the city with the popular app, Ingress. We ventured out into Melbourne in search of virtual portals. The portals are usually in significant objects such as, Statues, Building and Street Art. The app is great for learning your way around the city and other places you probably didn't know about."
-Martin, 14

The enthusiasm of the students was phenomenal, as the teachers watched them running at top speed from one landmark to the next. 

The day came to a fitting end as we captured the famous Deborah Hepburn ‘Angel’ sculpture on Birrarung Marr.  Hepburn stayed at the College in the 1990s as an artist in residence and left behind pieces such as the one in the Forum.

Here is her sculpture in the ELTHAM College Forum today:


Research is showing that about half of all computer gamers are female here, so it has been interesting to see more and more girls are mastering the app.  Indeed, some of the best players are Year 8 girls, demonstrating a combination of quick reactions and creative problem-solving skills that have left my head spinning.  However, the limited research done and my own personal experience indicates that only a very small number of Ingress players in general are female or transgender.  One study of 1500 players suggests 7% are female.  

"It was really great to explore the city and learn as we played ingress! We actually learned heaps without even realising it. There were only three girls on the trip and I definitely recommend it to all the girls as it’s a game that more should play!" - Mia, 15

It was not lost on us that the statues of famous people in the city are almost all of men.  We guessed about 15% were female.  None were transgender.  This is a sad comment on society and one that led to much discussion.  All of this is wonderful teaching material and about as up-to-date as it is possible to get.  Applications like Ingress do not replace  core classroom-based work, but they do make wonderfully rich and exciting co-curricular activities that can complement it.

Perhaps the most famous female gamer and researcher today is Jane McGonigal.  She has even suggested in her acclaimed talk here at the TED conference that games can actually make the world a better place.  The potential is real but I believe that the problems inherent in the game that I outline below will be particularly off-putting for younger and especially female players, unjust as this is.


Some speculate about why Google has made this app.  I know that there is at least one journalist in Australia who suspects that it is all about data collection for profit, Stephen Hutcheon from the Sydney Morning Herald. Another believes that the aim is for Google to perfect its all-conquering Maps application: 

" In order to play, you walk from place to place with Ingress running on your GPS enabled smartphone...and all the while the data is collected and sent to Google’s server where gameplay takes place.  Through this process, Google is collecting vast amounts of pedestrian data, average walking speed, routes taken, pictures, and even Wi-Fi hotspots available.  Google Maps currently does not cover pedestrian walking paths well, and...Google will probably use the data from Ingress to create the best pedestrian maps available." Jeremy@applieddatalabs.com 

Ingress is also a good way to teach people about online safety, since the application broadcasts your successes to other players in the area in a scrolling text window.  This was a point of concern from the very beginning on my mind.  It is theoretically possible that you could meet other Ingress fans.  Indeed, over time this is inevitable in a city.  Typically, this leads to communities and even friendships developing, but as with any sport or activity done in public such as running, cycling or even collecting train numbers, a certain amount of common sense is required.  For anyone planning to use Ingress in education it is necessary to cover these health and safety areas; this will be familiar to any teacher. In time, this led to my distrust of Ingress as a teaching tool as detailed at the end of this article.

The largest meeting of players in Melbourne was for a special event actually run by Google called the Interus Anomaly, where several hundred people of all ages competed in what could be called a 'virtual treasure hunt' around the city, demonstrating some of the most advanced computer-enhanced teamwork that I have ever seen. 

Meanwhile, back at ELTHAM College, only two (now graduated) senior students of the original forty continued playing the game after the initial activity days for at least a few weeks or months and one parent, all of whom required cars to play in the way they desired..

Dylan says,  "I had been playing for about 2 months before the iOS release and achieved level 8 shortly after it.  The time I have spent playing the game has been fantastic, I have gone to places I would have never have gone if it wasn't for the game and learnt things about the various landmarks around Melbourne."

Health and Safety

Seeking Approval

It may be hard or impossible to include Ingress as part of the curriculum, especially if you are unlucky enough to work in a conservative institution that still views something like YouTube as a recent innovation ten years later.  It may not even be a good idea, as I outline in my last entry below.  In the event that you do decide to, these are my recommendations:

A)  Play and become a relative expert yourself.  It is the only way to really understand the issues.  This means getting to at least level 7 in my opinion and making contact in real life with some of the other players in your area, many of whom are complete experts on the history of the game and some of the nicest people you could ever meet.  Join the local Google+ hangout if you have one and go to an event or two.  Ingress is a very social game.  Even though you can play on your own, you are by definition in a team and playing with and against real people, rather than computer-controlled avatars.

I did this by using Ingress to motivate me to ride further and longer on my bike and it helped me to explore the Melbourne basin better than I had ever done before.  I rode hundreds of kilometers and discovered some truly amazing hidden places, like the best postbox I've ever seen (Rocket Pig, below), and a hidden memorial at the location that started the Victorian gold rush in 1851.

While I rode around I thought of a strategy to boost me to the top of the player rankings in Melbourne for a time.  After that, I felt that I at least knew enough to educate larger groups but yet doing so was alarming, since it had required a crazy couple of weeks of fanatical activity when Ingress was the foremost thing in my mind. 

B) Run the activity as a co-curricular club after school.  Invite parents and other staff.  At first, few will come because everyone is busy and most won't 'get it' at first (or maybe ever).  


Whatever your school or college's rules are for excursions obviously applies.  For example, a ratio of one staff member to ten students is typical.  Being aware of medical issues and having everyone's phone numbers is essential.  Where you go will affect this of course and a clearly defined place away from roads is recommended.  People walking around concentrating on their phones and talking to friends is something best done in parkland. 

There is no official age limit on who can play in the Terms of Service, but you need to be 13 to make a Google account in the USA and Australia and this is required to play.

Etiquette in Ingress

A) Dealing with COMM messaging

As you play, there is a scrolling page of text that announces what everyone in the area is doing.  Players can also use this to send or receive SMS messages which can be set to public or private.  As in any social interaction these are typically positive, but there is the potential for negative 'trolling'.

Trolling "is the act of purposefully antagonizing other people on the internet" by making cheeky or sarcastic comments.  Anyone who has spent any time on Facebook will know exactly what this is.   To most people, it is rather annoying at best.  To make friends and to have a smooth experience in game, never send or reply to messages like this.  

If someone is genuinely disrespectful, block them on COMMs and you will not see their text anymore.  Again, this is just like Facebook and other social media sites.  The difference is - and this can be hard to explain to some teens and is alarming - you might meet the people that you are reading about on COMMs including the ones you have blocked.  

b) Meeting People

Ingress players from both teams at an event in Melbourne
As Ingress is a location-based game, sooner or later you are going to see other players. When you first meet another Ingresser out there next to some sculpture or piece of graffiti, it may feel weird.  The first player you meet is equally likely to be a Goth girl, grandpa, geek or marathon runner.  Players are often in cars as well and may try and remain hidden.  I have seen this several times and it is unnerving.  The classic rules about talking to strangers apply. 

The additional thing to remember is that your actions in-game are broadcast on the COMMs channel, meaning that other players will have an idea of your location at that point in time.  Even though they have no idea who you are, I have a teenage daughter myself and I will only let her play Ingress with friends in the day in safe places, the same as with any activity. This is a game that parents and teachers NEED to supervise in detail.

If students start playing Ingress in their own time outside of school, it becomes like any other activity that teenagers are allowed to do by their parents.  I still think that is it essential to let families know about the points above though and also those at the end of this article, by which time my view had changed considerably over time.

Google lists these guidelines with an important comment on player privacy: here

Interview with Niantic Labs at Google

At the start of September, we were thrilled to see that so many people had been interested in our Ingress project that it was featured in the weekly email from Google that is sent out to everyone with the app, some hundreds of thousands of people. 

August 2014 Edition of Niantic Project Operations 

Players from all over the world were making comments saying how interesting it was on our various webpages, which was great to hear considering that one of the biggest issues facing educational innovation is the skepticism of the early and late adopters. 

Everett Rodgers' work on Diffusion of Innovations is interesting in this context and made for a fascinating discussion with the Year 8 students, who almost all perceive themselves to be as Innovators and Early Adopters, rightly or wrongly.

Raza Ahmed from Google's creative team in Los Angeles talked to some of our Year 8 students in an exciting live video Hangout that lasted for an hour.  We were thrilled to then feature in one of the YouTube videos that can be hacked out of portals in the game and the full version already has has 22 000 views.  We saved the part with us as a separate video clip.  IT starts at the 2-minute mark here: September Ingress Report 2014

Hopefully this might lead to more opportunities to pioneer the use of modern technology for education and fun in co-curricular activities.

We were really pleased to receive an email from the game design team and a reward pack.

Ingress Missions!

We were asked by the Ingress game designers if we would like to help beta test a brand-new feature introduced into the game called Missions.  The first step would be finding out what they were and how to make them, as well as testing them to find out if they were working effectively.  After that, we would have to decide how they could be used educationally.  I was also keen to discover what the wider community of Ingress players in Melbourne thought about them and to involve students in the process.

Making the Missions was easy.  A webpage opened and it was just a case of going through the four stages and then trying it out.

The first stage is choosing a mission type.  These involve players visiting portals either sequentially or in any order.  It is also possible leave clues so that players need to discover which portal to go to next, rather than simply be directed.  Then you add a title, description and upload an image to act as its icon.

The third screen allows you to use a special version of the Ingress map to select the portals that act as breadcrumbs for your route, before a final preview screen which allows you to change things around much like ordering a Prezi presentation.

Above, Ian and Dylan, (our first students to reach the endgame at Level 8+) designed their own mission with me advising the beta testing phase. This is one of the first to go live in the city. I was fascinated to see how they used game tactics and knowledge as well as making sure that members of the public who would do this activity would also incidentally visit murals, artistic installations and even World War Two canons.

Ingress Orienteering

Orienteering is one of those activities commonly done in and around schools and colleges. The usual method of setting one up is for a supervisor to design a course with a map and local knowledge.  Participants will then use a map and probably compass to navigate around a course, locating markers that hopefully haven't been moved before returning at the end to find out the accuracy and time from a judge with a stopwatch.

I believe Ingress can possibly add something to this experience in certain circumstances, since it has a few advantages over the traditional method:

  • The course can be designed on a computer and edited at leisure.
  • There are no tags to get lost: the checkpoints are portals which are often fascinating places.  In most cases, you would not be allowed to affix a tag to one anyway.
  • The portals will not move or degrade over time.
  • Time, distance and completion are all recorded on the smartphone.
  • The route can be set up so as to allow more activities than just visiting a portal. Participants can also make fields, link portals and so on.
  • Participants rate the route so that over time an average score appears for time and quality.
  • The route is available to everyone and cannot be vandalized. 
  • It is extremely rare these days to see people navigating with map and compass, whereas it is extremely common to see them navigating with Google Maps.
  • Participants obviously have a phone in case of an emergency.
Traditional Orienteering Control Point

Ingress Control Point.  Quite cool...

On the other hand, the traditional map and compass method is still better for teaching land navigation skills for hikers and fell runners.  I completed the UK Mountain Leader qualification, so I am well aware of that angle.

The fact is though, most people never need to navigate with a compass unless it is their job, hobby or sport.  I teamed up with our Outdoor Education teacher Guy Mitchell to try and design an orienteering activity that used Ingress to update orienteering in the same way that a car GPS has updated a road atlas.  Here's the process I followed in pioneering this activity:

STEP 1: Be Aware of the Limitations of Technology

Smartphone orienteering has some issues, as I found out when testing the route. Random telecommunications problems can mean that participants’ internet and/or phone reception can disappear, sometimes for extended periods.  This obviously renders the course useless.  Some carriers can work in certain areas, whilst others don’t.  Batteries can run out in a couple of hours, so everyone has to be prepared for this by either having a full charge beforehand, or by bringing battery packs.  You also have the potential risk of an expensive device being dropped or lost.

STEP 2: Design

This is done on a desktop PC as above.  Currently routes need to be approved by beta testers and there is a wait of a few hours before the course becomes active.

STEP 3: Testing

Pace it out yourself and do a health and safety risk assessment as required by your organization, if applicable.  For example, my route required awareness of two road crossings and an investigation of whether snakes could be living in Whipstick Gully.  That's Australia for you!

STEP 4: Explaining and Preparation

I next needed to explain to a group of new students what Ingress was, how to download and use it and then go through all of the usual things we'd do anyway before going orienteering.  Going with one phone between two was the easiest method.  It didn't take too long.

STEP 5: Mission Testing

We tried the route with twelve students and everyone thoroughly enjoyed it.  The choice of Warrandyte turned out to be perfect, since it is an historic riverside settlement of great natural beauty with historic links to the Victorian Gold Rush. Students got to find the portal at the entrance of the 1896 Victory Mine, which none of them had ever seen.  Even students who had never tried Ingress outside before were able to easily complete the Mission.

This was combined with an outdoor education Kayaking trip on the river in perfect weather, making for a classic afternoon's activity.

A YEAR LATER…Ingress may be failing at what it used to be best at.

Whilst I have left most of the blog as it was at the time of writing, after a year of trials, reflection and experiences, I ultimately no longer recommend the game to educators or even, in many cases, for parents.

The puzzle-solving and explorational aspects of the game remain excellent.  The health benefits in terms of activity are real but disappear once you start driving around, which is what most people do.  


As mentioned, other players (everyone in the area) are alerted to your position every time you perform a significant action, such as claiming a portal.  The time is also announced.  This information is public and you cannot opt out of it.  I myself have been able to find a couple of players just to say hello to them in this way just with minimal effort and others have found me.

This is clearly unsafe in principle and something everyone needs to be aware of.  If we were to take things further, a player with malicious intent could probably find you without too much effort and could also form an impression of your actions, habits and movements.  They could tell if you were walking, cycling or driving by the speed and distance that you played.


Even leaving this example alone, many adult Ingress players are in my opinion fanatics; the game has the potential to be unhealthily addictive.  The nature of the game encourages almost insanely repetitive actions to progress to the highest levels, such as destroying 40 000 different portals, or destroying 300 000 pieces of enemy equipment. This is very clearly a Skinner Box model.

Many of the keen higher level players are prepared to drive hundreds of miles a day in pursuit of extremely temporary achievements.  For example, one told me with pride how he drove from Melbourne to Mt Kosciusko (500 KM) to claim an important portal.  Others tell me they plan their holidays around going to areas with new or important portals and then spend almost all of that holiday effectively looking at their phones.  I have noted solo players attacking portals in remote parks at bizarre times such as 2am. Most of these people will admit that they know this is addictive behaviour but will laugh it off or even boast about it in the same way that a 'World of Warcraft' junkie might have done.


Players can get agitated or become aggressive if they see their own playstyle threatened or impeded.  I have received messages attempting to ‘troll’ me after destroying a portal someone felt protective of.  An aspect of the game is trying to keep your own secret 'guardian portals' and some players will become very angry if these are captured.  This is understandable within the world of the game, as they may have been logging into the game every day for months to recharge these portals and the individual who destroyed it will be announced to them in a text.  

I have noted recently that players have started to eliminate gains that others on their own team make by 'flipping' portals using an in-game device called an ADA / JARVIS that allows them to claim a portal for themselves.  During one of the game’s rare ‘Anomaly’ events this may be justified, but at other times seems simply elitist since there is a conscious and definite choice to undo someone else’s effort in the game in order to benefit themselves.  Any gains for the 'team' are extremely short-lived, possibly lasting for just minutes, but I believe that it becomes difficult for the people involved to appreciate this.

A large number drive and play Ingress at the same time as they are controlling the vehicle.  This is known as 'cargressing' and is dangerous in the extreme.


The once-fabulous feature of the game that meant that portals were historic or artistic sites was probably irrevocably ruined when the designers asked that players try and submit up to 5000 more portals each for a badge (achievement) called ‘Seer’.  This led to a massive influx of terrible portal sites, including charity donation bins, every piece of signage in every area imaginable and even (outrageously and ghoulishly) individual graves in cemeteries and pieces of playground equipment in children’s parks.  Since Ingress players often group up, we have the horrible sight of mourners and parents being buzzed by silent groups of phone-staring, slowly-walking, inscrutable Ingress players.  It really is not a good look.  My own partner essentially quit the game because many of the local players routinely 'farmed' the cemetery at Box Hill in Melbourne, where many portals had been created.

Parents who also were players of the game reported this one portal in an infant playground at least four times to Ingress to always be told that there was no problem. This is in a local park where even users of the program were unhappy with strangers pointing camera phones towards their kids.  Even leaving this aside, surely this kind of 'portal' makes absolutely zero sense.  The rules for portals are really, REALLY not applied and it is little wonder that currently the entire mechanism for users submitting portals has been completely suspended.

Our own school, including the Primary School for toddlers, had portals created INSIDE ITS OWN GROUNDS by jocular users, despite the criteria stating that this is against the Terms of Submission.  Even once reported, Ingress at first stated repeatedly (after many weeks) that the portals were fine.  Only after continual appeals have they finally taken action.  

All of these developments considerably changed my view of the game and I can no longer recommend it for educational use except in the most controlled of scenarios.