Between This and That Reality

A few weeks ago, my casual walk on campus suddenly turned into a police incident.

As my colleague Deb Streusand recently wrote on our blog, we have been playing an augmented reality game called Ingress. It turns the entire world into a battle between two factions trying to conquer and control portals, which are based on actual physical locations. Like her, I have found Ingress addictive. My walks from campus to home now usually take three times as long, as I walk in a zig-zag pattern to “smash” portals, as capturing them is called in game parlance. I can definitely say it is the only video game that has led me to exercise more.

an image showing the identity badges for both factions in the game. The green badge is for the Enlightenment, while the blue one is for the Resistance faction.
When you join Ingress, you are prompted to pick a side in the global struggle to control Exotic Matter, the energy around which all game mechanics function.

Ingress is pretty immersive, and sometimes it causes you to be so focused in the game’s augmented reality as to forget what’s going on in the physical world – which leads me back to the police incident I mentioned above.

I had been walking around campus smashing “Smurf” portals (the two factions, Resistance and Enlightenment, are represented by the colors blue and green respectively, leading to the pejorative nicknames of “Smurfs” and “Frogs”). I was near the water fountain by the LBJ Library, when a combination of wearing headphones and looking down at my phone had made me into an uncooperative suspect.

I figured this out when a combination of temporary silence on my headphones and my looking up led me to realize there were about four officers approaching me, one drawing his taser and another yelling “ON THE GROUND, NOW!” I immediately fell on my knees, throwing my hands up, and with it my phone flew out pulling my headphones along. A second before, I had been an Enlightenment agent capturing Smurf portals, but now, I was merely a suspect with some twelve police officers approaching me from different directions.

Before I knew, they were all around me. One handcuffed me, while another asked if I was so-and-so. Tremulously, I blabbed my whole full name back to him. After reaching into my pocket for my wallet and my ID, they quickly let me go. Apparently, this person had made a threat to someone who worked in a nearby building, and I matched his description. I should note that the UTPD officers were very kind after the incident, apologizing and offering to file a report on the incident on my behalf, which I thought unnecessary.

The whole incident, however, made me realize that we live in a world where augmented realities can blur the line between physical and virtual worlds. Mentally, I had almost entirely abstracted from the physical world around me. I was not in Austin, TX – I was in a Resistance control field I was attempting to liberate for my team, the Enlightenment. If augmented reality is the enhancement of the world around us with a digital layer, virtual reality is the the creation of a whole alternate reality in the digital world. My experience, however, shows that these distinctions can be blurred. The way in which I was absorbed by the game transformed it from an augmented reality to a virtual one.

Apparently I am not the only for which this has caused some trouble. According to a 2012 article, an Ingress player in Ohio was detained for a similar reason. He had been standing next to a police station, which was a portal in the game, for long enough time to make him suspicious. Let this be a warning tale about keeping your realities straight. Augmented reality, I suppose, is a sliding scale between the physical world and the virtual one.

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