It figures that I would rediscover my desire to exercise at exactly the point in my life when it suddenly became unwise for me to exercise at all.
On a Friday night two months ago, my friend and I were finishing up dinner in Mountain View. We had absolutely nothing to do. I was bored, and honestly feeling a little guilty about it. How can anyone be bored anymore? We have the internet. We have internet piracy. I’m well-paid enough to entertain myself legally, anyway. I shouldn’t be bored.
“Let’s see Maleficent,” I suggested. But my friend had a better idea. He told me that down the street, at Google headquarters, someone had slung a slackline up by the side of the road. A slackline is a practice tightrope, only a couple feet up above the ground. “Want to try it out?” he asked.
I was aggressively in favor of the slackline. “Yes,” I said. “Absolutely. Let’s do this.” Tightropes are the opposite of boring.
Well, I was on the tightrope for less than thirty seconds before I fell off. My right ankle made a loud popping sound and swelled up into a ball the size of a beefy man’s fist. I couldn’t put any weight on it. At the emergency room they told me I had a sprain. An exceptionally bad sprain: my foot and leg were mottled with bruises. I looked like a corpse from the knee down. I attended E3 in Los Angeles with a collapsible travel cane, and at the expo, strangers kept giving me funny looks, as if I must be joking. I’m twenty-five. I have about as much right to use a cane as I have to be bored.
Several weeks later, I was still limping and miserable, still a little swollen. But things were getting better. It was, at least, an exciting story to tell: I just needed rest.
Well, I was about to make a discovery that would end all rest and relaxation in my life and drive me to walk twenty miles in a week for no good reason at all: the long-running Android game Ingress was about to release on iOS.
I’d heard about Ingress from Android-owning friends and it sounded fascinating. A friend told me sometime in 2012 that he’d spent every night of every week for a whole month walking around his neighborhood at four in the morning, playing this game. It was apparently developed by a Google division in an attempt to get people to take pictures of public art and monuments. It was intriguingly weird.
I started playing it in my office. The game immediately asked me which team I wanted to be on. There are two: the Resistance and the Enlightenment. The Resistance is basically the Rebel Alliance, and the Enlightenment is basically the Illuminati. Naturally, I picked the Resistance.
The game showed me a map of my local area. It was covered in glowing beacons. These beacons are “portals” through which “exotic matter” created by ancient aliens is entering our world. Portals are attached to the GPS locations of real buildings and objects out in the world. The teams compete to capture these portals by attaching defensive objects called “resonators”. Each resonator has its own HP. You can destroy portals by firing attack missiles (called “Xmp bursters”) from your current location. There are also mechanics called “linking” and “fielding”, and there are “mods,” and “resonator deploy radius” is a thing. I was intimidated.
I put the game down until that evening, when I wandered into downtown Mountain View to play. The main street of that town is a pretty solid mass of portals. To get more resonators and Xmps, you “hack” portals and extract their loot. I limped down the street to the town hall, hacking everything I could reach. then I found my first unclaimed portal.
I just captured a bunch of stuff in the town hall area and started heading back toward my house. But when I was about a hundred yards away from the park, someone with the playername “JCKL” captured my portal. I freaked out. Had someone been watching me that whole time? I sped up down the street, capturing a few more things. The stranger captured those back as well, only minutes after I had moved on. I was being followed. Was I being stalked? What counts as stalking in this situation? Isn’t stalking the main mechanic of this game?
I was incensed. I was even angrier when I got home and realized that literally every single one of my IRL friends on iOS had joined the Enlightenment team and that they were planning on riding around San Francisco together in a bus, playing the game while drinking mimosas. This is not a joke. That event was scheduled for today. As I write this story, they are currently riding around in the mimosa bus in San Francisco. My friends are now all my enemies and they are all drunk and happy and I am sitting here reminiscing about being stalked through the streets of my town by a stranger named “JCKL,” which is not a particularly comforting name. Did he have a friend named “HYD”? What the fuck was going on around here?
I slammed my laptop shut and checked my phone again. Chillingly, JCKL had captured the portal across the street from my house.
The next day, while fiddling around on my phone, I figured out that linking portals into a triangle creates a “field” and scores you points. I spent that evening after work marching back and forth all around my office. The game has a chat channel, where more-experienced Android players were providing suggestions. “Head down to the park,” one of them told me, noticing my eagerness. “You can find some good XP there.”
So I limped down to the park and captured it. “Good job,” the Android player told me. He asked if I wanted to join the “local Ingress community.”
Ingress players organize entirely over GOOGLE PLUS. Okay, I thought. Whatever. I contacted the necessary people and soon enough I was a member of the South Bay Resistance Google Plus community. They added me to a couple chatty Google Hangouts. The next day, my anonymous benefactor added me to a Hangout for the entire town where I work.
There were a number of friendly, talkative characters in there. A guy we’ll call “CM” was telling me that the community could really “enhance my game.” My chat channel adviser from the previous day was there– we’ll call him “FN”. A few other players were moaning about Enlightenment control over the downtown strip. They all seemed like nice people. I noticed that they were definitely all men.
FN asked if I wanted some free resonators and Xmps. “Sure,” I said. It’s a busy town. It’s not like I was gonna get murdered. I took a long lunch break to walk into town and meet him. At the appointed hour, a young man in a yarmulke and tassels waved at me from the other side of the street. I crossed over and we shook hands. He spoke quietly and quickly and gave me heaps of free gear. We walked around the block to quickly build all the portals in the area. He knew a little story about almost every single one.
Originally, all portals were monuments, but as the game’s worn on, other kinds of public buildings and art have been added. Murals can be portals. Famous buildings can be portals. Hospitals and churches and town halls and civic centers and schools and signs of any kind– everything from fancy house number plaques to Facebook’s enormous “Like” sign near the Dumbarton bridge– can be a portal. Things that are pretty and interesting and important to look at. And, sometimes, things that aren’t. There is apparently a nudist colony in Los Gatos that contains several portals. Non-nudist Ingress players actually pay entrance fees to go in there to capture them.
FN was a long-time player who had submitted most of the portals in the downtown area where I work. As we walked along the block, he told me seven or eight quick little stories. Over the next few weeks, he would keep me up to date on which town halls are built over ancient graveyards, which murals have been painted over by the town, which churches used to be which slightly different kind of churches, and which street-side electrical box was recently “lost”– really, lost from the curb, and nobody knows who took it down– by the municipal utilities department. Wow, I thought. I guess this game really makes you pay attention to your community. That was definitely a wholesome way to spin it to myself.
I felt like I needed a wholesome explanation for what I was doing. I did not tell anyone in my office that I’d been out on the street meeting strangers and swapping tales of municipal corruption. “I really like this triangles game,” I told them. That’s how I thought of it: the game where you go for a stroll and make triangles. Nothing too weird. Nothing embarrassing. But I was embarrassed, a little. I was meeting people in public. That’s kind of weird, isn’t it? But exciting. And I’m an adult now. I can meet internet people in the street if I want.
That afternoon, someone attacked the portal I’d been maintaining outside my office. “Sorry,” I blurted, jumping up from my desk. “Someone is attacking my triangles.”
I rushed outside and around the corner and stood beside the portal. It was a bike rack shaped like a pennyfarthing bicycle. Someone was hitting it with XMP blasts. Every time they destroyed my low-level resonators, I’d put up another one. It was giving me a lot of XP. The attacker was probably getting annoyed.
Suddenly, a tiny middle-aged woman burst from an alley and started hurrying toward me, eyes locked on her phone. I limped away as fast as I could and hid behind a tree. I stood behind that tree for three minutes, tapping away at my own phone. I fought her off. Then I went back inside my office and informed everyone there that I had just scared off the enemy.
My friends were really getting into cheering for the other team. It was a group activity for them, probably very exciting. They were looking forward to the mimosa bus. I had some testy conversations on Facebook and ended up the night by typing the bizarre and triumphant sentence “You have created the oppositional environment in which I thrive.” Then I threw on a jacket and went downtown at one in the morning to capture portals and throw fields.
I strolled around a park where lawn sprinklers spat erratically and a lone janitor dumped trash cans into a dumpster. I wandered back along the main streets of town, where drunk people were sitting on street corners and distressedly muttering about love. I headed home through a neighborhood I don’t usually enter and found a tree in someone’s front yard that was covered in weird little hanging objects. It was too dark to see what they were. I still haven’t been back there in the light.
The next morning my ankle hurt like hell.
It was becoming increasingly clear that I couldn’t continue walking all the time. It wasn’t just Ingress. My foot would act up a little on the long walk between my car and the office, too. A solution struck me: scooters. Walking and biking requires you to push or step with both feet all the time, but little push scooters allow you to push only some of the time, with only one foot. The rest of the time, I’d just stand on my good leg and let my busted one relax. Scooters were clearly my solution to all things, including Ingress.
The going price for adult-sized Razor scooters on craigslist in the Bay Area is about 50$. Someone named Noah, from an upper-class neighborhood in the North Bay, offered me a good-looking one for that price. It was a long drive, but I did the gasoline math and it was still cheaper than ordering a new scooter or a used one from Amazon. So I left work a little early and drove for a full hour through East Bay rush-hour traffic, then north into a region of rolling hills and pine forests.
Noah’s house was on a street full of other houses that covered the full range of ritziness, everything from a hilltop manor to a fenced-off ranch home with six cars parked in the driveway and a “BEWARE OF DOG” sign. Noah pretty much lived in a mansion. It was on a plot sunk about fifteen feet below the level of the road. I stood at the top of the steep driveway and saw an adult man playing baseball with a tiny little boy in the side yard.
Nobody noticed me. “Hey?” I called. They turned and stared. For some reason, the father never said a single word to me during the entire time I spent on his property. He and his boy just stared in silence. “I’m here to buy a scooter from someone called ‘Noah,’” I said.
The father turned and walked into an open door in the side of the house. “NOAH,” he shouted.
Noah emerged from the house. He as a preteen, probably about 12 years old. He was wheeling an adult-sized razor scooter almost as large as himself. “I’m your customer,” I told him.
“This is the scooter,” he said, and handed it to me.
I was overcome by a feeling of extreme embarrassment. I was allowing a mansion-dwelling 12-year-old to sell me his toy. I had fifty dollars in my pocket and I was about to hand them over to a child whose father was allowing him to sell things to strangers on craigslist without any adult input whatsoever. I had been communicating with a 12-year-old over email and hadn’t even realized it.
So I bent down and spun the wheels and did a cursory spin of the handlebars. “Looks good,” I stammered, and handed him the fifty bucks. “Fifty bucks,” I said.
Noah didn’t count the money. He stuck it straight in his pocket. I noticed that the dad and Noah’s little brother were staring at me now, too. I wondered what the dad thought about all this. Probably he was thinking, “This person is a clown. This person sucks.”
Noah’s little brother shrieked, “IS HE GONNA RIDE IT HOME???”
Whatever, kid. I’m a lady. But I obliged him by riding my scooter down the street and out of sight.
I got back in my car and took a moment to reflect on my extreme embarrassment. Whatever, I told myself. Now I can Ingress in good health. I decided to orchestrate as cool an exit from the neighborhood as possible. So I turned on my phone, rolled down my windows, and blasted Matthew Dear’s “Do The Right Thing” as I drove down past Noah’s house. Noah and his brother watched me. Their dad was tossing the ball to himself. He didn’t seem to give a shit.
So now I had an adult-sized Razor scooter. That night, I took it for a spin. I went and hit a bunch of portals around the residential part of town. Scooting was indeed a little easier on my foot. I could go farther and faster, too.
On my way back to my house, at two in the morning, I wheeled the scooter through a downtown area where drunk Silicon Valley punks were piling out of the bars and hollering at one another about how wasted they were. I weaved through the crowd. A bouncer shouted that my scooter was cool. “Thanks, man,” I shouted back. “I bought it from a 12-year-old.”
My scooter made my life much easier, and I started playing Ingress even more. Someone on the Google Hangout for my neighborhood invited me to a “build,” where players capture portals and throw fields. We scheduled a meetup location. “You will know me by my scooter,” I told him.
The build organizer knew everything about the portals and walking routes in the area. The other build attendees included a guy in his forties and a twenty-something software engineer who seemed as if he were about seven feet tall. So far, I’d never seen another woman at a meetup.
“I’m moving to Chicago in a couple weeks,” the organizer told us. “I’m already in contact with the Resistance players over there. So I’m all set.”
Halfway through the evening, an enemy player drove up in a car, blew up all our portals, and had a conversation with our guide. They knew each other pretty well. This guy was a top-level organizer for all the Enlightenment players in the region, and he was one of the people who regularly defended the enemy’s “home base,” in downtown Los Altos. “The guys over there are, like, in a cult,” FN had told me. “Every night at 9 PM, they get in a car and drive very slowly around the whole town.”
“Every night?” I’d asked.
“Yes. Literally every single night.”
“Yeah. You go down there and blow it up, and five guys will show up in about fifteen minutes and reverse everything you’ve done.”
Later, CM and FN invited me on a build in a part of Palo Alto filled almost completely with office parks. In Silicon Valley, every company with a massive office complex buys six or seven abstract statues made up of of hideous piled polygons or mutilated-looking dancing people. This is not generally true of the newer software companies– the art at Google, for example, is a little more personal and relevant to them as a company– but the old hardware companies and research laboratories scattered around the South Bay are haunted by bronze-plated string-bean families, low-poly animals, and water features made out of giant DNA helixes. I drove down there by myself in the middle of the night and captured a statue of something that looked like a deer.
“Wait there,” CM told me. “We’re coming to pick you up.”
I sat down on a damp hillside. Behind me, water sprinklers were chuk-chuk-chuking in the dark. The Arcade Fire was playing in an amphitheater nearby and I could hear people screaming faintly over the treetops.
A car came rolling up in the dark and stopped in front of me. FN and CMn were inside. We drove to a synagogue and captured a menorah statue. The grass here was also very rich and wet. (There is a historic drought taking place in California right now, but everyone is still watering their vast, rolling lawns.) We were here to destroy enemy portals with links on them in order to clear “lanes” for the field links we would soon be throwing. “This field should get several tens of thousands of MU,” CM said. MU are the points you get for covering surface area with a field. They stand for “mind units.” In the game, we are apparently covering the earth with mind-control fields in order to fight a race of ancient aliens who are also trying to control people’s minds. Whatever. Everything about the game is weird.
After the menorah, we split up and headed to three different locations. A fourth player was in a completely different town capturing another vertex of our triangle. A fifth player was in Los Altos, clearing blocking links and distracting the enemy in their home territory. We threw the links, and the entire town was covered in a massive blue triangle.
“You may have to defend,” the other players told me. “We don’t know what corner they’ll attack.”
“In the middle of the night?” I asked. “After checkpoint?” Even after checkpoint, they said. So I sat in my car on a bridge over a creek and waited for the enemy to turn up.
They attacked CM’s corner instead. He texted us every few seconds. “They’re coming,” he said. “They can’t see me. They don’t know I’m here. There’s two of them.” Eventually, they took his corner down. The field lasted about fifteen minutes.
“Good work, everyone,” he said. “We should try again another time.”
I later attended a big meetup in a nearby city where we walked around the town hall four times, building and hacking everything until we’d exhausted all the loot in the area. Close to twenty people showed up. Two were women. Most were men in that golden 21-35 gamer demographic, and many were not tech workers. The organizer was a loud, excited guy who worked in a pizza shop. One player was a youngish college student on rollerblades. One player was visiting from Hong Kong. “I need unique captures,” he told me. “I need that badge for level 9.”
I got first dibs on all the captures, however, because I was only couple thousand points away from level 8. I reached it after about an hour of marching around in circles, and everyone cheered. “You can do real builds now,” they said.
At level 8, all the gear in the game is unlocked. You’re limited to the number of high-level resonators you can place on each portal, however. It takes eight players to make a portal fully level 8. The big meetups in the Bay Area have no problem reaching that number– in fact, they regularly reach 16 to 20 people.
The whole time we built around city hall, the organizers kept worrying that the enemy was gathering to defeat us. “They’re waiting at the gas station. They’ll swoop in the moment we leave,” they fretted. We did a few loops through the surrounding streets. Intoxicated elderly people kept joining our group and walking with us for a few blocks, shouting incoherently. None of them ever once asked why everyone had their phone out. Many of us also had cords winding down to battery packs in our pockets or our backpacks. We must have looked creepy as hell.
Weeks of scooting followed. I developed a system: I would write in a local tea shop until closing at midnight, then spend the next two hours scooting around my neighborhood, fielding it over in the middle of the night. I met up regularly with other players near my office. I drove around bumping friends’ home and work portals to RP8. We met for lunch once in a different part of town and groaned about the poor links the local players were throwing. I learned about “hyperfielding”, which involves nesting three triangles inside another triangle to double your point coverage. My ankle got worse, then better, then worse, then better.
“Your ankle might just stay like this,” my diabetes doctor told me. “Like, it might swell up every time you sit down. These injuries don’t always exactly heal perfect.” I decided I needed to see a joint doctor.
I’d started playing actively in order to beat all my IRL Enlightenment friends, but I was beginning to care less and less about that rivalry. My true enemies were the powerful leaders of the other team, the kinds of people who would jump in their cars at one in the morning and drive into the middle of nowhere to blow up CM’s stuff. My IRL friends were not anywhere close to that dedicated, and the ones who didn’t play were getting annoyed by my behavior. We’d be on our way to dinner when I’d wander into the middle of the street to hack a portal on the opposite side of the road.
“You’re obsessed,” they told me.
“Whatever,” I said. “I’m gonna be super goddamn healthy.” And I was getting super goddamn healthy. My diabetic a1C number, an overall metric of my health, was improving.
When I graduated from college three years ago, an alumnus friend of mine visited the campus and spent the whole weekend reading us the speeches of old graduation speakers. “Have you heard the boredom speech?” he asked me.
The “boredom speech” is a relatively well-known 1995 Dartmouth graduation speech by Joseph Brodsky. You can read it here. It begins this way:
A substantial part of what lies ahead of you is going to be claimed by boredom. The reason I’d like to talk to you about it today, on this lofty occasion, is that I believe no liberal arts college prepares you for that eventuality. Neither the humanities nor science offers courses in boredom. At best, they may acquaint you with the sensation by incurring it. But what is a casual contact to an incurable malaise? The worst monotonous drone coming from a lectern or the most eye-splitting textbook written in turgid English is nothing in comparison to the psychological Sahara that starts right in your bedroom and spurns the horizon.
And oh, god, he’s right. Life is boredom. Routine is boredom. I am terrified of boredom. It’s everywhere. I’m bored even when I’m not actually bored. I’m bored when I’m working on interesting projects and I’m bored when I’m playing excellent computer games. Literally everything can be boring if you have to do it too many times in a row. Brodsky says in his speech that “life’s main medium is precisely repetition,” and he’s right. Everything is repetition. My nightmare of hell is neverending repetition. I used to have recurrent dreams about digging holes over and over again in a birch forest. I would wake up in a cold sweat. When I was a child, if I had diabetic hypoglycemia in my sleep, I’d fall into a recurring nightmare about ascending an endless stairway made of enormous Lego bricks. It stretched into outer space. I’d wake up shaking and sobbing that I’d never, never be able to stop climbing.
Brodsky says that we must embrace boredom or it will drive us to destroy ourselves. He’s right. Ambition aside, you must try to reach a peace on some level with what you have and what you are, or you will perhaps stop wanting to be alive at all.
But we play games because they offer us an alternative to the crushing perspective provided by meaningless time. Boredom, Brodsky says, “is your window on time’s infinity.” The view from that window is terrifying. The universe is huge and endless and we mean precisely nothing to it. Eons pass. Planets burn and die. The universe doesn’t give a shit; it just is. But we can’t handle thirty minutes by ourselves in a waiting room without a magazine or a phone.
Games can give us respite, delivering us to frantic little worlds where things are constantly interesting, constantly changing, never boring, where we can fill up our time and push back the horror of infinity. But when we put the game down, we can sometimes feel a moment of profound hollowness. Games are just escape– boredom is eternal. Games are real experiences, but they’re not real in the way we are real, in the way our friends and relationships and homes and even boredom are all real.
But Ingress blurs the line between escape and real experience. Ingress is real. I have met real people in physical meatspace while playing it. I have marched four times around a city hall that looks like a chrome space station. I captured a statue of a dancing deer in the middle of the night and I listened to The Arcade Fire make weird cannon-shot sounds over three miles of empty corporate lawns. I drove to Noah’s house and bought his scooter for fifty bucks.
Three months ago, I was spending 100% of my time around good friends who were, pretty much, incredibly similar to myself. All young, all highly educated, all relatively healthy, all atheists. All literate in the jargon of software development, venture capital, and videogames. We all have the same hobbies. We like the same movies. We hang out in the same kinds of places. We want the same things out of life. We like one another and get along well, but let’s face it: we live in a bubble. We are one another’s bubble.
Ingress broke that for me. It’s a temporary fix, probably. But it’s working. It’s easier to make a peace with yourself when you have access to weird and exciting places and people. Things are boring. My apartment is boring. My toys are boring. But now I know FN’s stories. I’ve seen a lot of ugly corporate art. I know which parks are open after dark, which churches have the best graveyards. I’m having real experiences, seeing real things, meeting real strangers on the street.
My life is just bigger than it used to be, that’s all. My time is better.
Last night I met up with sixteen other Ingress players at a bench outside a sandwich shop. Rollerblades kid was there. The guy from Hong Kong was there. A pair of parents in their forties asked me about my scooter. A young family with a preschool-aged child was there. A woman with a bright orange phone case told me about how she and her three sisters were all level-8 resistance players, about how they could do a pretty good fielding operation together.
We walked down the street to a nearby university and wandered back and forth between the dorms, capturing portals. A soccer game was going on in a nearby stadium and we could hear the music and the people cheering. We came across a walled-off garden where two hundred professorial-looking types in suits and dresses were gathered on a lawn, laughing and drinking and listening to live music. The husband from the older couple raced the five-year-old down the sidewalk.
We split up to go back to our cars. We met up again at a nearby town’s civic center, where more players were waiting for us. All the fountains on the civic center’s grounds had been switched off. “The water is gone!” The little boy yelled. I hacked a bunch of ugly metal art. We started talking about sprained ankles. One of the other women shook my hand and gave me a silicone bracelet that said RESISTANCE in embossed white text. Whenever we introduced ourselves to one another, we mentioned where we played. “I’ve seen you around,” some told me. “I’ve bumped your portals.”
After the civic center we grouped up into several cars and drove to a nearby graveyard. A thick carpet of portals– all headstones– covered the entire property. We sat on a retaining wall outside the graveyard while one of the other women handed out cookies. Then we hopped the wall and wandered around in the dark.
The little boy yelped, and his dad trained a flashlight on him. “He’s got a bug,” someone cried.
“Oh, yeah,” one of the organizers said. “This whole place is filled with cockroaches.”
We wandered around the graveyard laughing in the dark while cockroaches scuttled underfoot. We talked about ghosts. The little boy started sneaking up behind people and scaring them. The guy from Hong Kong told me a story about how when he was in college, the school administration shut down the electricity at night and the students protested by throwing glassware out the windows. “Two times we did it,” he said.
We split up then into two groups. Seven of us headed down the road to a local strip filled with nightclubs and expensive stores. It was almost 11 PM, and the preschooler was still going strong. We waited in a plaza where a crowd of mustachioed Russian men were smoking cigars outside a Starbucks. Three players who lived in the area joined us there and we marched down the road to a local Enlightenment player’s work portal– an enormous corporate statue of an art-deco robot assembling a paperclip. We played a prank on him by capturing his portal, placing all our resonators as close to it as possible, filling its mod slots up with useless mods, and using a rare weapon to flip it back to the Enlightenment side. If he was gonna guard these portals all week long, we could at least make them shitty for him.
Many of these people have gone out again today to do the same thing all over again. But I’m sitting here in a local coffee-shop writing about this and planning a drive up into the peninsula, to a park filled with more unique captures. I might do this in the middle of the goddamn night. I might stay up until one in the morning. I’ll scoot until I’m falling asleep on my feet. Maybe something crazy will happen. Maybe it won’t. That’s okay. I can stand to be a little bit bored tonight.
Cosmically– on boredom’s vast scale– this game hasn’t been much of a change to my life. My life wouldn’t have been that much different if I’d never met these strangers in the street. I’d be okay, and I’d be healthy. I’d be working on the same things, going to the same weekend parties, eating the same food, living in the same city.
I’d just have a lot fewer stories to tell.