On any given night, Golden Gate Park's Music Concourse is bustling with smartphone-wielding gamers, battling over virtual energy-spewing "portals" on the park's landmarks.
Unlike the park's usual complement of crazies, these gamers are playing Google's new mobile augmented-reality game, Ingress. Although Google won't divulge just how many Ingress players are in San Francisco, the game was born at the tech giant's Spear Street office, and the city remains one of Ingress' most competitive zones, says John Hanke, vice president of Niantic Labs, the game's design team.
Niantic includes engineers who created the technology underlying Google Maps, and Ingress is entirely location-based. Fire it up on your phone, and you'll see a grid of the streets around you, lit up with portals centered on landmarks such as Lotta's Fountain or Cupid's Span. Players compete day and night to capture portals for their faction.
As anyone who reads the local papers knows, local thieves are making a pretty steady gig out of snatching smartphones from distracted users' hands. Mobile-device theft continues to make up about half of all San Francisco robberies, says Sgt. Michael Andraychak with the San Francisco Police Department.
And nothing's more distracting than a video game, right? But actually, there hasn't been any spike in cellphone robberies since Ingress launched last November, Andraychak says. In fact, Bob Lotti, who supervises the city's park rangers, speculates that a game bringing more people out to San Francisco's parks and streets could make those places safer.
Hanke agrees. "Our hope was to get people to use public spaces more," he says. "It's good for people to use them, and I think they're safer when people use them."
When those places are populated, particularly at night, it not only discourages no-goodniks, but people can report any suspicious goings-on, Lotti says. Local Ingress players report feeling no more or less safe when they're playing than when they're walking around the city with their phones out of sight — but some have stepped in when they came across a bad scene.
After Dexter Lau watched a nightclub bouncer punch a drunk man to the ground, he stuck around to make sure the man got help. Tom Campbell tried to intervene one night when an inebriated cyclist attempted to bicycle home, and also chased away a fellow Ingress player who had unsafely parked in a bus zone to play.
There are less-savory moments, too, as when meth users harassed Eisar Lipkovitz in portal-rich Clarion Alley and insisted he take a hit with them. Andraychak and Lotti urge players to use the buddy system and keep their eyes peeled for trouble. After all, "not everyone in Golden Gate Park is playing a video game," Lotti says.