"Ingress": When Google plays games in a concentration camp

The smartphone game "Ingress" gives users the possibility to virtually battle for real places and landmarks. Former concentration camps were used as game sites as well. Von und

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The subject line of the confirmation email sent after registering as a new player reads "Ingress is not a game". In fact, Ingress is the latest take on computer gaming – and it’s a problem for people in Germany who want to keep honoring the memory of victims of the Nazi regime. Research carried out by ZEITmagazin shows that on Ingress, concentration camp memorials in Germany and Poland have been turned into playing fields.

The world as seen in "Ingress", separated into green and blue zones. © ingress.com

Niantic Labs, a Google startup, developed Ingress for Android smartphones and iPhones. The game has been downloaded 10 million times worldwide. Augmented reality games such as Ingress mix reality and fiction. In order to play Ingress, a player must visit specified GPS co-ordinates with his smartphone. These points are marked on the well-known site Google Maps and are called "portals" in the game. According to the game’s back-story, "Exotic Matter" courses out of every portal and exerts an influence over mankind. Armed with their smartphones, players can claim a portal or fire at it using virtual weapons. These virtual portals are located at places of real-world significance, such as memorials and notable buildings.

For many users, Ingress has a strong social component. The game is played in teams and thousands of players meet at events held frequently throughout the year. Plus, instead of sitting alone in front of a game console, the players are on the move outdoors. There are now roughly three million portals worldwide, including the Eiffel Tower.

In recent years Google has also installed portals at Holocaust memorials and in former concentration camps. Ingress players suggested these places to Google. The organizations responsible for these memorials were never informed that they were to be used as playing fields for augmented reality games. "All of us here are completely appalled," said Günter Morsch, the head of the Sachsenhausen Memorial. Human ashes can be found across the site, even in the flooring. "This is most definitely no place for video games." It is estimated that 30,000 people died at Sachsenhausen.

A screenshot on ingress.com: The concentration camp Sachsenhausen near Berlin still displayed 70 "portals" on June 26th. © ingress.com
A screenshot from June 27th, 2015, on ingress.com: The "portals" were deleted one day after ZEITmagazin's inquiry. © ingress.com

At one point there were seventy-four Ingress portals around the site of the former concentration camp. In response to questions from ZEITmagazin, Google responded, "these special portals are of significant historical value and they were established by players for that reason." After these questions were posed, Google removed countless portals, for instance those placed at former concentration camps in Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Neuengamme in Hamburg, Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora. However, less well-known former concentration camps in Germany, such as Hinzert, Oranienburg and Osthofen, are still being used on Ingress, as is the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. The concentration camps and death camps at Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland are still available for players.

For Morsch, this partial response by Google is not adequate: "It is necessary to ensure that smaller concentration camp memorials are protected from Google’s games." He said, "Google needs to declare they will ensure that, in the future, memorials to the victims of the Nazi regime are not included on Ingress and similar games."

A screenshot from June 30th, 2015, on ingress.com: the concentration camp Auschwitz with portals installed by Ingress. One is above the entrance gate and says "Work Brings Freedom". © ingress.com

Although Google did remove portals from the site of the prisoners’ camp at Dachau, the prisoners’ cemetery – which also belongs to the memorial site and where over 7,000 victims of the Nazi regime are buried – remains a gaming zone.  The committee of Dachau concentration camp survivors reacted with alarm. "We strongly object to parts of the Dachau concentration camp being chosen as locations for the video game Ingress," stated Jean-Michel Thomas, president of the Comité Internationale de Dachau. "We demand that this desecration be banned." Jean-Michel Thomas is the son of the 95-year-old Dachau survivor Jean Thomas, who was transported to Dachau from Paris in 1944 for his involvement in the French Resistance. 900 people died on the journey. He said, "Out of the 100 comrades in my freight car, 71 died. They weren’t virtual people. You can’t play games at such symbolic places, it’s scandalous."


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