Alternate-reality games (ARGs) somehow managed to miss the mobile boat, with the stunning exception of Ingress, made by Google's own Niantic Labs. It's a shame, but it's heartening to see that Google Glass has already attracted an ARG dev, creating an MMOARG based on... ants.
It works a little like Ingress in that it can take place as you go about your daily life. First, the game maps the player's daily routine using GPS data, laying colorful "trails" on a map card. Developers Jon Lawhead of Columbia University and Daniel Estrada of the University of Illinois note that this data cannot be used to track any one user; instead, it is used to examine patterns of behavior and where those patterns intersect with those of other users.
As you travel your trails, you can collect virtual resources, picking up bonuses by snapping pictures or lingering in one spot. Like the trails laid by real ants, these fade over time but can be reinforced by traveling over them again. You can reinforce the trails laid by other "ants" in your colony, and that boosts your resource collection rate. But crossing a rival path could cost you a day's work.
You collect resources by documenting points of interest in public spaces -- for example, the statuary around a public park, or power outlets at an airport. Each object tagged is rewarded with virtual food.
The game itself will be open source so that the data collected could be used in other ways. Anonymous map data crowdsourced by the players could be tapped, for instance, to map hiking trails, or used by a city to optimize public transport by using the information about when and where people most frequently travel.
But, much like Ingress, Swarm has the potential to be a lot more: building teams of faceless, autonomous individuals all working toward a common goal. "No ant tells any other ant what to do or where to go, but they still manage to accomplish impressive feats of planning and coordination through highly organized collective action," Lawhead said. "Swarm is an ant simulation game designed to help people understand how such a thing is possible."
The pair hope to have a working prototype of the game by the end of this year. You can read more about the project on their Web site.