The Swanton Police Department routinely gets calls about suspicious activity, but the investigation into several calls received in February took an unexpected turn.
According to Police Chief Adam Berg, an employee of Swanton American Legion Murbach-Siefert Post # 479 and the owner of a village business both expressed concern over a red 1998 Volkswagen Beetle that seemed to repeatedly park outside of their buildings at all hours of the day. While no crimes were linked to the vehicle, its frequent presence in the same locations was making people nervous, Berg said.
“I got a handful of calls about it from at least three different people. It just seemed very suspicious to everybody,” he said.
When police finally tracked down the vehicle near the American Legion building on Feb. 19 at about 10:30 p.m. the driver, Swanton resident Chaz Schmidt, gave an explanation for his actions that was, in itself, unique.
Schmidt was playing Ingress, described as an augmented-reality multi-player online science fiction game. Created by Niantic, Inc. in 2012, its popularity has spread internationally, where it is played daily by millions of people across 200 countries and regions.
Played through a phone app, the mobile game is similar to the game “Capture the Flag,” said Archit Bhargava, global marketing lead for Ingress. Players are directed to outdoor places of historical and culture significance, such as installations, monuments, and markers, which act as “portals” they must claim. Players then link the portals together to create “fields.” The more portals a player links, the more points are scored.
Schmidt, 21, had been playing Ingress since around the beginning of February, and was making frequent trips to “portals” designated in the village, such as the veterans memorial on Zeiter Way (Broadway Street), the library, Pilliod Park, and the post office. The rules of Ingress allow players to hit a “portal” every five minutes but only four times in two hours.
“I was surprised when I was questioned by the police but I understand it. Better safe than sorry,” Schmidt said. “I can definitely see where their suspicion and caution comes from. From an outsider, I can understand how it looks weird.”
Schmidt was told he was, in fact, trespassing on private property at the American Legion, and that he was making people feel uneasy. “He understood. He was very polite about it,” Berg said. “He said, ‘I’m just playing this game on my phone.’”
To ease the suspicion he caused, Schmidt explained the game to Berg, who in turn explained it to American Legion members. Schmidt also attended the Feb. 22 Swanton Village Council meeting, where he explained the game to council members and Mayor Ann Roth.
“They were happy that I brought it forth,” he said. “I have a very memorable car, and most people seeing the same car over and over again don’t jump to the most innocent conclusion.”
Berg said that, other than the slight inconvenience Schmidt’s Ingress playing has caused, “as long as he’s not breaking any laws he has the right to do what he’s doing. He’s just so into the game. He’s got a passion for it.”
A check of the Wauseon, Delta, and Archbold police departments showed no similar complaints by residents.
Bhargava said Schmidt’s experience with the police is the first he’s heard of involving the game.
“We hear of people playing in rural towns all the time. This instance was kind of unique,” he said. “It’s actually fascinating to hear that story. It’s compelling. It’s something new.”
The idea behind Ingress “was the physical and movement aspect, to build a game that would get gamers off the couch and move them around in the real world,” Bhargava said. “It was to give them the opportunity to go out and have an adventure with their friends and family members. We have millions of people playing this every single day, from the rural countries to the big cities.”
He said one of the pleasures of Ingress is that people meet other players and form friendships. “The game became like an ice-breaker,” he said.
Schmidt said there are at least six active Ingress players in Swanton, and the game brings in players from other locations.
Berg said the police will periodically check on Schmidt’s activities to ease residents’ nervousness.
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.