- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.
I’m one of the millions of people who have recently become absolutely, incurably addicted to the new online game GeoGuessr. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably will be too.
Here’s how it works: GeoGuessr drops you in a randomly chosen location on Google Street View. You can move around, but can’t zoom out. It’s a bit like playing Myst, except that you’re looking for clues in a real place somewhere in the world. You then have to guess where you are by clicking on a world map, with points awarded for how close you get to the actual location.
Sometimes, obvious clues like signs in the local language or geographic landmarks will make it easy. Other times you’ll find yourself on a nondescript country road trying to decide if those evergreen trees look more Scandinavian or Canadian. The game’s one unfortunate limitation is that it will only drop you in countries that Google Street View has mapped, which means most of Africa, the Middle East, India, and China, are immediately ruled out. You could, however, be dropped in such locations as the base camp of Mount Everest or the Great Barrier Reef. The most exotic place I’ve been in the game was what looked like a jungle path somewhere in Japan’s remote Ogasawara Islands.
In addition to just being a fun way to kill time — more time than I’d like to admit over the past week or two — the game is also a cool way to experience visual culture and notice surprising similarities in architecture and landscape between regions. Every once in a while you can come across something weirdly beautiful or an unexpected slice-of-life moment like those documented in artist Jon Rafman’s 9-Eyes project.
GeoGuessr is the creation of a 29-year-old Swedish IT consultant named Anton Wallén. I recently spoke with Wallén via e-mail and asked him how the idea for GeoGuessr came about.
"I have always loved how Street View enables you to visit locations you would never go to in real life in such an immersive way, almost like you’re there," he said. Wallén says he initially set out to build a simple "random location generator" using Street View, and only later decided to add the guessing game element to it.
According to Wallén, since the game blew up on social media last week, it’s been getting 200,000 to 300,000 unique visitor per day. "To me, it’s mindblowing," he says, noting that he’s "received many emails from people getting together to organize tournaments in their workplaces/schools using their own rules, parents/children and couples playing the game together as a team and also a lot of teachers allowing their students to play the game during their classes."
Initially, much of the feedback Wallén received was from readers complaining about Australia being overrepresented. (It is, after all, a pretty big country, and frankly much of the interior of it is pretty nondescript-looking from the road.) But he says he’s tinkered with the algorithm and the overrepresentation complaints are now much more diverse — which could indicate that it is, in fact, pretty random.
I asked Wallén for the hardest location he’s had to guess. "The hardest probably was a very luxurious, Asian-style house somewhere in Central America (which I finally decided would have to be Japan). You could walk around in the courtyard and the garden but there was no way to leave the premises. The easiest I guess was when I was dropped right in front of a sign that said ‘Welcome to Fairbanks, Alaska.’" (I had similar good fortune in Valparaíso, Chile.)
The game may even have inspired a few people to see a bit more of the world. "I got an email a few days ago from a woman who had known her husband for 12 years," Wallén says. "She had always been very fond of traveling but since he didn’t like it they had never really traveled anywhere together. They both, however, liked the game very much and had been playing it for a few nights. After that, the husband had started looking up tourist locations in Japan and even bought a guidebook. That story really made me smile."