It’s 3pm in London. You’ve just had lunch and now you’re bored – slacking off, even. You decide to take a ten-minute detour from the office to Bali, so you dangle and drop Google Maps’ little yellow person somewhere near Ubud and start clicking your way around the Indonesian province, enjoying the light blue water, yellow-white sand and abundance of motorcycles. Later, you decide to go somewhere in Svalbard, the most northerly-inhabited place on Earth, where there’s just 360 photographs to view and no roads to click down. It looks untouched and freezing.
For your last stop, you drop at random and poke around, trying to guess where exactly you might have ended up. “Spanish writing, loads of mountains, maybe it’s Bolivia”, you catch yourself saying to a colleague over Slack. Back in 2018, Google reported that people dropped themselves in random places using Maps’ dice feature 190 million times the previous year. It seems we love to use street view and Google Earth as means of exploration, and things become even more fun, apparently, when we don’t have the foggiest idea what we’re looking at.
For those taking their guesses to the next level, GeoGuessr is the main event. Invented back in 2013 by Swedish IT consultant Anton Wallén, GeoGuessr is described by the New Yorker as being “halfway between a treasure hunt and a crossword”. Basically, it drops you in a random place, and you have to then guess where you are by trying to locate yourself on a map. Landmarks, types of sand, trees and signposts are the only hints you get. The closer you get, the more points you win.
“GeoGuessr started as a random location generator which randomly dropped the user on different locations,” Wallén told The Independent. “After a while I felt like it needed something more and decided to add the game element.”
It seems Wallén’s instincts for gamification were correct. There’s about 30 million people playing GeoGuessr at the moment. And it’s not just the exploring we love, either – watching someone else tour the world while winning points is proving to be just as riveting.
Sullygnome’s statistics say that over half a million hours of GeoGuessr streams have been watched on Twitch in the last two weeks. This is probably partly because people love watching people play games in general, but it’s also likely because GeoGuessr switched from being free to having some paid-for features. Over on YouTube, the people’s champion of the game is GeoWizard, who has well over a million subscribers and can figure out where he is within minutes. Another of the best GeoGuessrs goes by georainbolt, who can predict where he is based on the aesthetic of telegraph poles. Fascinatingly niche skill, right?
The detective approach to digital travel also indicates how GeoGuessr can sometimes be used as an educational resource. One critical analysis of GeoGuessr says the game can “help students grow an interest in other countries and develop critical skills to analyse geographical and cultural landscapes”.
But why is everyone so obsessed? Well, there are likely many reasons why people love playing GeoGuessr, even just for five minutes. Firstly, guessing at anything kind of fun. That’s why we like the picture rounds in a pub quiz or watching Pointless on the box, after all. The human urge to try and know it all, or at least think we can solve puzzles, is strong.
Plus, exploring is objectively a great thing. It shows us other ways of living and approaches to society, and can inform us on how we choose to live (ever spoken to people who went on a gap year?). But hopping on a plane and doing that for real is getting increasingly pricey. Being able to fractionally replicate the gap yah experience from your own gaff, then, has an obvious appeal. It’s good for your wallet and for people who are less able to explore, like those with disabilities.
But why stop at Google Maps? Might we be able to more accurately replicate going somewhere through technology in the future? It’s possible. VR and AI have boomed in recent years – mainly in gaming, sure, but that technology would be well suited to virtual travel, too. And arguably, the metaverse is a form of virtual travel, as you hop into a digital world and explore a variety of things from shops to games to social spaces. In the same way, a world where we could don some form of VR headset to go and look at Machu Picchu sort of already exists. In October last year, the Boca Raton Museum of Art unveiled an exhibition where you can immersively walk around the historical site. No, you can’t inhale that fresh Peruvian air through a headset, but it’s a start.
And people are keen to give it a go anyway. Research published last year found that from 2017 to 2020 the revenue generated from marketing VR tourism “increased from 50 million to 1 billion”, which is some major growth. But here’s the problem: that revenue doesn’t always end up going to the IRL place, which is, er, a bit murky to say the least – particularly when so many countries’ economies depend on tourism.
But hey, whatever form virtual tourism may or may not take, it’s clear that we’re all pretty into the idea of using the internet to satiate our wanderlust. GeoGuessr having an absolute moment included.