The Essay: Geoguessr Is Essential For Those With A Heart Full Of Wanderlust

By Delia Mizrahi

For a moment, everything is black. I can’t see my hands in front of me, my shoes below me, or even the glasses perched on my nose. Then it all becomes bright. I’m thrown onto a dirt road with the sun shining down on my neck and old snow scattered around me. There is a big wheat field to my left and a fresh grass field to my right. I can see cows grazing towards the middle of the grass patch, and a small red barn behind that. I start moving East quickly. I see shadows change as the sun settles into its afternoon decline.

After a few minutes on the road, a sign comes into view. The next town name is displayed as seven miles ahead. Miles means it’s the U.S. The dirt road means rural. The day-old snow leans me towards the South. Maybe Tennessee or Arkansas. I take out the map that is folded in my right pocket and find Arkansas. I put a pin on the East edge and hope for the best. Everything quickly goes dark again and a number flashes in front of my face. My guess was 17 miles from the correct location. Close enough for what I was given. Next time I’ll get closer.

I discovered GeoGuessr through my twenty-year-old sister. She was home for winter break, and needed a way to waste time and recover from the first semester of her third year of college. I don’t actually know how she came across the website, but I do know that quickly after the first discovery the whole family was hooked. 

Although GeoGuessr just became a prominent part of my life, it has been around for quite some time. Anton Wallén, a IT consultant from Sweden, released the game in May 2013. He loved choosing random locations on Google Maps, and exploring them through Street View. Street View is Google’s 2007 creation that stitches together interactive photographs that allows someone to view the area as though they are walking down the street. While Street View began as something you could only use to explore in the U.S., it has now been adapted so you are able to walk down almost any dirt path, side street, or alley in the world. You can see kids walking around their neighborhoods, sheep grazing in nearby fields, or even busy tourist attractions in full swing. Wallén borrowed Street View to create the addictive game of Geoguessr.

When you first arrive at the Geoguessr website you are greeted with a dark screen that asks if you wish to play Classic, Playing With Friends, or Career mode. Within each mode there are additional options, and within those, even more — a continuous rabbit hole for those with a heart full of wanderlust. Some allow you to limit your area to certain countries, states, or cities. You are able to travel to famous landmarks, small towns, and open fields, all within a single round. Each of these are accessible through the free mode, which allows for thirty minutes of game play each day, if you wish to have more, you can purchase the game on the web for $1.99 a month.

Consistent through all of the game modes, you will be given five semi-randomized locations that you view through Google Street View. From there you use the clues in your surroundings to make an educated guess as to your spot on the globe. My mom uses the game to create a new list of all the places she would like to visit one day: llamas in Peru, a tropical cafe in Hong Kong, Australia’s Gold Coast.

Initially this may seem easy; locate a city sign, or maybe even a license plate, and you’ll know where you are. This is where the challenge emerges, all license plates, area names, and obvious giveaways are blurred. That means that you will make your guess based on landscape, any written language you can find, and pure gut feeling.

When dropped into your first of five locations, you learn a few things immediately. You will be aware of the direction you are facing, which could inevitably allow you to choose between which highway or street you’re on. You are able to see a full 360-degree view around you, you can zoom in and out, and move in any direction that Street View permits. You can explore the map just as you would normally, zooming in to town names, highways, and mountain ranges. All the while, you can see a big city or small town going about their daily activities. You can travel as far as you like, but your location is determined by the original spot you were dropped. That means you can’t just keep moving East or West until you reach your hometown and place that on the map. When playing my first ever round, I was unprepared for what the game held. Unfamiliar cities, vast deserts without a building in sight, signs written in foreign languages. Now, I tend to lose myself within the digital world, jumping from continent to continent, transitioning from language to language.

Once you’ve gained enough insight to guess where you are, you’ll move on to choosing your location on the map. When you place your ‘pin’ and press guess, all you can do is hope for the best. A winding road in Singapore or Kenya? The forest in Alaska or Norway?

Your screen will refresh to show your guess, reveal the true location, and the distance between the two. Based on this, you will receive a score out of a maximum of 5,000 points. From this, you move on to your next round, and try to get even closer. When competing in the Daily challenge World mode, if you are close enough to the exact location, with the quickest speed, your accumulated points could lend to your spot on the High Score leaderboard, which is reserved for the truest Geoguessr masters.

After you make five (hopefully educated) guesses, you’ll receive a game summary with all of your guesses on a map, and the total amount of points you received, up to 25,000.

A few nights ago, before dinner, and after a particularly tough day, none of my family was very happy with each other. Impatiently waiting for the pizza that was heating in the oven to reach an edible state, we all sat far away from each other in the living room. My sister was playing a game of Geoguessr while the rest of us sat around avoiding eye contact. My mom mumbled something to her about Africa, which made Lena scoot closer and begin a new round. A few minutes later, my dad and I joined them on the couch. We went through rounds and rounds before realizing that the pizza was finally ready. 

But at that point, we were reluctant to get up and break our streak. Now, whenever my family has a semi-free night, at some point, we’ll all find each other on the couch to play a few rounds, discuss what new places we want to travel, and keep a running list of the best guesses we’ve had. Crammed together, we meld our minds to create the most optimal Geoguessr team.

You can play Geoguessr your way. That’s true with a number of other games as well. But it also brings family together to dream. And if you prefer a solo experience, it allows you to visit some place new every day. It’s a mysterious virtual road trip that’s always there for me when I get the urge to roam. 

@Delia_Mizrahi was the West Coast winner in our Fair Game Writing Challenge in partnership with Games For Change.

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