If you're a globe-trotting explorer who yearns to see the world, the last year or so has been a savage repression of your wanderlust. Covid-19 has put an extraordinary brake on global travel; the World Tourism Organisation recently reported an 87 per cent fall in tourist arrivals in January this year compared to a year earlier.
Last year, Dubai had 5.5 million visitors, or a third of the number of visitors in 2019, according to Dubai Tourism. It’s been catastrophic for the tourism industry, and a disappointment for holidaymakers for whom international travel represents a form of escape.
A computer game could hardly succeed in replicating the luxury experience of a fortnight in the Maldives, but one game in particular has been bestowing its players with a little escapism, sightseeing and global knowledge. GeoGuessr, a game which places you in a 360º photograph taken somewhere in the world and challenges you to pinpoint where you are on a map, has had a surge in interest in recent months, as talented players build large followings on Twitch and YouTube.
Watching players such as the UK's Tom Davies (aka GeoWizard) and Latvian resident GeoPeter navigate their surroundings and make informed guesses against the clock is fascinating and strangely thrilling; you end up playing along with them, shouting at the screen as they mistake a Thai street sign for a Sri Lankan one and willing them to trounce their opposition. In the process, you get to see a bit of the world, albeit on GeoGuessr's terms. "It's gained such popularity because people miss travelling," says GeoPeter, who didn't want to give his real name. "It's is a great way to see the world virtually and explore different cultures without ever leaving your couch."
GeoGuessr celebrates its eighth birthday this week with ever-growing numbers of players and a general surge in interest. Devised by Swedish IT consultant Anton Wallen in 2013, it was designed to satisfy his own curiosity about the world, as the rapid expansion of Google Street View made it possible to take a look at Australian coral reefs, the back streets of Amman or the steppes of Central Asia.
Today, people sampling the game for free are shown photographs from the mapping service Mapillary, but the core of the main, paid-for game is still Google Street View; it lets you pan, zoom and move around looking for clues, whether it's signage, vegetation, architecture, cars or local fashion. It's a potluck game: if you're fortunate, you'll be parachuted into a road a few miles from where you happen to live. If you're unlucky, you'll find yourself in a featureless road in the Dominican Republic, and score zero as you erroneously stick a pin somewhere in northern Bangladesh.
The skills displayed by seasoned players on YouTube, TikTok and Twitch are highly impressive. As a player, you never truly know if your competitors have another browser window open and are Googling names on street signs to establish that they’re in a Transylvanian village, but streaming gamers have no such cheat sheet, and have built up a remarkable knowledge of how the world looks and feels. If the sun appears to be in the north, they never bother guessing anywhere above the equator. They know which countries drive on the left, that Mongolian street signs use the Cyrillic alphabet, that large collections of red-coloured houses probably point to Scandinavia. Knowledge of national flags is a massive bonus, as is familiarity with languages other than your own. (If you’re leaving a village and see a sign saying “viszontlatasra”, get that pin somewhere in Hungary, straight away.)
Many computer games claim to be educational, but in this case there appears to be no argument. “Whether it’s what different countries look like, what signs they use, or anything else about their culture, I like to learn it all,” says GeoPeter.
Filip Antell, the head of customer services at GeoGuessr, says it’s always been about learning something about the world.
“It’s about being curious, going into the game’s Explorer mode to see how countries are, to gain a little more understanding,” he says.
Indeed, the game's potential as a teaching aid has recently resulted in the launch of an education programme.
“A lot of schools reached out to us wanting more of a platform where students could use the game without having to sign up,” says Antell. “And we wanted the teachers to be the ones with the reins, to be able to create maps for assignments. When I was younger, we’d be given text books telling us about countries. Today, you can actually see them.”
Aside from being educational, it very quickly opens your eyes to global imbalances. The random nature of the game means that you see stark economic differences in the space of a couple of minutes, with Los Angeles mansions followed by thatched shacks in Senegal.
The introduction of a Battle Royale mode to the game, where 10 people compete over several rounds to become the best geographer in town, has largely been responsible for booming interest on Twitch and TikTok.
"That happened in December, and we've really seen things take off – both in the number of streamers and the hours played," says Antell. But while GeoGuessr puts efforts into its gameplay, it's the progress of Google's mammoth Street View project which will ultimately expand the scope of the game. Currently, some countries are rather underrepresented – some because of legal reasons and local restrictions (e.g. Germany and India), others because the cameras simply haven't got there yet, a situation not helped by the pandemic. "Obviously we would like Street View to get better, but in the long run it won't be an issue," says Antell.
For now, there's still plenty to be going on with. One time, GeoGuessr unexpectedly transported me to a street in American Samoa and left me to my own devices. It's safe to say that this would have never have happened to me in real life, no matter how many air miles I racked up.