Even though most of us consider maps simply as a navigational tool to get from one place to another, what if maps could be turned into an addicting game? This is what GeoGuessr has accomplished. GeoGuessr is an online geography game that brings adventure and mystery into exploring the world through maps. Players are dropped at a random location on a map and are tasked with guessing their location to score points. The game was made popular due to the pandemic, as it gave people a chance to digitally travel and explore the world without leaving their houses. Despite the decline in COVID-19 cases, GeoGuessr continues to be one of the most popular browser games today.
It is crucial to examine GeoGuessr through the lens of the circuit of culture, which is a valuable tool in showing the relationship between artifacts and their culture. Throughout this article, I will analyze GeoGuessr by looking through the aspects of production, consumption, representation, identity, and regulation.
One of the most important aspects of understanding how GeoGuessr became what it is today is through understanding the production behind it. Within the circuit of culture, production refers to how the product is made, such as examining the creator’s intentions and the financial aspects of the artifact.
GeoGuessr was created by a Swedish software engineer and IT consultant named Anton Wallén in 2013. Anton Wallén was technologically experienced and developed this geography game idea during a journey across America (Browning 2022). He then began playing around with the Google Maps API v3, testing its possibilities. After examining the backbone of the API and being deeply immersed in the Street View feature of Google Maps, he began creating his application, turning his ideas into reality. When Anton Wallén began creating his game, he first built the function that places the user into a random location on Google Street View. After integrating the Google Maps API with his program and creating the random location generator, he added interactive game features to the program.
Originally, Anton Wallén created this game as a fun activity he could play with his close friends. Being the sole creator of the game and not expecting the game to become popular, he ran the game alone and paid all fees associated with creating and hosting the game. Especially since the game was created as an experiment to test out Google Maps API functionalities and a way for him to pursue his hobby, the browser game was simplistic and did not have a lot of players, thus keeping the cost low. GeoGuessr started off as a simple browser game, but its popularity led to the creation of iOS and Android apps for the game. With its soaring popularity, GeoGuessr is no longer run only by Anton Wallén; it is now a 25-person company in Stockholm.
Unfortunately, very little information is publicly available about how GeoGuessr was created other than that it heavily relied on Google Maps API. However, several key components help reveal more features of the production behind the game. First, the game has been free-to-play since its first launch. Although there is now a paid subscription feature with the game to cover fees (see consumption section), it can still be played for free today. Thus, keeping the game free reveals that the game developers’ primary intentions were not to make a profit but rather to let the users have fun without worrying about spending money. Secondly, the game’s user interface is interesting when looking at its production. The image shows that the first version of GeoGuessr playable on the browser seems simplistic. Most of the screen displays and contains the same functionalities as Google Street View, allowing users to move and look around the map. The game also contains a large rectangular section displaying a map of the world, allowing users to pick a location to make a guess along with a scoreboard displaying points, total points, and the round number. Three buttons allow users to ask for help, send feedback, and share the game. The headers of this game display “GeoGuessr – Let’s explore the world!”, which is still its current slogan and further proves that the game was designed with the intention of letting users have fun exploring the world. Lastly, the footer reveals that Anton Wallén created the game, and it also contains a followable Twitter account for users to acquire updates.
The browser version of the game today still looks visually similar to the first version of the game, with the main components being Google Street View, the map to place a guess, and a scoreboard. This shows how Anton Wallén was able to add a few elements to the existing Google Maps API and create an addicting game.
Although it is essential to analyze the production side of GeoGuessr, it is also important to understand how the game is consumed by its users. Consumption refers to how the audience can access and interact with the artifact.
GeoGuessr was intended to be a small experiment played between the creator’s close friends, but the game quickly became viral after the launch. Although its virality declined soon after, the game became very popular again after the pandemic began. Even though GeoGuessr does not do much marketing on the game, its popularity was also heavily caused by gameplays by large streamers on Youtube and Twitch. Currently, the game has more than 40 million users, with tens of thousands of active users daily (Browning 2022). Unfortunately, the large number of players on GeoGuessr has a downside: the cost to maintain it by the producers. The Google APIs, which GeoGuessr heavily relies on, charge a few bucks per thousand API calls, but this fee adds up with millions players. Since users can play multiple rounds on various maps and the API is called whenever the game loads a map or displays the Google Street View, this is very costly for the producers of GeoGuessr. Along with the fees associated with the Google API, GeoGuessr, as a 25-person company, must pay their employees. These issues led to the implementation of ads and a paywall.
As of now, GeoGuessr still has a free-to-play option, but it has changed over the past few years. A few years ago, users were allowed to play only one game daily. Today, users are allowed to play for five minutes every 15 minutes. This change may discourage beginners from playing. Instead of allowing players to take as much time as they need to explore the maps and make better-educated guesses, they now only have a few minutes to look around and guess. On the other hand, the new change in the free account may attract professional players who can make correct guesses within seconds. Thus, these experienced players can play multiple games and try out multiple maps within five minutes. Additionally, since the five minutes of gameplay recharges every 15 minutes, they can come back to the game multiple times throughout the day. Unfortunately, the free version of the game contains several limitations, such as in-game ads, limited selections of the maps and game modes, and ten minutes of wait-time. Thus, many players resort to purchasing the Pro Account where users can play any map or game mode unlimitedly, costing $3.49 per month or $23.88 per year.
GeoGuessr requires users to create an account before they can play the game. Luckily, the process to create an account is straightforward, as users can sign up with their email, Facebook, Google, or Apple accounts. Unfortunately, this can discourage some users from playing the game because of privacy concerns. Furthermore, according to GeoGuessr’s Terms of Service, users must either be over 16 years old to create an account or have consent from a parent or legal guardian. This may discourage users younger than 16 years old from playing this game.
Despite having a paid version and requiring users to create accounts, GeoGuessr is still known for being a free-to-play game open to anyone. As the game is available to play on browsers, the game is very accessible to anyone as users are not required to download anything before playing the game. Players only need access to an internet-connected device. By having Android and iOS apps, the game becomes even more accessible as users can play anywhere at any time using their phones. The game heavily targets the younger generation, challenging them to compete with others and test their geography knowledge. The game attracts both beginners, as they can choose easier maps to play on, and expert players, who can place handicaps or play difficult maps.
Representation refers to examining and interpreting the meanings encoded behind the artifact. When GeoGuessr was first created, Anton Wallén viewed it as nothing more than just a game. However, it can be seen that it is much more than that.
A strong argument today is that GeoGuessr could be used as an educational tool by teachers and schools, especially since it helps teach players about geography, such as understanding how to read maps and identify geographical indicators. Users can visit an unfamiliar location worldwide and use their context clues to figure out where they are, like a detective searching for clues. Players must try to “parse the relevant details from the irrelevant ones” by looking at symbols, signs, roads, infrastructure, nature, and much more (Figlerowicz 2015). Furthermore, by dropping the player at a random location, they can experience and learn about a new culture, including the language, outfits, houses, food, celebrations, and much more. This may cause players to continue researching these places afterward and possibly even convince them to visit the location in real life. People may often have specific biases or feelings against a particular culture or location, even without proper research. However, being sent to a place by GeoGuessr may surprise the players, causing them to change their views and biases on it. Also, some excitement from playing GeoGuessr is from recognizing the culture or specific features of a location (such as understanding the language or spotting a familiar landmark), because the player already identifies or shares connections with it. Furthermore, the gameplay aids fluency building, refinement and induction of knowledge, and sense-making by making educated guesses through examining the environment (Lei 2022).
Unfortunately, GeoGuessr is not representative of all locations and cultures. As mentioned before, GeoGuessr heavily relies on Google Street View, meaning that the dropped locations depend on where the Google Street car has been. Players are more likely dropped in North America or Europe (higher coverage by Google) rather than Africa and Asia (lower coverage by Google), limiting the player’s ability to discover new places. Since locations are randomized, if a player is dropped in an awful area that may not be representative of the whole country, it could cause them to develop negative emotions about a particular country.
Although GeoGuessr is a great educational resource for users to strengthen their geographical and learning skills, its reliance on Google Street View and its randomization could lead to the strengthening or weakening of specific biases.
GeoGuessr has created a large community, creating relationships, especially between the consumers themselves as well as the consumers with the producers. Identity explores how different groups involved with the app interact with each other.
In many cases, consumers can become producers through GeoGuessr. GeoGuessr allows users to create their own maps and game variations, allowing other users to play and share feedback on the game.
As for the community outside the game, GeoGuessr led to the rise of new content creators who play the game. Through GeoGuessr, content creators can record and share their gameplay with their fans. Thus, GeoGuessr is entertaining not only for users to play the game but also for watching others play it. In some cases, consumers may join streams to learn tips and strategies from the game to improve their skills. Furthermore, large streamers frequently host contests with prizes of thousands of dollars. Through these contests, players can compete against others in prize-filled tournaments and gain recognition within the content creators’ community.
Although these streamer-hosted contests may seem restrictive or make average players feel like “outsiders” since competitors are very experienced, GeoGuessr itself also hosts weekly tournaments. Any player can join the official GeoGuessr tournaments and will be matched based on skill levels. By creating these tournaments and contests, producers can create an exciting, competitive atmosphere between competitors. Furthermore, with over 60,000 members on the r/geoguessr subreddit, players worldwide constantly share tips, strategies, memes, and ideas, creating a strong and supportive bond within the GeoGuessr community. Thus, the game is inclusive no matter users’ background and skill.
To ensure that GeoGuessr maintains a safe and fun environment for players, it is essential to consider the regulation behind GeoGuessr. Regulation explores the rules and enforcements associated with artifacts. Without proper regulation, players may not want to revisit the game, and GeoGuessr may not even exist. GeoGuessr prohibits three main actions: cheating, harassment, and posting inappropriate content.
Cheating is one of the most prominent prohibited actions in GeoGuessr as it would give players an unfair advantage over others, affecting tournament and leaderboard results from GeoGuessr. Examples of cheating include using third-party software or scripts, using external sources (like Google), win-trading, abusing glitches/bugs/exploits, and stat padding. Through cheating, players unfairly boost their stats, gain hints, or even receive perfect scores on games, removing the fun for other players who wish to compete against honest players.
Since GeoGuessr is simply a geography game, it is difficult to see how harassment and posting of inappropriate content exist in the game. Firstly, users are given the ability to change profile pictures and nicknames on their public accounts. Secondly, users can create their own maps within GeoGuessr, thus allowing them to pick locations, a title, a description, and many more. Thirdly, users can also add friends within GeoGuessr, thus unlocking their ability to chat with others. With these features, users can abuse their freedom through harassing other players and posting inappropriate content such as offensive text/images, weapons, and alcohol.
GeoGuessr addresses these issues through its Terms of Service and Community Rules and can take action when users are caught violating their policies. GeoGuesssr can place temporary suspensions or permanent bans on the entire service or specific parts, such as leaderboards and competitions. Users who are caught would lose their game statistics and would not receive a refund if they spent money on the game.
Through analyzing GeoGuessr within all aspects of the circuit of culture, we can see how everything ties in together and creates the game we know today. The game frequently updates and improves through interactions between the producer and consumers. Who knows how many new game modes and features will be available on GeoGuessr in the next few years?
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“Terms of Service (“Terms”).” 2022. GeoGuessr, June 1, 2022. https://www.geoguessr.com/terms.
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