(This blog comes with a health warning: playing this game will make you unable to function as a human being for significant periods of time.)
My youngest came back from school yesterday saying that he had played a computer game in geography. I was pleased: much better than all that colouring-in of maps and learning the water cycle. The game is called Geoguessr – shame that they couldn’t spell it correctly for all the school kids now playing it in Geography lessons, but you can’t have it all.
He showed it to me, and it is about as addictive as crack cocaine* and Penn State sour cream and chive pretzels (*the author assures his readership that he is guessing in this respect, and does not endorse illegal drug use, but is certainly slightly addicted to the pretzels).
All of a sudden I was plunged into the grim chaos of a busy urban street populated by zombies with fuzzy faces (if you’ve ever used StreetView on Google Maps, on which this game is based, you’ll know what I mean). My task was to locate my exact position in the world and pretty soon the writing on the shop facades gave me a clue, along with the fuzzy-faced zombies who appeared somehow depressed, drunk, or both. I guessed at Moscow suburbs; I was right!
My pin was stuck in the map 5km away from the actual location, but I was rewarded with over 4,000 points and was overjoyed. I had no idea what I could do with my points, but this didn’t dampen my enthusiasm, and all of a sudden I was onto Round 2. Again I was airdropped into what I felt was Russia but the mood was lighter. I impulsively plumped for St Petersburg and was out by quite a distance – it was Russia, but near the border with Kazakhstan.
Then I was on an arrow-straight American Freeway. It looked lonely and chilly. Nebraska? No, South Dakota, but not bad and more points accumulated. Back to Europe on a sweeping dual carriageway near a lake, driving on the wrong side of the road. The Saab behind me gave me the clue it was Sweden, and a quick whoosh up the road found a lorry with some writing on the side. I went for one of the big lakes west of Stockholm and got pretty close.
Suddenly it was the fifth and final round. A good score here would surely see me lauded across the globe as Best Novice Geoguessr? Fame and fortune from an unlikely new career in a bizarre niche of e-Sports beckoned.
It was a quiet sidestreet, sunny, colourful but humble houses, a few olive-skinned locals in shorts and t-shirts frozen mid-stride towards unknown destinations. It was a snapshot of a different life, and it no longer felt that I was playing a game but was immersed in an interactive documentary, a spy that had to melt into the background and find my stealthy way back home.
I navigated up a dusty hill to a small town square, again almost deserted. It contained a grand church painted white and green surrounded by rows of gleaming white benches, the order and purity at odds with the crumbling facades of the shops and houses that surrounded it. I zoomed in on some writing that looked Spanish, and then found an old bus, also green and white, heading to Santa Cruz. I resisted the temptation to Google ‘Santa Cruz’, and suspected that there could be many anyway.
It didn’t seem like Spain though. I was drawn towards Central or South America. The sun beat down. It was possibly siesta time, and the few hardy souls that walked the parched streets did not have the staccato gait of rushing. A motorbike glided silently by. Was it more Caribbean? Eventually I hovered the pin over Mexico, but away from the big cities, towards the border with Guatemala, a shrewd attempt to hedge my bets over Central America and some of the nearby islands.
My youngest, so far mildly impressed by his father for once, then decided to doubt my instincts and claimed it was Brazil but I was not to be dissuaded. Brazil seemed more lush to me, and I could see no kids playing football down the arid sidestreets. Zooming in with my pin I found the sleepy town of Chiapilla with a street network that seemed to match my wanderings. This was it – glory was mine!
Oh, Brazil it was then. Youngest was right. At least they had taught him something at school. I was wrong by about 6,000km and my score was ruined. But this intrepid explorer was not going to be deterred by one minor setback – I was smitten by the whole thing, and the world was literally my oyster.
Then I was off again, this time on a UK adventure. Was there a clue on that skip? Do the stone walls suggest Yorkshire? Could a road sign stating Dereham Road by anywhere other than close to Dereham? All of a sudden I was snapped from my heroic globetrotting exploits by a hungry family asking where their dinner was, and I was immediately airlifted back to reality. But the yearnings to explore go on…..