Quietly, Google has realized the dreams of hundreds of men, Magellan, Vespucci, Lewis and Clark–men who mapped the world. Google, over the past several years, have become the world’s foremost cartographers, taking photos of millions of miles of landscape for its ubiquitous Street View product. GeoGuessr an incredibly addictive web game, uses the billions of images captured by Google’s cameras to, ostensibly, test your knowledge of geography. Yet, behind the guise of the simple game is a myriad of insights into both the expansive diversity and surprising sameness found across the globe.
GeoGuessr throws up a Google Street View image and asks you to identify where you are on the map. The closer you are, the more points you get. At first, I tried to use the geographical features of the landscape to identify where I was. Huge mountain ranges might mean the Andes. Beautiful beaches with white sand smack of the Caribbean. Quickly, though, these tricks proved inadequate. The white sands of the Bahamas look an awful lot like the white sands of Tahiti. Language clues came next. Sign posts and billboards gave valuable information. So recognizable were the curves and shapes of the letters, I stuck a South Korean market to within 200 kilometers based on the recognizable script of the stall signage. I blessed the fruit vendor hero and the 2,000 points he afforded me.
Most striking after playing a number of rounds is how it feels each location could easily double as somewhere else. Evidently, all across the world, there are thousands of country roads, complete with blue skies and dead grass, being driven by hundreds of thousands of people. An Alabama road, with cars full of young Americans, has its doppelgänger in central Africa. I know those American kids on the Alabaman roads, I was one of them once, but foreign countries, especially those in developing countries, illicit specific, stereotypical images. But long stretches of paved concrete run like arteries through dozens of disparate countries. Playing GeoGuessr, I realized how similar the world looks. Shell stations and McDonald’s are red herrings; they appear everywhere. A gathering of mopeds along the coast turned out to be South Africa, not South America. And roads that look eerily similar to the roads I drive everyday, roads I swear I can smell, are found thousands of miles away. The Texas wind in my hair on the drive to the Gulf of Mexico…how much different could it feel than the wind in Chad?
Sometimes, the stereotypes hold on to their truth. Ancient Chinese temples, French chalets, and dazzling Tokyo lights belong right where they should. The wondrous diversity of the world’s architecture makes itself abundantly clear when it wants to. At times, it’s like traveling through a history textbook. Often, the globe feels impossibly far apart, especially when I was elated for guessing within the correct continent. Sometimes it places you underwater and, after cursing the game for its cheap shot, I marveled at how incomprehensibly vast the ocean is. Bouncing around the globe on my laptop feels remarkably surreal, especially when I catch glimpses of people on lawns or a couple on a motorcycle, caught in a specific pose, in a specific time, a digital time capsule they probably aren’t even aware of. “Hello,” I say. “Where are we?” I ask. In a click, they are gone.
GeoGuessr, despite its simplicity, or maybe because of it, is a beautiful, novel way to look at the world. Sometimes I find myself following the little white arrows further and further down a road or path, wanting to discover more of the terrain, straining to see what lies in the village ahead. A digital Marco Polo, succumbing to the timeless, inexplicable urge to discover what’s just beyond reach, I click and click and click.