A National Geographic Cartographer Explains How to Win That Google Maps Guessing Game

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May 15 2013 1:33 PM

How to Beat GeoGuessr, the Insanely Addictive Google Maps Guessing Game

Tips and tricks from a National Geographic cartographer.

Where are you? Northeastern Greece, in this GeoGuessr session.
Where are you? Northeastern Greece, in this GeoGuessr session.

Screenshot from Geoguessr.

Some online quiz games are rendered pointless by Google. But here’s one that would be impossible without it: GeoGuessr, a “where in the world are you?” guessing game that drops you into a Google Street View locale from somewhere on Earth and challenges you to place your location on a map.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Those who have tried it can attest to its addictive qualities—and the head-smacking frustration that ensues when you confidently drop your pin on the plains of Texas only to find out you were actually looking at a scene from Alberta, Canada, some 2,000 miles to the north. Or when you congratulate yourself for instantly identifying a quintessential Dutch town square—that turns out to be a Dutch theme park in Nagasaki, Japan.

It’s those “you’ve got to be kidding me” moments that make the game so compulsively replayable. That said, getting pummeled and taunted by your better-traveled friends on Facebook can get old fast. So I called up Rosemary Wardley, senior GIS cartographer at National Geographic Maps, to see how a pro approaches the game—and whether she could offer any tips for the rest of us.

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Wardley hadn’t yet seen GeoGuessr when I showed it to her, but she quickly got hooked. As she played, I watched via screen-share and asked her to think out loud before making each guess. Here’s how it went down.

Street View 1: A dusty desert byway with a yellow-and-black road marker and a cattle pen on one side.

Wardley: OK, right away I’m thinking American Southwest, probably like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona. Just mostly because of the dryness of the landscape. And then cattle are clearly a big industry in that part of the U.S. But I also know it’s a big industry in Australia.
Me: Yeah, why couldn’t this be Australia?
Wardley: I guess it could be. But I’m going to go with my original gut instinct. It feels more familiar than Australia.
Wardley’s guess: Western New Mexico
Actual location: Southeastern Arizona
The takeaway: Don’t overthink it. Your instincts might be based on subconscious cues that your rational mind can’t quite place.

Street View 2: A modern, urban plaza studded with men dressed in suits and a sculpture that looks like a giant swirl of purple frozen yogurt. Wardley: You can quickly tell this is Asia, just based on the inhabitants and the language on the buildings.
Me: Yeah. But wait, what does that awning say? “Bennigan’s”? And that one says “Texas Western Ice Bar!”
Wardley: Ha! I’m thinking that this has to be in Korea.
Wardley’s guess: Daegu, South Korea
Actual location: Seoul, South Korea
The takeaway: Language can be a good tip-off, but don’t assume a place is English-speaking just because it has terrible American chain restaurants.

Street View 3: A two-lane road flanked by leafy, rolling countryside on one side and a palatial estate on the other.

Wardley: Automatically, that’s Europe. And they’re driving on the same side of the road as us, so it’s not England. It almost looks a little like Versailles.
Me: Could it actually be Versailles?
Wardley: No, no. Too small to be Versailles. I’m thinking Italy. Clearly the season is fall, so it’s a place with four seasons. There are hills, but it’s not in the Alps. I’m going with Italy.
Wardley’s guess: Northwestern Italy, near Turin
Actual location: Northeastern Italy, near Padua
The takeaway: Cultural cues tell you the continent; vegetation tells you the altitude and latitude. But longitude can be trickier.

Street View 4: An arrow-straight highway on a flat landscape, with a tractor-trailer on one side and a truck stop on the other, all overcast by a grim layer of smog.

Wardley: Man, you can hardly see anything here. But you can see from the truck that we’re in America. The landscape is flat with maybe a little bit of a tabletop mountain way in the distance. Somewhere where they have really flat highways. Maybe northern Texas.
Wardley’s guess: Texas Panhandle, near Amarillo
Actual location: Southwestern Wyoming, near Evanston
Lesson: You can’t win ’em all.

Street View 5: A dirt roadway through scrubby vegetation, with no signs or people in sight.

Me: Oh man, this could be anywhere.
Wardley: Yeah, but it looks beachy. (She notes the sandy-looking soil, which I hadn’t noticed, and the wind-gnarled vegetation.) Maybe the Bahamas? But wait, the vegetation really isn’t that tropical. And it’s too dry. I’m changing my answer. It’s Australia.
Wardley’s guess: South Australia, near Adelaide
Actual location: Kangaroo Island, South Australia, near Adelaide
Me: Wow!
Lesson: When there are no signs to read, read the plants and the dirt.

Wardley’s final score: 12,805 points

One last, crucial hint: Google’s Street View cameras have covered an impressive portion of the globe, but large swaths of Asia, Africa, and South America remain uncharted. Memorize the basic contours of this map, and you can rule out entire regions from the get-go.

Or don’t. In many cases, you could even deduce your exact address by traveling down the road, zooming in on street signs or business names, and then doing a Google search. That’ll certainly help your score, but it’s the wrong way to play the game. GeoGuessr isn’t really about high scores. It’s about your ability to pick up on the details of the world around you, not your Google-fu. A simple Chrome experiment designed by a single developer named Anton Wallén, it doesn’t even have a top-scores leaderboard—which makes sense, since each batch of images is different and some are much harder than others. The reward of the game isn’t your score but the wondrous sensation of dislocation that hits you when you realize the deceptively familiar vista before your eyes could be literally anywhere in the world.

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