Tuesday, September 26, 2023

People are playing a guessing game in Google Maps

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Panic begins to install. The other four states of his GeoGuessr race went well. So much so, in fact, that Gavin, better known as the Chicago Geographer, was a few minutes ahead of the desired time. But the end state presents a new challenge.

He knows he’s in a quaint part of Utah, somewhere near Logan – evidenced by the town’s name on the blue trash cans lining the street. It might seem like a glaring clue, but the suburbs can be particularly difficult to pin down, with no businesses or unique landmarks nearby. Chicago wants to be absolutely certain – it’s got this far, after all.

He clicks frantically down the street, looking for any perceptible clue. After what feels like an eternity for a sprint (seconds by normal standards), he stumbles upon a pair of signs with numbers indicating a specific national highway. He finds this intersection on the interactive map, retracing his steps from there. He submits his guess: just outside a row of houses on East Main Street in Wellsville, a small town a few miles from Logan but in the same county.

With this race in November, Chicago set a new world record with a Perfect USA Speedrun in 4 minutes, 28.65 seconds. It had been dropped off in five random locations in the United States. In less than five minutes, he guessed them all with precision. The records change almost every day, however.

On March 20, Chicago improved its world record by 15 seconds with a performance of 4: 13.80. Four days later, user Icn15 approached the throne with a time of 4:28. User Apollobo’s time of 5:38 takes third place. There will be plenty of challengers – Chicago is a prolific member of a constantly growing community of GeoGuessr speedrunners.

GeoGuessr is a website that was started as a hobby project in 2013 by Swedish IT consultant Anton Wallen. You are placed, virtually, in a random location around the world. GeoGuessr interfaces with Google Street View, allowing you to explore the surrounding area to use context clues to determine exactly where you are. If there is a road accessible to vehicles nearby, then the game is fair.

A “perfect” rating – anything within 75 feet of the original location – will earn you 5,000 points. A typical game lasts five rounds, so 25,000 points would be a perfect game.

“Really happy with this game,” Chicago Geographer says in the Youtube video highlighting his original record, which has garnered nearly 80,000 views since it went live in November.

This is an understatement.

A world of possibilities

Popular games for speedrunning (like everything with Mario in the title) tend to have structure. Competitors spent hours studying every detail of a given world map or campaign. They’re experiencing pixel perfect issues to tap into for shaving time, or certain triggers to instantly kill a boss or prevent enemies from spawning.

If traditional speedrunning is based on organization, GeoGuessr is the antithesis. The idea is the same – complete a certain streak or score a certain number of points in as little time as possible – but beyond that there is no comparison. GeoGuessr contains randomness unmatched by any other game, even those with procedurally generated worlds like Minecraft or Underworld.

In one turn, you might be presented with a very urban area, with a plethora of buildings, billboards, and street signs that weave a readable tapestry. In the following scenario, it is quite possible to be dropped in the middle of a sparse tundra, with nothing but few shrubs for miles.

“Every ride is completely different,” says Chicago Geographer. “No two people end up in the same places for every game, unless you are extremely lucky.” In this speedrun, the gameplay doesn’t matter. It is limited to four cardinal directions of movement and a zoom function, linked to the scroll wheel of a mouse.


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