Over the past few months, driven perhaps by an increase in travel nostalgia during the pandemic, the online trivia game GeoGuessr has exploded in popularity. Launched by a Swedish developer in 2013, GeoGuessr is built entirely off of Google Maps data and works by dropping players in a random location on Street View mode; they then race to guess where they are in the world. The pros pick up tricks, like memorizing the colors of street signs in North Macedonia, the look of the official Google cars in Colombia, or the most common diacritics in Lao, even if they can’t actually read the language. The best players use these virtual puzzle pieces to guess where they are within meters of the chosen pinpoint on Google Maps.
The game has been trending among some of the biggest gaming personalities on Twitch and Discord. In early March, the search term “GeoGuessr” hit peak popularity on Google Trends, after a popular Minecraft creator played the game during a livestream. A quick search on YouTube will yield dozens of GeoGuessr videos from the past year with more than a half a million views. “It’s sort of like Among Us: once it blew up, everybody was doing it for a while,” said Costar_, the moderator of the main GeoGuessr community on Reddit, who asked to be identified by only his username.
But now GeoGuessr players are targeting Google Maps volunteers in poorly mapped places like Zanzibar, claiming that their contributions are messing up the game by feeding grainy, blurry, or otherwise poor-quality uploads into Google Maps, and, in turn, GeoGuessr. Costar_ said these images often fail to meet the same standards as what the official Google car produces. “It’s very blurry, so you can’t really read text or street signs or get super close to them. Half the screen is taken up by the car, and the movement sucks,” they said. “It’s slow and laggy. Or it’s too bright or too dark. There’s always something.”
Google has uploaded more than 10 million miles of footage from around the world to Maps since 2007, using its custom 360-degree photo equipment, including the Street View car for road imagery and the Street View Trekker backpack for locations accessible only on foot. But while North America and Europe have been almost totally covered, the African continent, as well as other parts of the non-Western world, remain sparsely represented on Google Maps. As a result, unofficial contributors have stepped in to help fill the gaps.
“In a perfect world, Google would do it themselves, but, in reality, our mapping is better than nothing,” said Federico Debetto, the founder of World Travel in 360, which led an effort to fill in the maps in the autonomous island region of Zanzibar, which is located just off the coast of Tanzania, in partnership with the Zanzibar Commission for Tourism. Over 20 million people have viewed the panoramas his team uploaded last year, making the initiative a huge success. The images are bright and crisp, but they don’t quite match the quality of some areas on Google Maps, ticking off the GeoGuessr players.
In community slang, anyone who uploads mapping material other than Google is considered an unofficial contributor and dubbed an “Ari,” after Ari Immonen, a Finnish technologist who drove through his home country for years with a 360-degree camera on the roof of his car and was one of the first people to upload user-generated content to Street View at scale. “When we have an upload that’s lower quality or worse than the official coverage would be, we just call it an ‘Ari,’ and everybody gets what it means,” said Costar_.
Recently, some GeoGuessr players have started contacting Aris to tell them to stop their work, in an effort to rid the game of amateur images and make it easier to play. Reddit users were part of a semi-coordinated push to contact the Tourism Council of Bhutan, or “Bhutan Ari,” which had been updating footage from across the country. On Reddit, Costar_ indicated that they also found and contacted users who were taking footage of Amman, Jordan, and for the Zanzibar project. So far, however, the campaign has been mostly unsuccessful in getting independent contributors to stop uploading. “I don’t think anybody has changed their mind,” Costar_ admitted.
Not all of the anger is targeted at the Aris themselves. Many GeoGuessr fans see the sub-par work as a side effect of Google’s own failure. “I think the attitude of the community towards people who were doing custom coverage in countries like Zimbabwe, which didn’t have any official Google coverage, was more positive,” Costar_ said. “It’s pretty impressive dedication, but this attitude soured over time, because now we see it basically as a discouragement to Google to actually get off their ass and do something new, rather than just keep updating Mountain View, California.”
A French GeoGuessr player, who goes by the username Mapper on YouTube, told Rest of World that they believe Google started allowing unofficial coverage in order to gather more data and save money at the same time. “Having people willing to work for free to fill their database is obviously one of the key elements here,” Mapper said in an email. “Since unofficial coverage started to appear in 2018, we can clearly see a huge drop in new Google additions.” (There is some evidence suggesting that Google’s work on Street View has declined over the last two years.)
Google told Rest of World that relying on volunteer contributors is, in fact, part of its strategy. “For years we’ve been building new ways for people to contribute their own imagery to Google Maps and in higher-quality formats,” a spokesperson for the company said in an email. The company has even built a point system to incentivize users to contribute. Google argues that unofficial contributors help ensure imagery is accurate and up to date, even in places Google has already mapped. The tech giant is also known to loan camera equipment to some “trusted photographers” who take on large-scale projects and allows individuals to use Street View branding to market commercial work.
Some Google Maps contributors say it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the tech giant has empowered them to map their communities on their own terms. “Just because a corporation has technological capability doesn’t mean that it’s culturally right,” said Tania Wolfgramm, the Auckland-based executive director of the GRID Programme, a project to map the Pacific Islands on Street View. Her team learned quickly that because many of the islands are remote and have small populations, including her home of Tonga, Google wouldn’t send a crew itself.
“There’s an understanding that we, as indigenous people, as part of the colonizing experience, have not been able to be a part of global platforms,” she said. In the absence of an official Google team, Wolfgramm saw an opportunity for Pacific Islanders to add to Google Maps independently. With equipment donated by Google and another camera manufacturer, she met with community leaders in Tonga, the prime minister, and the postmaster general, to set ground rules for their project.
“Once it’s online, it’s open to the world. We could not just go into a country, take photos, and go around with a car, without asking for permission,” Wolfgramm said. She said the project has been worthwhile, even if it serves just as a portal to home for the 100,000 Tongans, like herself, who are living abroad.
But as Debetto pointed out, there are also financial consequences associated with leaving communities off the map unless they take their own initiative. Google Maps commercial listings with photos and virtual tours are twice as likely to generate interest, according to research by Ipsos in partnership with Google. For areas dependent on tourism, like Zanzibar, Google Street View is an opportunity to convert viewers into travelers and convince them to book hotels and tours directly from sellers, rather than from international third parties.
As lockdowns come to an end and global travel starts up again, it’s likely that more Aris will continue bringing Street View to new regions of the world. Wolfgramm has already laid the groundwork for her next mapping project on Rapa Nui, or Easter Island. These Google-sponsored volunteer efforts mean that the quality of GeoGuessr may continue to deteriorate. That’s bad news for gamers but good news for the contributors who have been working to make Google Maps more equitable for years.