Review: GeoGuessr Helps Build Observational and Social Studies Skills

Reading Time: 4 minutes
GeoGuessr lets parents and kids play a global guessing game. (Screenshot by the author)
GeoGuessr lets parents and kids play a global guessing game. (Screenshot by the author)

My daughter (she’s seven) sat on one end of our couch, assembling her completed homework into a folder to turn in the next day. I sat on the other end, cleaning up the scrap paper we had used in going over her spelling words. My laptop sat between us – one of her spelling assignments had been to type her words and email them to her teacher.

I picked up the laptop and closed the browser tab with my Gmail account on it. The other open tab contained a procrastination-aid website I tend to keep handy, GeoGuessr. My daughter saw it on the screen and asked what it was.

“It’s just a game that Daddy likes to play,” I told her.

“Can we play it together?”

My initial thought was that it was too difficult, too abstract a concept for a second-grader. In a nutshell, GeoGuessr is about figuring out ‘where you are’ on the planet based on observing your surrounding. The game draws on Google’s Street View database; at the start of a round, you are ‘dropped’ randomly onto the map. The standard Street View tools and interface are the same, so you can move about, zoom, etc. But there are no labels anywhere in sight. If you want to know the name of a street, for instance, your only option is to find a street sign.

But since we’re always on the lookout for new games to play together, I said, “Sure!”

We fired it up and in round one (a full ‘game’ consists of five rounds) we found ourselves looking at a fairly nondescript suburban scene. My daughter quickly figured out the interface and began moving about. The first intersection we came to was of no help, just generic street names. She said, “Well, the signs are in English so we know that much.” Smart kid.

I was watching her, wondering how best to explain that English street signs still left a lot of detective work to do. But I noticed she was zipping down the street, very intent on… something.

“Where are you going, Sweetie?” I asked.

“I think I see a bus stop,” she said.

We have bus service where we live but we don’t use it; I have no idea why she picked that out. But in no time we were in front of the bus stop, and there was even a bus in front of it. Emblazoned on the side was the word, “Halifax.”

She looked accomplished, yet confused. “So… where is that?” she asked.

Well, we’re a team, after all. “Halifax is a city in Canada,” I told her.

Her eyes lit up. “I know where Canada is!” she said. “What do we do now?”

I clicked on the map in the bottom right to ‘Make a Guess.’ That displays a map (fully zoom-able) where you essentially drop a pin where you think you are. When you click on the ‘Guess’ button, the game scores your efforts – the closer you are, the higher the score – to a maximum of 5,000 points per round.

She found Canada, I pointed out Nova Scotia, and she found Halifax. We could have really taken our time and found the intersection we had seen previously, but since this was our first time out we dropped a pin toward the city center and hit ‘Guess.’ We were off by about ten miles and got 4,800-ish points, about the highest I ever get in a single round. She was thrilled and couldn’t wait for round two.

That proved a little more difficult – we found ourselves on a small road in a mountainous setting. Aside from a few rocks, there were no other landscape clues. She started to move down the roadway.

I was ready to cut our losses, guess and move on to round three. “Looks like we could be somewhere in Ireland,” I suggested.

“Mmm hmm,” she said. Clearly she wasn’t ready to guess just yet.

“You know,” I said, “sometimes you just have to make your best guess and-”

“Aha!” she yelled. I admit I was a little startled. “If we’re in Ireland, why is the writing on that truck in Chinese?”

Sure enough, she had come upon an intersection where a tractor-trailer was waiting to turn onto the roadway. And the lettering on the side of the trailer was definitely in Chinese characters.

“Well, I’ll be,” I started, but she had already pulled up the map and zeroed in on China. Because of the terrain, I suggested one of the more mountainous regions. We were off by several hundred miles, but still made over 3,000 points for our guess. Not bad.

And so it went. It occurred to me that this silly little time-waster might actually be a pretty powerful geography/social studies/etc. learning tool.

It really was incredible to watch her mind at work. On those rounds where we couldn’t find a legible sign or anything else, she started trying to ‘read’ the landscape. (“Hmm… there are palm trees… we must be somewhere tropical…”)

GeoGuessr isn’t the first website to try this concept but it’s easily my favorite implementation. Their homepage also offers variations on the regular game where you can limit yourself to a particular country or city (more difficult, actually, because the scoring is adjusted accordingly – a mistake of a few blocks can have the same effect on your score as being off by hundreds of miles in the full game). One really good variant to get your global travel feet wet is the “Famous Places” game, which does pretty much what you would expect – you find yourself at a landmark and have to figure out where you are.

Overall, GeoGuessr is fun, very interactive and surprisingly educational. It’s definitely worth a test drive on your next game night.

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