The charming guy who dominates GeoGuessr

In April 2013, a Swedish software engineer named Anton Wallén posted on Reddit. “I was playing around with the Google Maps v3 backbone and API and decided to make a small app,” he wrote. “I would appreciate your comments/suggestions?” Wallén had just created GeoGuessr, a game that drops you at a random location in Google Street View and challenges you to guess where you are. The rules are simple: the closer the guess, the more points you get. You are faced with a “seed” of five slots, each worth five thousand points, for a maximum possible prize of twenty-five thousand points and pub-quiz satisfaction.

GeoGuessr exerts a weird, slow charm, turning the aimless globe of Google Earth into something halfway between a treasure hunt and a crossword puzzle. It exploded in popularity shortly after its release, and then again last year when many of us were trapped at home. The game’s appeal was correlated with, or perhaps partly caused by, the viral game phenomenon GeoGuessr, in which a streamer would tell their guesses and strategies, often reacting to the absurdity of a location (e.g., a comically featureless expanse of grassland) or the supernatural accuracy, or catastrophic failure, of a guess (no, not Mongolia). One performance stood out: a record set by a thirty-one-year-old Englishman named Tom Davies, better known as GeoWizard, who would go on to become one of the internet’s most famous GeoGuessr players.

Davies’ game begins with an image of a busy urban street, with red dust pouring from the sidewalks onto the pavement. The sky is covered. Women are walking, loads balanced on their heads, and someone is selling household items – umbrellas, a kettle – by the side of the road. The neighboring fences are adorned with colorful panels. “Ghana again, I believe,” Davies said within seconds. With his soft West Midlands accent (he was born in Oxford, but grew up near Birmingham), Davies mentions a seemingly Frankensteined car made from variously colored spare parts swerving through the intersection, seemingly typical of Ghana. He also notes the yellow license plates and, in one of his rare hints at GeoGuessr’s interior baseball, the kind of clues guessers call “meta”, he notes the black tape wrapped around the roof rack. of the Google Street View truck. . He zooms in on the signs – he’s playing without moving or on the street, to increase the difficulty – and finds one that mentions “Gyinyase, KSI”. “Does KSI stand for . . . Kumasi? Davies wonders what, to the average viewer, will likely seem like a surprisingly well-informed guess. “I think so.” He undermines his own skill by adding, “I’m not sure, by the way, but I think it’s worth looking into.” In the lower left corner, you can see that he has a puzzled look on his face; his forehead is furrowed and he bites his lower lip. He lives on a street that seems fair. “I’ll go,” he said. But then he holds back. “No, that’s the wrong attitude.” After a little more searching, he managed to get about 2.2 miles from the precise location. An impressive outing, sure, but the next run is nonsense. “Wow, wow – for God’s sake, wow!” Davies blurts out, admiring the quaint seaside village he’s landed in, using one of his typically folksy exclamations (which alternate in his videos with earthy swear words). “I think it’s Montenegro. I can’t help but think that,” he says with laughable precision. small town called Risan. This time, he comes closer than five meters.

Davies freely admits that he no longer looks like the best GeoGuessr in the world. There’s a whole generation that came after him and took a ruthlessly technical approach to the game, memorizing the varying morphology of the Baltic electric poles; different cuts of men’s trousers (useful for distinguishing between India, where according to one user they are generally tight, and Pakistan, where they are more likely to be baggy); or that slightly dodgy “meta”: the ghostly trail left by Google’s imaging equipment on every frame (you can scroll down to see the team of oxen that drew the camera on a handcart at Madagascar, for example, or the silhouette of the camel that carried the technician across the desert sands in the United Arab Emirates); and even the different resolutions and orientations of different generations of Street View cameras (images taken from a lower vantage point, for example, usually mean Japan or Switzerland). Over time, the game has evolved to challenge these ‘Moneyball’ style players, with speed races and ‘flashing’ rounds that test a guesser’s ability to recognize a country after 10 days of exposure. a second or a fraction of a second.

Davies is now old school: he prefers to work with “vibes”, he told me. “Obviously knowing certain things like license plates, the sun in the southern hemisphere versus the northern hemisphere – things like that become obvious to you over time,” he explained. “But I think my learning process was very slow.” Unlike the laser-like technical perfection of top gamers, like ItsRC (a college student in Georgia who told me a GeoWizard video was what drew him to the game in 2018), Davies frequently shows up make mistakes. Sometimes he is completely wrong.

Imperfection just within the bounds of relatability is part of what makes a GeoWizard video so appealing. Despite the seemingly rarefied nature of the game, Davies is far from an expert in geography. When he discovered GeoGuessr, he was working odd jobs – delivery driver, butcher, fishmonger, bartender – as he had since leaving high school with average grades and little ambition. His younger brother’s friend sent him the game. “I played it and was like, ‘Oh my god, this is – excuse the pun – right up my street! ” It’s hard to resist the coincidence: the lost guy finds himself playing GeoGuessr.

What appears to be GeoGuessr’s first video was uploaded to YouTube the month the game was officially released, and more or less predicted the genre: screen-sharing detective work, complete with commentary that explains the decisions at as they are taken, and answers when a guess is wildly wrong or perfectly right. Quickly, however, the GeoGuessr video became all about high scores, somewhere between bragging and, for a passionate and skeptical online community, proof. (Videos are needed to be listed on the game’s global leaderboard, hosted by fan site GeoTips.) Davies, obsessed with GeoGuessr and hungry for something new, noticed a “gap in the market” for GeoGuessr videos that showed perfect scores obtained. in “decent” time – and comfortably watchable. So he decided to fill it. In 2015, using the moniker GeoguessrWizard, Davies uploaded a video of a perfect-scoring run to YouTube, the GeoGuessr equivalent of a home run, but he narrated it as a geographical Jeremy Clarkson ( an explicit influence, especially later), riffing on the “big bloody junction” which starts his seed and, at one point, even lets out a boyish burp. Davies delivered a high-flying game, but produced it in a way that was entertaining, not just forensic. The video earned him a small but respectable following, which only grew when he repeated the feat on the world map the following year.

About Shelly Evans

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