By KELLEN BROWNING
An unremarkable stretch of highway and trees, as seen on Google Maps’ Street View, appeared on the screen. It could have been anywhere from Tasmania to Texas. “This is going to be south Philippines, somewhere on this road down here,” Trevor Rainbolt (pictured) said instantly, clicking on a location on a map of the world that was less than 11 miles from the spot. A road winding through woods was up next. Lake Tahoe? Siberia? “It looks like we’re going to be in Switzerland here, unless we’re in Japan. Yeah, we have to be in Japan here,” Rainbolt said, correctly pinpointing the country.
Rainbolt has become the face of a fast-growing community of geography fanatics who play a game called GeoGuessr. The premise is simple: As you stare at a computer or phone, you’re plopped down somewhere in the world in Google Street View and must guess, as quickly as you can, exactly where you are. You can click to travel down roads and through cities, scanning for distinguishable landmarks or language. The closer you guess, the more points you score. To some, Rainbolt’s snap answers seem like wizardry. To him, they are simply the result of countless hours of practice and an insatiable thirst for geographic knowledge.
“I don’t think I’m some genius,” said Rainbolt, a 23-year-old online video producer in Los Angeles. “It’s like a magician. To the magician, the trick is easy, but to everyone else, it’s a lot harder.” For the casual player, traversing still images of winding pastoral roads, Mediterranean foothills and streets filled with tuk-tuks can be tranquil, especially without a time limit. But for performers like Rainbolt, the pace is frenetic, and identifying a location can take only seconds — or less.
Rainbolt is not the top GeoGuessr player in the world. That distinction is often considered to belong to a Dutch teenager who goes by GeoStique, or to a French player known as Blinky. But since around the start of this year, Rainbolt has been the standard-bearer for GeoGuessr, thanks to his captivating social media posts, shared with his 820,000 followers on TikTok as well as on other social platforms.
Appearing in a hoody and sometimes headphones as dramatic classical music plays in the background, Rainbolt identifies countries after what appears to be simply a glance at the sky or a patch of trees. In some videos, he guesses the correct locale after looking at a Street View image for only a tenth of a second, or in black and white, or pixelated — or all of the above. In others, he is blindfolded and guesses (correctly) off a description someone else provides him.
The videos that have generated the most shock are ones in which Rainbolt, using his topographical sleuthing, identifies exactly where music videos were filmed. In one viral clip, he found the exact street in Nevada from a video of a person driving with a capybara. “If I ever go missing, I hope someone hires this guy on my behalf,” one Twitter user commented.
GeoGuessr was created in 2013 by a Swedish software engineer, Anton Wallen, who came up with the idea while on a trek across the United States. Early influencers like GeoWizard, a British YouTuber, helped promote the game. It also gained popularity during the pandemic, when it introduced a multiplayer mode called Battle Royale. Rainbolt’s social media posts boosted it further. Last month, in a publicity coup, Rainbolt livestreamed with Ludwig Ahgren, a former Twitch personality who now broadcasts to three million followers on YouTube.
Browning is a journalist with NYT©2022
The New York Times