Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mundane Wonder and Map Games

I'm pretty sure I'm standing on just ice. The snowy ground is solid, but in front of me is a bright red boat, the Noorderlicht, whose mast rises up into the clouds that obscure the sky. I will venture a guess and say Noorderlich means Northern Lights. Am I in Norway? How the hell am I supposed to find the airport from here?
The Noorderlich in MapCrunch
If this were real, I would just pick a direction and start walking. Instead, immune to the cold climate, I take my time using Google Maps 360 degree viewer to look around. Then, with a click of a button, I make leaps across the frozen plain. This is MapCrunch, and I am playing a self-imposed game that uses Google's street view to imbue the mundane world with a sense of wonder and adventure.

Playing this impromptu game is simple. Visit MapCrunch, or any website like it, to be placed on the streets of a random place in the world. Be sure to click the "stealth" box to hide any geographical data. Then, with just your wits, using road signs and your innate sense of direction, find your way to an international airport, your imaginary way home.

The simple game is joined by others, most recently by GeoGuessr, a website that similarly places you into a random location via Google street view. Then, with another map on the right, you guess your location in the world. The closer your guess is to your actual location, the more points you earn that round. After several hops around the globe, your final score measure how well you can glean information about the world through signage, iconography, plant and animal life, and architecture.
Nevada summer in GeoGuessr
These map games capture the allure of Alternate Reality Games without actually overlaying reality with the strange or completely fictional. Yes, you interact with "game world" with a browser interface, but it is one witch which you are already familiar. Using street view is a common way the relatively affluent now interact with their environments. We trace our way through our own backyards to find coffee shops, or we plan trips abroad by transporting ourselves onto foreign streets. Some people even trawl street view maps to find strange sightings or movie moments. Google maps has become a pop-culture extension of ourselves, as mundane and normal as looking at an atlas or even out the window.

When you place a game context over this experience, the mundane reality of a dessert in Nevada or a seaside village in Italy takes a new significance. This is not just online sightseeing, these games challenge you to look at the world a new way. They demand it. Simple advertisements become riddles, decipherable texts that convey though foreign script a clue that matters only to you. A movie poster, a type of VW Bug, the symbols for a crosswalk, they could all reveal something about their location. A nice house around a corner could hint at a larger town nearby, and maybe signs for a highway or a tourist center.
A world in transition; Nevada in winter
 In many ways, seeing the world through through a street view game is a form of time travel, an invitation to explore the world as an archaeologist, navigating through our architectural and social past in images, unable to speak to those who call those streets their home. While devoid of life, these experiences are deeply humanistic. The world from this angle is, by definition, one paved by others. The presence of a human collective is expressed in the silent buildings and anonymous warped faces in map games. Both the diversity and similarity of surroundings from one location to the next invoke a cosmopolitan view of the world, and maybe even a slightly imperialistic view as well.

Above all else, these games feed an innate curiosity that stirs up an antithetical desire to stop playing, turn off your computer, go outside, and explore our world.

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