Find out how Geoguessr can be a valuable teaching tool.

Part of what makes games great is how subjective our enjoyment of them can be. The best games unravel in different ways for different people; we play them differently and in different contexts, changing what they mean to us. 

Unfortunately, when we evaluate games for the classroom we often don't consider how mutable they are. We see them as either containing a certain amount of educational content or not. Some games fit into this model, sure. But for games that are more akin to, say, modeling clay than quizzes -- the learning value is up for grabs; they need people to give them shape and context.

On its face, Geoguessr -- a geography guessing game that tosses players into random parts of the world (using Google's Street View) -- doesn't seem to have much traditional educational value. There's not much to be memorized and used on a typical geography test. Players guess where they are rather than know it, and guessing is bad, right? 

Not quite. Because what Geoguessr gets kids to do is think about what the essence of geography is. It asks the player to consider "place" in every sense, not just from the perspective of a geographer. It asks the player to think like an anthropologist, a scientist, indeed - a detective.  In fact,  it's one of my go-to examples of "21st century literacy," that notoriously murky way of looking at the world that's tough to understand, let alone teach.

screenshot of geoguessr home page

Geoguessr breaks a lot of the rules of learning design. Case in point, it's great because it doesn't scaffold learning. When kids get dropped into a location in Geoguessr, they're not given any instruction or hints to help them figure out where they are. Why? Because figuring out how to figure things out is valuable in itself, and can lead to great conversations in the classroom. Kids not only need to come up with an answer but also understand the steps involved in getting to that answer. 

"Figuring out how to figure things out is valuable in itself, and can lead to great conversations in the classroom."

The experience of playing Geoguessr is like survivalist education mixed with a bit of Sherlock Holmes. Students are thrown into a situation -- in this case a place -- and must think their way through it. They need to unpack the mystery of the Street View image, identifying, classifying, and evaluating its clues, and making deductions from them.

Inevitably kids will develop questions and methodologies that quickly parse each location: 

  • Are there any cars? License plates?
  • Road signs? Bits of language?
  • People? Can we draw reasonable conclusions from them? Or not?
  • What do the buildings look like?
  • Is the plant life like anything you've seen?
  • Any bodies of water? Is there an ocean, or river?
  • Does it look to be a certain climate? How can you tell?

Each of these question leads to more questions. It's a treasure trove of discussion that develops adept thinking skills while exposing students to a more complex and interesting notion of what geography is. Kids explore diversity and difference while also seeing patterns and drawing comparisons between regions and cultures spread out across the globe. 

And there's a correct answer, sure, but you're unlikely to get it. That's why Geoguessr is scored by proximity between your guess and the real location. When you drop a pin on the map, you're not "right" or "wrong," you're just one point on a vector extending out towards the goal. 

There's a metaphor there, I think.


Tanner Higgin

Tanner is Editorial Director, Learning Content at Common Sense Education where he leads the editorial team responsible for edtech reviews and resources. Previously, he taught writing and media literacy for six years, and has a PhD from the University of California, Riverside. His research on video games and culture has been published in journals, books, and online, presented at conferences nationwide, and continues to be cited and taught in classes around the world. Prior to joining Common Sense Education, Tanner worked as a curriculum developer and researcher at GameDesk, helping to design and launch and the PlayMaker School. While at GameDesk, he co-designed the United Colonies alternate reality game (ARG) with Mike Minadeo. This ARG is to date one of the most sophisticated to be implemented in a K-12 environment. Outside of education, Tanner has been a Technical Writer-Editor for the Department of Defense, a web designer, and co-editor and co-creator of a print literary journal.