When I was 16 I went on a road trip with my dad through southern France. I sat in the passenger seat with a huge book of maps in my lap. As we wound through the dusty mountains, I traced routes with my finger—the red lines of large highways surrounded by a spiderweb of small white roads that took us from town to tiny town.
I love reading maps. To this day they remind me of the possibilities of travel.
On a more functional level, being able to use maps and recognize cardinal directions has been a huge benefit for me. When I moved to Seattle my mom got me a city map to hang on my wall. If I had to use my GPS to get somewhere, I would always plot out my route on the map afterwards to cement my understanding of local geography. I rarely get lost, and when I do I can usually improvise my way out of it.
Now there are even newer ways to enjoy traveling and navigating—by using GPS-enabled games in the real world. Here’s a list of some games that are doing cool stuff with real geography. Many of them use Google Maps technology to add a layer of digital magic to the real world.
MapCrunch is a browser game that drops you into a random location using Google street view. It was created as a tool to inspire exploration and let people show off the cool places they found.
Users turned it into a game. By selecting the “Stealth” mode under options, you can hide the information about the location you’re in. The goal of the game is to use clues like signs and landmarks to figure out what country you’re in, and then find your way to an airport.
It’s hard and, to be honest, a little frustrating. Kids, however, could easily get into it. Try getting them to draw maps of the places they visited in the game and asking them to make up stories about traveling there. Kids are more used to using their imagination than adults are, and it’s rewarding for them. In the end, it doesn’t matter if they find the airport or not. MapCrunch could be budget travel at its finest.
I’m still getting the hang of Ingress, but conceptually it’s very interesting. Ingress is an alternate-reality game app for iOS and Android. In Ingress, local landmarks are portals you have to hack and control for your faction. You join a faction, either Resistance or Enlightened, at the beginning of the game. The story is that there’s exotic matter coming through the portals. The Enlightened think it can help humanity ascend to a higher consciousness, and the Resistance think it will be used to enslave humanity.
Opening up the app as you walk around town reveals a grid overlaid onto the landscape, with bright portals scattered at key locations. As you’re going about your daily errands you can quickly hack and defend portals. The game has an intense community of hard-core players who meet on sites like Reddit to discuss strategy. It’s way, way more complicated than any of the other games on this list, which is why I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for kids. It’s more geared towards the lifestyle of a college student—or anyone who travels to various locations daily. It’s hard to get started in Ingress, but as a tool that turns your everyday landscape into a digital battleground, it’s fascinating.
3) Run An Empire
Run an Empire is an upcoming app for iOS and Android that just achieved its funding goal on Kickstarter. I’m including it, despite the fact that it hasn’t been released yet, because to me it demonstrates the potential of what combining GPS and games could do. Run an Empire tracks you as you go on your regular jog and logs your route as the borders of your kingdom. The catch is that other users with the app can carve out that chunk of your kingdom for themselves.
In this way, Run an Empire motivates exercise while adding a dynamic fantasy to something that we (some of us) do every day. The enemies are real people—unpredictable, cunning, and competitive. This is an app that demonstrates technology’s ability to connect people and bring life to spaces. Even if you never see your competitors, you can motivate and challenge each other, living in a shared space made possible only by technology.
SmartyPins is one of Google’s latest efforts to make Maps interactive, and it’s a great one. Users answer geography-based trivia questions and rack up miles—you start with 1,000 miles and can gain miles if you answer the questions fast enough. But if you get a wrong answer, the mile distance between the location you chose and the correct location will be subtracted from your total.
You select your answer by dropping a pin onto the correct location on the map. It’s a great way to get familiar with geography and exercise your trivia muscles. The questions are a little challenging, so this one will probably hold the interest only of trivia-loving teenagers. I know I would have loved it when I was in high school on the Knowledge Bowl team.
5) Secret Door
Secret Door isn’t so much a game as an interactive experience. You click the door and, like MapCrunch, it drops you somewhere in Google Streetview. The difference is that Secret Door focuses on the hidden gems, the strange and incredible locations that remind us how big the world really is. The first time I tried it I got dropped into a snowy pool full of bathing Japanese macaques. Just now, I found myself in a hardware store in London.
Try it and see if you can find famous monuments or places that should be world famous and aren’t.
I wish I had more examples of this. A special runner-up is Dreamworks’ Dragon Adventures, a How To Train Your Dragon tie-in game that’s only available on Windows phones. It’s got a cool concept—you use the maps while on road trips to find and save dragons—but not great reviews.
I hope that, as digital-map technology gets more advanced, we’ll see more games cross the boundary between digital and physical. It’s such a cool way to integrate learning and playing—something I can’t get enough of.