“The first three things you should learn are telephone poles, bollards and licence plates,” says Trevor Rainbolt. He’s sitting where he usually is, in front of a computer screen in Los Angeles, and advising me how to memorise the whole world without leaving the house. “Once you learn those three, you’ll be chill. It’s like a language – the more you play the more you learn; the less you play, the more you forget.”
This year, Rainbolt, 24, became the unofficial face of GeoGuessr, an online game in which players compete to identify locations on Google Street View as quickly as possible (and often in seconds). Invented almost accidentally by a Swedish software engineer called Anton Wallén in 2013, the game takes the established tranquillity of Street View and converts it into something frantic: synapses firing, minds whirring, players locked into intense concentration as their brains cycle through visual information they’ve trained themselves to retain. Today, there are more than 40 million GeoGuessr accounts and a community of elite players, with the game’s popularity increasing significantly during the pandemic.
While he doesn’t consider himself the world’s best GeoGuessr player (that distinction, apparently, goes to Blinky or Kodiak), Rainbolt’s self-shot, smartly edited, viral TikTok videos of himself figuring out the location of a Lizzo video, knowing where he is in 0.1 seconds in North Korea, or correctly identifying remote terrain in Antarctica, usually set to a classical piece by contemporary composer Max Richter, have captivated the internet and introduced the game to a new audience.
With 1.3 million followers on TikTok, he’s become GeoGuessr’s poster boy, regularly sharing videos that follow an instantly recognisable format: talking to camera, walking through different scenarios within the game, usually wearing a black or grey hoodie. Rainbolt is handsome, softly spoken and quietly intense, narrating his own gameplay with the occasional “nice” when he does something completely routine, like, say, accurately assessing that he’s in Mongolia when looking at a black and white image of pixelated leaves.
“I would look at people that were playing the game like: ‘Why is this not viral?’ he says. “I understand the virality behind it and how much it’s blown up, because it’s just so new to people. I think Rainbolt and GeoGuessr are synonymous at this point. If I get recognised in public, it’s ‘you’re the GeoGuessr guy’ or ‘the Google Maps guy’. Which I’m 100 per cent OK with – it’s pretty cool that I’m that attached to the game. I’m not like, you know, Brad Pitt, but it’s at least one or two people that recognise me on a walk down Main Street.” Has it improved his dating life? “Quite the opposite,” Rainbolt says. “I’ll be on the apps and someone will be like ‘wait are you the TikTok guy?’ I’m like: ‘Ah, I can’t do this.’”
Rainbolt grew up in an extremely small town called Flippin in Arkansas (there were 13 people in his graduate class). With a childhood spent in a relatively isolated, rural part of the US, at age 15, he turned to the internet to pass the time, forging an early career growing the followings of basketball fan pages on Instagram and then selling them. He started messing around on GeoGuessr in 2016 when he transferred from Arkansas to Alabama for his senior year of high school, but didn’t start to take it seriously until 2021.
“I was always interested in the game,” Rainbolt says. “I’d watch other people play on Youtube, smaller players within the community. After watching their videos every day for five or six months, I was like: ‘I’m just going to start playing.’ From there I was addicted. I have a pretty obsessive personality, I just indulge [in something] until I’m pretty good at it.”
Dedicating himself to GeoGuessr to a point where he could compete professionally meant no social life, playing every night after he finished work and from 10am to 10pm at weekends. He’s not just memorised Earth – he can now pinpoint specific parts of the moon and Mars, although “hasn’t looked at it in a while”. Rainbolt might be able to recognise what country he’s in by looking at the size and shape of a blurred car number plate, but until this month he’d never left the US, aside from a cruise to Jamaica when he was 10. Days after we spoke, he sold all his possessions, left LA and headed to Germany, where he saw his first ever Google car. He plans to live in a different country every month, indefinitely.
Rainbolt’s immersion within the forensic findings of Google’s surveillance fleet has changed his outlook on travel and altered his appreciation of the planet. Next year he’s heading to Laos, a country he’s fallen in love with through the screen, before going on to Portugal and Georgia, places he’s become fascinated by, a longing formed by losing himself in panoramic photographs. He was excited to visit Germany as it hasn’t updated its Maps coverage since 2009 due to privacy reasons. Consequently, his vision of the country is one that’s stuck 13 years in the past, something that’ll change as he walks its streets in real life.
‘I was never really big into geography or anything like that,” he says. “My understanding of countries, cultures and the world in itself was surface level. But I think the biggest thing is it’s given me a newfound appreciation for countries I had never even heard of. I always say it’s a privilege to play this game, to have this tool to go into any different country on Street View and see how these people live day to day. It’s not staged, it’s just driving down the street as these people are living, seeing it in its rawest form.”
Recently, he’s begun using his skill to help people find places that they have an image of but cannot locate, like someone who messaged him to say: “I lost my dad a few years ago. I got this picture of him from my mom, it’s from their honeymoon trip together. I would love to go there and take the exact same picture and frame it for my mom to surprise her.” Another man sent him a short, grainy video and asked him to find the place he proposed to his wife 13 years ago somewhere near Mount Fuji, so the couple could return. On both occasions, Rainbolt was able to track the exact location. He’s excited by GeoGuessr’s ability to provide emotional comfort to people who want to reconnect with parts of the world that are significant to them, and in the process reconnect with themselves.
“I didn’t actually think that this could translate into anything positive besides me just playing the game,” he says. “Then once it had an actual impact, I was like: ‘OK, I’m going to put a call to action on my Instagram story’. I think those [challenges] are the most fun I have, it’s like a treasure hunt. I probably get two or three really meaningful ones a day. I always try to help.”
Rainbolt says he’s dreamed in Street View, and back when he was playing up to 12 hours a day, had experiences similar to the famous scenes where chess pieces appeared on the ceiling in the hit Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit. He says that when he finally sees the countries that he’s memorised, that it’ll be impossible to view the world outside the aesthetic framework of Street View, impossible to remove the game from his head.
“It’s completely in my brain 24/7,” he says. “Even walking down the streets in California I’ll always look for things to hopefully use in the game.” For now, he sees GeoGuessr as his career, but isn’t sure whether he’ll still be playing at 60. Who knows what the world will look like by then.