Of all the grand game worlds constructed by an army of artificial architects, there’s one virtual environment that game companies have only just begun to chart. The strange thing about this undiscovered realm is that it’s right under our feet, and is one of the largest digital environments ever created: Planet Google.
The Grand Overlord of the Internet has gone to extreme lengths to map, in obsessive detail, our corner of the solar system, including every street corner, the moon, the sea bed, night sky, Mars, and even Chipping Sodbury just off the M4, rebuilding reality as a high resolution online entity. Yet this persistent world is going to waste on trivial matters like route planning and scientific research.
Game companies are missing a trick by not turning this digitization of the real world into a game world where we can live out pretend lives in a pseudo-reality based on our actual physical location.
Between Google Earth and Google Maps there are very few secret corners of the world left to uncover, offering the potential for the most massive of massively online multiplayers. Playing C&C in our own backyards, croquet on the White House lawn, or Super Bass Fishing Extreme in the river Nile has the promise of bringing the planet together in gaming harmony; and then having us fight, compete, conquer and destroy digitally, rather than bombing each other in real life (virtual oil is much harder to start wars over).
Some headway has been made into employing this gigantic digi-sphere in frivolous exploit. The Big G itself built a flight simulator into Google Earth, and hid it away as an Easter egg for digital cartographers and orbital voyeurs to excitedly uncover. Users could unlock the choice between an F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighter and an easier-to-handle Cirrus SR-22 propeller plane, along with a collection of global airports to take off from.
Somewhere between an impossible, fun-less flight sim and an online gimmick, Google Earth’s hidden Top Gun tribute was still quite well received, though it lacked anything in the way of gaming objectives other than giving your neighbors a supersonic fly-by (assuming you could find them). With much of the satellite imagery still flat and uninteresting, one of the few quirks was being able to fly underwater (if that makes any sense) and explore the sea bed as a modern-day Amelia Earhart.
A lot of people have dedicated long hours to the tricksy controls of Google Earth’s aircraft, but others have found alternative ways to have fun with planes on the virtual planet. Still not exactly a game beyond the perpetual race for internet esteem (a worthy chase for one and all), the hunt for ghost aircraft photographed within Google’s satellite imagery has become an entertaining pastime for many.
Runways have been spotted on top of narrow buildings in the middle of the city, jumbo jets have been seen poking their gigantic noses out of forests, jet fighters parked in shopping mall car parks and graveyards of aircraft are all reality irregularities that no one spotted before the world went digital. Optical illusions caused by these time-delayed aerial photographs have made planet combing into something of an internet meme, which doesn’t stop with aircraft.
Scouring Google Maps and Google Earth for real-world anomalies has revealed some fascinating facts and even more fascinating conspiracy theories. Elaborate shapes hewn into the face of the world that only the gods (and Google) have previously been able to see; elaborate crop circles and offensive mega-messages cut into fields; a 50 mile-long obelisk jutting out of a Greenland tundra; dead bodies and UFOs aplenty.
Strangeness-spotting from a pseudo-satellite is an increasingly popular hobby, but more direct methods of misusing Google Maps are also growing. Real World Racer drops a basic bird’s-eye-view driving game onto your locale, with checkpoints attempting to keep you on the streets rather than driving DeLorean-style over the rooftops. Strategists can take the planet to war in the Risk-based Global Skirmish game, should you like to dabble with an Afghan invasion of Russia, or see what it would actually take to bring peace to virtual Israel.
Plane Map takes a similar concept by overlaying a mouse-controlled biplane that takes off from various real-world airports, with rough-hewn altitude controls, statistical information about your trip and a waypoint route after the inevitable crash. It’s clever stuff, and clearly a lot of effort has been lent to these games, but it’s hard to escape the notion that Google Maps is just a moderately dynamic wallpaper behind the action.
Monopoly was even given a Google Maps backdrop in 2009, when Monopoly City Streets offered a live, worldwide version of the popular boardgame using GMaps to provide the famous real estate. As epic as this event sounds, it came and went without much fanfare. But the idea is undeniably solid, and begs the question as to whether we need a big development company to actually put the pieces in place.
Before videogames, we used our imagination to shape the real world into something fantastical, and surely that knack hasn’t been lost after only a couple of decades of digital dreaming. With some degree of preparation and a few borrowed concepts from RPG gaming, a custom Monopoly board can easily be fashioned from Google Maps.
A laptop or iPad in the middle of the table, centered on your area of choice (could be your neighborhood, could be central London like a real Monopoly board, or it could be a collection of craters on the moon) would serve as a property ladder for players to avariciously climb.
Moving pieces around might require the most imagination, but using GMaps’ built-in route planner, a ragged, circular path could be highlighted that runs alongside each property for all the players to follow. Determining the value of this property is up to you; an estate agents’ website would offer current market prices, or you could take more entertaining financial liberties as you monopolize the property development industry.
A simple notepad for players to keep track of their game, as an RPG group might, and a custom game of Google Maps Monopoly is yours for free. And while we’re on the subject, why not mash-up CSI, Columbo and Clue on Planet Google?
Take the sleuthing out of the mansion and make it city-wide, with more imaginative locations than the kitchen and ballroom, such as an alley full of dumpsters where the murder weapon was ditched, or a corrupt police station to add a bit of extra conspiracy to the slaughter. Players can take a bit of time beforehand to create their own character biographies from a template, and once again Google Maps will provide a game board that’s as epic (Washington D.C.) or familiar (your local mall) as you like.
Both these examples draw heavily on the qualities of a paper-and-pencil RPG, which is an area of gaming that uses its world as a linchpin. Already quite demanding in terms of applied imagination, re-engineering an area of Google Maps or Google Earth would be child’s play for a seasoned Quest Master, but would take a lot of the leg work out of topography, distance and scale for a fellowship’s journeys.
But the current face of Google Maps gaming is one of novelty and basics. Planet Google may quite literally be the size of the Earth, but its gaming population is sparse, consisting of small and simple concepts that don’t reach far beyond the individual gamer’s immediate environment. The excavation and terraforming of this digital earth is still something game developers have yet to apply their tools to in a meaningful way, but the potential of playing FarmVille on a real farm, or golf on an actual golf course is a seamless symbiosis of cyberspace and reality waiting to happen.
Perhaps the potential danger of losing our perception as to what’s real and what’s digitized is holding the gaming colonization of Planet Google back. A last, unconscious attempt to hold onto the old reality of a tangible world; a fear of setting out on the unexplored digital sea in case we go too far and fall off the end.
Despite the race for ever-more detail and realism in videogames, do we still demand a distinct separation between living and playing? Google Earth gaming would inherently – deliberately – blur that boundary, as videogames invaded our physical environments. But as unsettling as the notion of seeing Sonic the Hedgehog sprinting through Birmingham’s spaghetti junction might be, it’s one that’s laced with intriguing possibilities.
Yes. Spanner’s his real name, and he’s already heard that joke you just thought of. Although Spanner’s not very good, he’s quite fast, and that seems to be enough to keep him in a regular supply of free games and away from the depressing world of real work.