Exploring your surroundings through GPS-based games

by Eszter Hargittai on June 18, 2016

Would you like to learn more about your home town? How about a new angle to exploring your travel destinations? GPS-based games – or treasure hunts – are great for this! It is an increasingly popular genre with several options. I myself have experiences with geocaching, Munzee, and Ingress. They are all games that depend on technology while also requiring that you get up and move around. Each is somewhat different (I’ll explain some of the differences below), but on the whole focuses on physical movement and exploration. Even if you are not that keen on getting on board, I recommend reading the details below so that you know what the cool kids are up to these days. Or the geeks.

Wearing my researcher hat, I find these games fascinating, because they are a great example of how decisions that the creators of the games make – often technical elements that certainly have alternatives to their current state – influence game play and community interaction. I’ll leave those reflections for another time, for now I will provide an introduction to each with the hopes that you get inspired to try at least one of them.

I started geocaching seven years ago (it has been around for 16), have been playing Munzee for about four (that started five years ago), and Ingress for a bit less than two (that’s been around since 2013). Each of these games, in their various ways, has inspired me to learn more about where I live as well as places I visit. They can be played occasionally or on a daily basis. They can be a completely solitary endeavor or can inspire lots of social interaction. I have seen them each appeal to people of varying ages across the globe. They each offer a wonderful adventure. I hope you’ll consider giving at least one of them a try! (If you are ready to jump in and are wondering which one has the lowest barriers to entry, my vote goes to Munzee.)

Munzee is a treasure hunt where the goal is to find QR codes, those little squares of black-and-white code (or lighter-color and darker-color code) that have popped up in countless places. There are millions of QR codes out there that have nothing to do with Munzee, of course. To know where you can find QR codes that concern the game, use the free app (or look on the site’s map) and use the app to capture the code once you have found it. These codes were placed by fellow players. Munzee leaves it up to the community to populate an area with game pieces.

Geocaching is also a treasure hunt, but in this case you look for containers of varying sizes (from ammo cans in the woods to tiny capsules in urban places) hidden by other players. You look for them based on the object’s GPS coordinates, which is available on the Web site and through the app. Because many geocaches are hidden in the woods where phones don’t always work so well, a dedicated GPS device can be helpful for that particular game. There are various downsides to geocaching, one being that you can look rather suspicious to passers-by when you play it, especially in urban areas. Bomb scares are not uncommon when muggles – as non-players are referred to in the game – discover the containers. That is something to keep in mind when considering that game.

Ingress is an augmented-reality game where you interact with in-game pieces on your phone while you are in physical proximity of said “pieces” called “portals” in the game. Ingress divides all players into two big teams: green for Enlightenment and blue for Resistance. You choose your team when you sign up for the game. (I myself am green and encourage you to join that team.) There is a whole big back story that has never really resonated with me (that pun using “resonated” will be completely lost on you unless you are already an Ingress player). I play for the fun of movement and leveling up. Well, and world domination. No, not really, although that is sort of actually the point of the game play. Portals, or these items with which you interact through the app, are in places of interest such as landmarks and sculptures. They were originally suggested by users and then incorporated into the game by the company. As of a few months ago, Ingress is not taking new recommendations so the map is as is for now when it comes to game elements. A big difference between the other games and Ingress is that players can revisit portals whereas you can only find a geocache once, and for the most part, you can only find a Munzee once (except for occasional special circumstances). The flip side is that, as I just mentioned, Ingress is as it is. No new portals are being added so the available locations with portals is not changing. Like with Munzee, you’re just staring at your phone so you can blend into just about any environment.

Geocaching is the oldest and in some ways most widely known game of the three, the latter likely in part thanks to the former. I don’t play it that much anymore for a few reasons. First, the drama got to be too much. Local volunteers have quite a bit of say in certain aspects of the game, which can lead to Kafkaesque actions of players. The whole game depends on players putting effort into hiding containers, but the game does not reward these actions. Imagine putting the effort into hiding a container only to be told that it won’t be approved even though you followed the established rules. Contrast that to Munzee, which runs on a point system and rewards those who add to the game by deploying Munzees, i.e., in-game QR codes. There is no approving body, the app lets you deploy a new Munzee immediately.

Geocaching is restrictive in other ways as well. You can only hide caches in your home area. There are good reasons for this, but it limits the possibilities. In comparison, you can deploy Munzees wherever you are on the globe as long as you have an in-game QR code with you, you have your app fired up, and you have data connection. Also, while geocaches have to be at least 528 feet from each other (or .1 mile), Munzees only have a 50 foot distance requirement (from Munzees of other players, 150 ft from your own).

Despite its limitations, geocaching on the whole has done a better job highlighting interesting places to visit than the other two games so while I don’t play it much at home anymore, I do still check on available caches in an area when I’m visiting a distant land. Although plenty are not particularly interesting – some of the worst are the ones in mall parking lots – many do lead you to nice parks and places of historical interest. The exploration aspect of Munzee is more about walking more than you would otherwise. Capturing one more Munzee on the next block and then maybe just one more on the following block can really keep you going for miles at a time. It’s a great way to explore parts of town you may not end up in otherwise. Of course, you want to be vigilant in terms of safety. Don’t just follow your GPS device, keep an eye out for your surroundings from multiple perspectives.

A big difference between geocaching and Munzee versus Ingress is that the latter thrives on revisiting game pieces with which you have already interacted in the past. Additionally, collaboration with other players can be much more important for strategic reasons although it is not necessary.

There is, or can be, a huge social aspect to these games. I have made friends through all three, and not just where I live. Some of these friendships have extended well past the game so that I now see some geocaching friends even when we have no plans of geocaching. While it is completely possible to play each of these games on your own, it can also be lots of fun to play them with others. All three are amenable to informal meetups, but all three also have more structured events.

I have attended geocaching events in several countries and across the US, sometimes organizing these myself. It is a great way to get to know locals. Munzee is starting to put more emphasis on events as well. As for Ingress, a certain type of game play practically requires that people from a team get together and coordinate certain operations. But you can get far in the game without that element in case that does not appeal to you.

Stuck at an airport? Chances are that there are some Ingress portals you can interact with as you wait for your flight. Waiting for a friend on a street corner? Fire up that Ingress app, maybe you can destroy the other team’s control of a portal while you wait. Want to motivate yourself to go for a longer walk? There is probably a portal not too far away that can entice a longer stroll.

In all three cases, options will vary depending on location. Ingress tends to be especially biased toward urban areas although game play is definitely possible in all sorts of regions. The other two are more up to the players since game pieces are added continuously. Geocaching has limits partly because of the distance requirements. Eventually you will have to go farther and farther to find caches. Munzee very much depends on who is playing locally although there are virtual game pieces that people can add to your local map from afar, which can help. The game is huge in certain areas (like several German cities, Prague, Budapest, Sydney and Melbourne with large virtual fields in places like Washington, DC and outside of Nashville) while taking longer to spread in others. Check out the Munzee Map for game pieces in your area by typing in your location and seeing what pins pop up on the map.

What is the monetization strategy for these games? Geocaching and Munzee have premium memberships, although these can’t possibly account for much by way of income. Geocaching sells some merchandise and in-game pieces like trackable items (e.g., geocoins). Munzee seems to have done a great job selling game pieces, most of them virtual items, as they have very much embraced aspects of gamification (e.g., badges). Ingress was a startup within Google for its first few years. It has now spun off and has sold some game pieces, but that does not seem to be a big aspect of the game as of now. It does have some sponsored pieces, mostly by Japanese companies (e.g., an item is called Bankname Link instead of just Link). You can play each of these without any investment beyond a phone/GPS device and a data plan in the case of Ingress and Munzee.

Ready to get started? Download the free Munzee app for your smart phone (Android and iPhone are supported). Would you rather try Ingress? I have found this site helpful for background information. Ingress definitely has a steeper learning curve for a deeper understanding of the game. Don’t let that stop you though, you can take your time in embracing the details and still have fun with it. Questions? Feel free to leave them in the comments. I’m happy to help in getting people on board. These games are fantastic and I am excited to get more people involved.

If you join Munzee, please consider scanning my referral QR code above.

For more on how geocaching inspires exploration, read my piece with Jeremy Freese in Contexts from a few years ago.



gbh 06.18.16 at 3:11 pm

Thanks for letting me know about these.
Munzee seems like a fun way for my daughter and I to explore our new city.
And I am also now an Englightened one.


milx 06.18.16 at 3:54 pm

Hate the Munzee idea (I’ve done the other two though got bored of Ingress fairly quickly): I have visions of ppl polluting everywhere with QR stickers. Bad enough in urban areas where they merely replace more dynamic/colorful/interesting art/stickers/posters/graffiti but so much worse to imagine someone seeding a park or outdoor area with them. Ingress leaves no physical traces, by contrast, and geocaching does so minimally. Let’s not cover our world with QR stickers, please!


Eszter Hargittai 06.18.16 at 4:31 pm

gbh, welcome to the Englightenment! And yes, these can be lots of fun for children.

milx, ideally this is done in a way that only players can see them such as the bottom of a box or bench. I agree that it is important to be respectful of the area.


dutchmarbel 06.19.16 at 1:57 am

Frogs for the win :D


ZM 06.19.16 at 9:44 am

I joined Munzee. There are Munzees in my town! Mostly on one street. I wonder if you could use this sort of data somehow in urban planning, to map what places people think are important or interesting. You could do a temporary munzee mapping exercise maybe.

If the Munzees are physically taken away, does it automatically change the online map? I’m not sure how geocaching works exactly…


Eszter Hargittai 06.21.16 at 12:57 pm

Dutchmarbel, yay! ;-)

ZM, yes, lots of possibilities for using the data. I wonder what Ingress in particular does with all of the data they have about game play.

When a Munzee goes missing, players who look for it can add an “unable to locate” comment. Two such comments without verification that the Munzee is there and the Munzee goes into Maintenance Mode. If not fixed in 30 days, the system automatically archives it.


Stentor 06.21.16 at 10:46 pm

I’m a hardcore geocacher, and I’m actually presenting a paper on it at an academic conference in Adelaide next week. I find it interesting that you say the game doesn’t reward you for hiding caches, because I’ve not found that to be the case. It seems to me that there’s plenty of status and prestige to be had, as well as a personal sense of accomplishment, from hiding both high quantities and high quality of caches — the same rewards you get for finding caches. Hiding one that gets rejected by a reviewer is frustrating, but so is searching hard for one and coming up with a DNF (did not find). And you can track stats on your own hides just like on your finds, either through the main website or project-gc.

I’ve experimented with Munzee and Ingress, and neither of them grabbed me the way geocaching has — I like the greater physicality of geocaching. But to each their own, I guess!


krr 06.22.16 at 12:18 pm

I was under the impression (possibly incorrectly) that Ingress started out as a data-gathering activity for Google to identify pedestrian access routes in cities to improve their navigational services? Commonly used arcades and rights of way between buildings in cities are much harder to identify remotely than open footpaths. But if you have an army of people walking around between set points you can build a much more complete picture of available paths.


Dingbat 06.22.16 at 2:29 pm

When Ingress was owned by Google, I used to joke that it was a way of Google A/B testing ways to mobilize their users to go out and occupy territory.

That’s become less funny since Google spun off the company—and the idea that Google could turn supervillain anytime they want is just… obvious.


Eszter Hargittai 06.23.16 at 8:02 pm

Stentor, sure, there can be pride in one’s hides and you can get brownie points in a local community to some extent especially for extremely clever caches, but the mere fact that finds are the one stat that are shown next to a user’s name (e.g., when signing the log of a cache on the site) shows just how much finds are emphasized over any other aspect of the game. Also, there is pretty much no room to reward pretty good hides over really crappy hides so that’s discouraging as well and in my area has resulted in extremely pathetic caches (please, no more lamp skirt hides in parking lots). Also, you mention frustration from difficult hides. Indeed, the way the game is set up, there is zero incentive for the hider to be friendly toward other players. Folks will leave useless or no hints even for difficult situations and will just watch lots of DNFs roll in without any care or perhaps even in delight. As you said, to each their own. Regarding your point about people being able to track stats, sure, hard core players can always get more information. But the defaults in a game – or any system – are important in what circumstances are set up for the lowest common denominator player. I am interested in your paper. I still hope to write on the topic one of these days and am curious to see what others are writing about it.

krr, I don’t know the origins of its motivation, but yes, it can be a HUGE data-gathering operation. I am also curious to know if they’re doing anything with the glyph data. Glyphing, or glyph hacking, is an extra layer to the game whereby the user sees a series of glyphs and then draws these back to the game in order to get extra points and extra virtual gear. I find it a fun extra component, but have wondered how they may use those data.

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