Trevor Rainbolt, aka georainbolt (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
Trevor Rainbolt, aka georainbolt (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

InternetJanuary 19, 2023

Where in the world is Trevor Rainbolt?

Trevor Rainbolt, aka georainbolt (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
Trevor Rainbolt, aka georainbolt (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

He became a viral sensation for his unbelievable feats in the online geography game GeoGuessr. Now the man most know as georainbolt is branching out.

The picture shows a father outside a restaurant, looking adoringly at his smiling child. It has few landmarks visible to give away its location. “I lost my dad a few years ago and this picture has always stuck with me, however I don’t have a clue where it is,” reads the caption. “I was wondering if you could work your magic?” The magician is Trevor Rainbolt, a 24-years-old American who’s become a viral sensation for his ability to pinpoint locations from a single photo.

He is first able to distinguish a house in the background with Greek architecture. Then he uses the time of day and the sun’s position to confirm that they’re facing north. In the background, Rainbolt notices a port breakwater, so he scans “every single Greek island” and “hundreds of Greek ports” but nothing clicks. Cyprus is the only other country that would have this style of house, so Rainbolt begins inspecting every port. He quickly finds the exact one, confirming the location by visiting the restaurant’s website and matching a photo of the restaurant with the picture of the follower’s late father.

The search wasn’t easy, says Rainbolt, but it was worth every minute. He’s talking to me from Germany, where he’s just woken up. He’s swaddled in a relaxed hoodie, a staple of his videos. I begin our interview by asking him to describe his profession. “I’m a professional Google Maps player,” he says.

Rainbolt identifies the North Island in approximately 0.2 seconds (Screenshot: YouTube)

For the average user, Google Maps is a means of getting from A to B, but for Rainbolt and a burgeoning online community, Google Maps is the foundation of a game known as GeoGuessr. The game, designed in 2013 by Swedish engineer Anton Wallén, has players drop into random locations across the globe in Google street view. They then have to decipher their location from visual clues. With over 50 million players and more than two billion views on TikTok, GeoGuessr exploded in popularity at a time when travel was at its most inaccessible. 

Rainbolt is exceptionally good at this game. Unremarkable landscapes of roads, trees and houses are instantly recognisable to him. From Kyrgyzstan to Kerikeri, he can pinpoint locations on a world map in a split second. To many he’s doing the impossible, a magic trick, but Rainbolt says it’s simply the result of countless hours of training and a thirst for geographic knowledge.

Ironically, Rainbolt grew up “not caring about geography at all”. He wasn’t a whiz-kid who memorised flags and capital cities. Rather, his childhood was spent in Flippin, Arkansas, a rural town isolated from the world. Until recently, he’d only left the US once, and that was on a cruise to Jamaica as a child. It was only when the pandemic hit that he fell down the GeoGuessr and geography gaming rabbit hole. 

He religiously watched content creators play the game every day for months and pored over study guides created by fellow diehards. Before long, Rainbolt realised that he was “actually kind of good” at GeoGuessr and began playing every night after finishing his day job as a social media producer, as well as from 10am to 10pm on weekends. Dedicating himself to competing at GeoGuessr meant he “had to make some sort of sacrifice”. The sacrifice was his social life. “It depends on what you value,” he says. “I was fine with not having a social life because I thoroughly enjoyed the game. It was something that brought me joy.

While he’s the first to admit he’s not the best GeoGuessr player in the world (that title likely goes to Dutch teenager Stique), Rainbolt’s viral videos have turned him into the game’s poster boy, a label he enjoys carrying. He went from anonymously walking down a street to being stopped and recognised as “the Google Maps guy”.

Rainbolt boasts a whopping 1.8 million followers on TikTok. He’s the most consumed geography content creator in the world, with his GeoGuessr exploits often going viral. Rainbolt’s followers are rabid to understand how he sees the world, what sorcery he uses to be able to pinpoint a location from little more than a patch of grass (he once correctly guessed New Zealand based off a picture of a highway ditch next to some gravel.) In one video he even does it blindfolded. But Rainbolt is quick to reiterate that he doesn’t think of himself as some “genius”; rather, it’s “time” and “dedication” that led him to acquire this skill set.

How do you memorise the world? It’s a question he’s been expecting but doesn’t mind answering. “There are lots of things you can learn, starting from bollards on the side of the road to telephone poles, road markings, road quality, road width, what the roads are made out of, the landscape around you, different signage, different architecture, different languages and vegetation.” What you’re doing is “learning the distinct features of the world that help you guess the region, and then it’s just memory,” Rainbolt says. Right now he’s attempting to learn Australia, a country that he’s yet to commit to memory.

In the last couple of months, Rainbolt has been posting fewer GeoGuessr videos and instead turned his skillset to helping people find sentimental places that they have an image of but cannot locate. The emotional comfort he can provide has transformed Rainbolt from a “professional Google Maps player” to a digital detective. He says he doesn’t play GeoGuessr so much anymore, but reconnecting people with places and spaces meaningful to them is “the most rewarding thing ever.”

“I was adopted in 1995 and only have this photo before she passed away”, one follower wrote. He’d never met his biological mother, he didn’t know anything about her or his own history but he had just one photo. Based off that one photo, Rainbolt was able to locate exactly where she had been when it was taken. “Just because he knew where that one photo was taken, he knew more history about his mum, his biological mother, he was able to have some clarity. “That’s special… that’s lifelong… that’s impact”, says Rainbolt.

The impact GeoGuessr has had on his life is clear – he recently sold everything he owns and left the US to go travelling – his plan is to live in a different country every month indefinitely. His online popularity means he can live off his earnings from ad revenue and sponsors. Currently in Germany, where Google street view hasn’t been updated in 13 years due to privacy laws, Rainbolt can step outside and see an updated version of the country in real life.

Although he isn’t always staring at a computer screen any more, Rainbolt says he can never look at the world the same way. Often he’ll set foot in a new place only to ask himself, “have I been here?” In memorising the world, he has blurred the world on Google Maps with his own experiences.

Rainbolt says he’s not sure if he’ll be playing GeoGuessr forever, but he hopes the future includes more in-person events. I joke about a GeoGuessr tournament in a sold-out stadium with thousands of adoring fans screaming his name. It’s not such a farfetched idea, he suggests, though it might not be is name the crowd is screaming. “People don’t realise how entertaining it is.”

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