Geocaching through the ages: a short history of location-based games

This year we are celebrating the twenty-year anniversary of our favorite location-based game. But geocaching didn’t just emerge fully formed in 2000. It was informed and inspired by the location-based games that came before it. Keep reading to take a dive into history, as we explore the origins of location-based games. 

According to our high school teachers’ least favorite source Wikipedia, “a location-based game (or location-enabled game) is a type of…game in which the gameplay evolves and progresses via a player’s location.” 

The first of these games (though not yet a game in the strictest sense) was wayfinding, which was taking off during ancient times. Humans had for years been using physical landmarks, as well as stars and constellations to calculate location on the Earth. As early as 200 BCE, Eratosthenes was able to use observation and mathematics to determine the earth’s circumference to within a staggering degree of accuracy. Wayfinding was simply the next natural step to normal observations: adding signs and directions using images and words to guide people to or from various locations. 

Location-based games in the modern sense really took off though with the advent of orienteering, which traces its origins to Sweden in the late 1800s. Developed for military purposes, it originally meant simply the act of crossing unknown land with only a map and a compass. As compasses became more widespread, it grew in popularity and eventually spread across Europe. Today, orienteering is a very organized game, with various governing bodies, and even a presence in the World Games

Around the same time orienteering was taking off, so was geocaching’s direct ancestor, letterboxing. Letterboxing was started in Devon, England in 1854 by James Perrott. He placed a bottle at Cranmere Pool, where visitors would leave postcards, and the next visitors would collect and post them.  Letterboxing really blew up in the 1970s and crossed the pond in 1998 following the publication of an article in the Smithsonian magazine. Today, there are thousands of letterboxes spread across Dartmoor, and over 10,000 in the U.S. alone!

1998 of course, is only two years before selective availability was turned off by U.S. president Bill Clinton. This allowed anyone, not just the military, to have access to highly accurate, satellite-driven, location services. And the rest, as they say, is history. Geocaching, the world’s largest treasure hunt, has taken off in the intervening years, and today has more than 3 million geocaches in over 190 countries. 

Where do you think location-based games will go next? Let us know in the comments!

Sarah
Sarah is a French-speaking Marketing Coordinator at Geocaching HQ. She likes cats and musicals, but only separately. In her spare time you can find her knitting, snuggling her cat, and waiting impatiently for the next season of Cosmos.