Gaming in the Real World – An Introduction to Geocaching

Sat, Jul 24, 2010

Casual, Features

While mobile and hardcore games tend to be fairly easy to define, when it comes to social and casual gaming, it can be a bit hard to determine just what falls into either category. What makes the activity one or the other? If social gaming is simply any “game” that allows you to talk to other users while doing it, and any casual game is one that can be played in your spare time, with little thought, than the boundaries are endless. In fact, many things that we may not consider traditional gaming would actually fit; for one – Groundspeak’s Geocaching.

For those unfamiliar with the hobby, Geocaching as a hobby has been around for years, and consists of a very dedicated network of users who post on the hobby’s official website – Geocaching.com. There, a user can sign up for a free account and jump right in on the fun. But what exactly do you do?

To put it most simply, Geocaching is like a real world treasure hunt, using GPS locators and clues in place of a treasure map.  Once you have an account, you can search the site based on your zip code or address (either by text-based list or on Google Maps) to see all of the “geocaches” nearby. A geocache can be anything from an old coffee can or tub to a poster tub or tupperware container, so long as it can withstand the elements of your local community. There are also items known as micro-caches, which can be the size of a film roll container, as one example.

What’s inside is up to the creator. Most caches contains some sort of paper and a pen or pencil, allowing those who find the cache to log their names, the date, and even where they’re from or a detailed personal message. For some caches, that’s all that’s inside, but for others, a true treasure awaits, as users are encouraged to take a small trinket (perhaps a button or magnet) and leave something in return (maybe a keychain or a postcard for those that aren’t local to the area). Here, the options are limitless, so long as they’re safe.

Finding these caches is a game in and of itself. Once you have an account on the website, you’ll be able to see the GPS coordinates of any geocache, along with a short description or clue set for where you’ll be able to find it. This is split into two parts. First, an English description (“Near the river,” or “Watch out for snakes”) and in some cases, a coded hint, which is solved as a sort of mini-game.

You can either use the site to decrypt the coded message (normally a blatant hint as to where to find the cache, but can be skipped if you’d like more challenge), or you can do it by hand, using the Decryption Key that assigns every letter of the alphabet to another. A = N, F = S, and vice versa and so on.

Clues and coordinates in hand, you can enter them into your handy GPS device and away you go, to find the geocache in the real world and add your name to the tangible list of those who have found it. Back on the website, you can rate the cache in terms of difficulty to find and surrounding terrain (a fair warning to those who may not be able to climb hills or care to not go hiking to find one), along with sharing your personal experience in finding the cache. Is it damaged? Has it been moved? Or are the clues simply not helpful? Let the creator know in the comments. Conversely, if the cache was a blast to find, then let them know that too – it’s a whole community of users who are ready, willing, and able to help each other out.

For iPhone users, the experience becomes more in-depth, as the Geocaching iPhone app (available for $9.99 – iTunes link) allows you direct access to the 1.1 million geocaches hidden around the world, and includes Google Maps integration. You’ll be able to search by your current location, or the geocache lookup code (every cache is numbered), save listings or maps, take pictures, and even update the website from the app, logging that you’ve found a geocache immediately after doing so, as just a few examples.

More social elements are available on the Geocaching website, as you can view other users’ profiles and see how many geocaches they’ve found (including the detailed list of the exact caches in question), and how many they’ve created, along with viewing their uploaded pictures, and trackable items (items that are placed in a cache specifically for the purpose of seeing where it will go next – users are meant to take it from one cache and leave it in another, rather than take it permanently for themselves).

Another noteworthy feature of the website comes if you’re willing to purchase a premium membership (purchased in year-long, or three month blocks), as this allows you to plan a road trip via the site – tell the site where your road trip will take you, and it will automatically search all of the nearby geocaches, allowing you to find them as you travel.

Again, while not a game in the most traditional sense of the word, Geocaching allows us all to head back to the childhood days of wanting to be a pirate, on a search for hidden treasures. In this case, the treasures may be small, but the joy of deciphering clues and laying your hands on each cache is a reward in and of itself. For more information about Geocaching, or to start hunting for caches in your neighborhood, head over to the official Geocaching website.

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- who has written 2533 posts on Frisky Mongoose.

Brandy is the Social Editor at Frisky Mongoose, focusing on the social side of the gaming world.

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  • Erica Kain

    Love it! This is how I've been “gaming” with my kids this summer. I get the thrill of staring into a little digital screen while walking through poison oak, and my daughters get to plumb treasures from the ground. We really love it, it encourages you to explore far afield and even your neighborhood, and find things you never would have otherwise. Great post!