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Persuasive Games: Check-Ins Check Out
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Persuasive Games: Check-Ins Check Out

February 10, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next


Some games are really just loyalty programs laid bare, like Foursquare and Gowalla. Both are mobile, social applications that allow users to "check-in" at a variety locations and to earn points and rewards based on those check-ins. They also (and perhaps primarily) provide social media services, inviting users to leave and read tips about a location and to find nearby friends.

Both services provide challenges for players to complete to earn rewards in the form of digital emblems. On Foursquare, these take the form of badges, and on Gowalla they are called "trips". Gowalla also offers a more deliberate implementation of location collection (via a passport stamp metaphor), and a kind of virtual geocaching that borrows from the company's Facebook game Pack Rat.

Gowalla's trips are more like tour guides than like missions or challenges. For example, the London Pub Crawl shows the ten destinations required to complete the trip; the player simply must go to them and check-in.

This model is almost identical to Achievements or Trophies. The options are presented upfront, and it's up to the player to choose to complete one. Upon doing so, the game confers a reward that bears currency across a broader context.

Foursquare's badges, by contrast, represent logics that are not always revealed to the player in advance. Some badges are tied to specific locations, and others are extrapolated from the tags with which users describe a location.

For example, three check-ins at metro stops three mornings in a row earns the "Metro" badge, and check-ins at venues tagged with "douchebag" earns the Douchebag badge.

"Playing" Foursquare involves forming hypotheses about what badges might exist based on chance and rumor. Patterns begin to emerge based on the different types of locations and tags, and players also begin to see the spoils won by friends and competitors.

Once these opportunities become apparent, players may seek out particular locations at specific times in order to earn corresponding badges. It's a process more like the expert frequent flyer planning his trips to maximize earnings or to insure a free upgrade, and much less like the Xbox Live player who attempts an optional mission in exchange for extra Achievement points.

Foursquare shows how a game-like loyalty program can take advantage of the process of using a service, making the experience one of revealing and exploiting unseen rules, rather than relying on the occlusion of these rules to drive a bureaucratic exchange program.

Unfortunately, the most foregrounded activities in Foursquare are not the badges, but the check-ins and their associated "mayorships," which are awarded to the user who has checked in more than anyone else at a particular venue.

When seen through the lens of a loyalty program, the fact and frequency of individual gestures is the most meaningless part of the experience. It may be necessary to check in to play Foursquare (and to find friends at or read tips), but so is reloading in Call of Duty or printing a boarding pass to board a plane. Those actions are marked but not celebrated by the Achievements and frequent flyer programs, yet Foursquare insists on pummeling users and non-users alike with Twitter and Facebook notifications for every check-in the player performs.

Imagine if you got a text message every time any of your friends completed a jump in Assassin's Creed. That's Foursquare. The result puts check-ins instead of accomplishment at the center of play. Creator Dennis Crowley confirms the prominence of check ins: the company's ultimate goal, he says, is "to make check-ins synonymous with Foursquare."

Foursquare demonstrates high social value among those who enjoy meeting up with others at bars and cafes and the like. As with Achievements, there is no true exchange value for Foursquare points -- they can't be traded in for beers or espressos or airline tickets. But Foursquare destroys its own potential service value by hiding the game of diving and earning badges under the enormous detritus of actions people perform in the pursuit of social benefit.

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