Category Archives: Foursquare

On the popularity of game mechanics

Humans are obsessed with scores — the amount of money in your bank, the goals by your soccer team, the number of horsepower in your automobile engine. But one unremarked-upon trend in modern communications is the rising tide of “game mechanics” that play with our perception of numbers, used as both an acquisition and retention device in businesses from to Twitter. Let’s pause and see how your psychological lust for numbers is being played:

Twitter: On Twitter, you likely watch your follower count daily, seeing if you’re close to 1,000 or 10,000 human connections that, upon reaching such threshold, stroke your ego as evidence that you are popular. Services such as allow you to adjust your connections to make sure the numbers are in balance (God forbid you follow more people than follow you back, illustrating you’re the wallflower kid of social media). The numbers are illusory; most people ignore most of your tweets, yet the feedback loop keeps you hooked. Twitter is using the game strategies of achievement, companion gaming (where a game works across multiple platforms such as PC, mobile, Tweetdeck apps), chain schedules (tying rewards to contingencies such as greater participation) and communal discovery.

Online publishers: Web articles are now judged less by the quality of their content as by the number of readers, links or comments. Major publishers such as Bloomberg BusinessWeek (whom we write columns for) list scoring mechanisms at the right of each article, informing readers which pieces have been the most viewed, most discussed, or most emailed. You feel better reading something that is popular, and then you’re likely to click to another popular article, keeping you in the publisher’s walled garden longer boosting the number of ads they can serve you. Publishers are tapping the game mechanics of achievement, behavioral momentum (keeping you doing what you have been doing), envy (you want to read what others say is popular), and ownership (comment fields give you power over the idea in the article).

Foursquare: The obvious example of game mechanics, of course, is Foursquare, a location-based service struggling to solidify its market position as the GPS-social media portal before Facebook blows it away, using “badges” and “mayor” gimmickry to reward you for tapping the service. The badging device provides a zero-cost reward, similar to ranks in the military, spurring loyalty as you work your way to the top of the local coffee shop’s ladder. Foursquare seems aware that many first-time users of any new communication service are likely to bail, so it tags them “Newbies” with an unwritten incentive to get off that lowly title by using the service more. Emerging LBS competitors such as ShopKick mimic Foursquare’s game system.

The best profile we’ve seen on game mechanics is TechCrunch’s recent summary of SCVNGR’s “playdeck,” an actual deck of cards used by the game company for employee training that defines 47 gaming structures. Some are simple — achievement provides points as you earn levels, a la Twitter’s follower counts; many are complex, such as disincentives that punish you for not following the right path. TechCrunch gives the brilliant “disincentive” example of removing all links in its checkout process to funnel the buyer through to the final purchase. The deck is worth a read to see how you could build game rewards into your company’s service model.

Why are game mechanics suddenly popular?

The rise of game psychology is driven by two forces. First, social media is a new online communication platform in which people have to rebuild social graphs from scratch. It doesn’t matter if you were the most popular kid in high school; now you have to reconnect, and you are judged by your connections and what passes through them. Adding fake little badges and points and follower counts gives users immediate rewards, and builds in switching costs, so each social media service has an incentive to tap game devices to lock in market share. If you leave Twitter, you’re ditching thousands of people who “follow” you. The fake gaming currency is not only reward, but also a potential psychological loss.

And second, online or mobile communication networks really lack any other feedback. You can’t get a knuckle-tap from your boss, a hug from your best friend or kiss from your lover through a touchscreen panel. If we want love, we need to believe people are giving us something. For now little game points will have to do, because they have become the currency of ego-needy emotion. Which reminds us: Would you mind following me on Twitter?

Why Foursquare clowns around

From our guest post at Jim Mitchem‘s Obsessed with Conformity:

A curious trend in social media is how most of its tools start out as perceived toys, worthy of laughter, and then gradually migrate to the mainstream. When Facebook and Twitter launched, early adopters in the business world were often kidded by colleagues. “That’s great,” an old friend emailed me in 2008 upon hearing I was on Facebook, “now you can stay in touch with teenage girls.” Yet soon Twitter is tied in to CNN feeds and chief marketing officers are networking with their ad agencies inside Facebook. In 2010, if you are not using these tools you risk looking stupid.

So here we go again, with geolocation-social media tools. Relatively new services such as Foursquare and Gowalla update your friends when you reach certain physical spots — in essence, broadcasting your location on a map into your online network. Like early social networks, the premise makes sense yet combines a whiff of immaturity that gives grownups pause. Sure, in a busy world it could be useful to get pinged by a colleague when she reaches a certain point. But the services include stupid-sounding updates. “Hein V. in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, became mayor of Vespuccimarket.” “Patrick unlocked the ‘Adventurer’ badge.” The only mature response is: “WTF?” And this month, in the latest goofy Foursquare update, Jan. 28, 2010 has been decreed “International Day of the Toilet,” wherein you can let your friends know exactly when you hit the can.

Gaming psychology

But pause. Reflect. Before you deride such silliness, realize the two real undercurrents. First, early creators of new technology must always push the boundaries of maturity, because none of us really needs anything new — so first forays often come off as gimmicks. (Remember the first camera on your cell phone, and the jokes about who needed to take a picture of their ear? Now most people love them and real camera makers are watching their business slip away.) And second, in a world where everyone is now leaping into social media, creators of new social media networks must create game-like mechanics to try to boost adoption and break through the clutter. Gaming psychology is extremely powerful; the “follower” counts on Twitter have become high score rewards that help boost loyal usage. So it’s no mistake that Foursquare updates users’ networks of colleagues with the strange-sounding whimsy of “mayors” and “badges”: It’s a way to get attention, to wake you up, perhaps to get you to try the damn thing.

As such geolocation technology becomes prevalent, we expect the maturity levels to rise and the gimmickry to settle down. Soon, you’ll be updating everyone about your whereabouts, too. Just be careful when you’re in the can.

Image: Drop Nineteens