How Foursquare turned life into a game

'Gold stars' get people partying, shopping and exercising

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Foursquare isn't really a location service at all; it's a way to turn your life into a game and keep track of your score.

It started as a way to make running more fun. He was already tracking his progress with Nike's iPod add-on but as he jogged past a Super Mario graffiti on his regular route around New York future Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley mused that if the real world was a game, he'd have just got extra points.

When the Dodgeball location service (for telling your friends where you were) he built and sold to Google languished (because telling your friends where you are isn't that much fun after the novelty wears off), he decided to see if he could turn life into more of a game.

The points and trophies and maps in Nike's system "take the regular old run of exercising and make it more interesting," says Crowley.

"How can you do that for nightlife and socializing? How do you use software to encourage people to see more movies, read more books?" His answer is "digital candy".

When you 'check in' to a location in Foursquare you get rewards; initially these were points and badges you could earn – Crowley calls them "the equivalent of giving grownups gold stars". And yes, he agrees "you can say this is silly and stupid; it is - but people like it".

They also change their behaviour because of it. When Foursquare created a 'gym rat' badge, users said it made them go back to the gym more. "We're using game mechanics to push people in different directions, pushing them to live more interesting lives. You went across town, you hung out with some new people - you should be levelling up for this."

Foursquare casino

CHECK IN: When businesses like Foursquare enough to give users special offers, you know it's hitting the mainstream

Whoever checks in at a specific location the most becomes the 'mayor' (this writer was recently the mayor of Heston Services) and Crowley thinks the competitiveness this can cause is no bad thing.

Some users will travel back to a location to reclaim their mayorship, even if it means getting out of bed to do it. "That's crazy," agrees Crowley, "but in a good way. It can knock you out of your regular routine."

Foursquare users started leaving each other suggestions about what to order at a location or where to go next – and they started using the service for practical things like checking to see where they'd left their credit cards the night before.

And business owners saw the opportunity to reward repeat customers by offering free gifts (ranging from burgers and fries to a taxi ride from JFK to free legal representation from a Miami lawyer if you've checked in at five major jails).

Leaving aside the sillier offers, Crowley sees this as a sign that Foursquare is going mainstream; getting partygoers at SXSW to switch to another venue if their party doesn't show up as the most popular in town is one thing but Planet Hollywood is putting free offers to the mayor of the Miracle Mile on a giant billboard on the Las Vegas Strip and a Foursquare user recently proposed to his girlfriend through a checkin.

Scraping the surface

In fact, Crowley thinks the current popularity is "just scraping the surface" – "there's something brewing here that's bigger than the checkins," he claims. "This is the tipping point where you see people get it."

To support that, Foursquare introduced the 'swarm' badge for being one of 50 or more users to check in to the same place, plus a coupon system for businesses to use.

The service also offers venues some basic demographic information about the customers who are checking in to the location, which is something that only the biggest businesses with loyalty programmes have been able to get before. "It's like Google analytics for bricks and mortar."

Tools like that will help Foursquare keep the loyalty of businesses as competition comes along from Gowalla, Loopt, Yelp, AT&T (with its new Buzz.com service) and others.

Usage is still growing: "we're going to hit a million users in the next couple of weeks," Crowley predicts. And the 60-plus apps based on the Foursquare API will also help it fend off rivals. Crowley is complimentary but not about to give up on the Foursquare app; "the apps these people are building are almost more important than the ones we're making".

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