Games have rules

When I first tried Foursquare I was unusually optimistic. For years people have been talking about software that will show where all your friends are but it never seems to have happened — either the technology’s not right or it doesn’t reach the critical mass needed — and I thought maybe Foursquare’s point-scoring would be just enough incentive to get people checking in.

(If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about… Foursquare is an iPhone app and a website that lets you “check in” at different locations and score points for doing so. You can see where your friends have checked in, and try and beat them and strangers in the high score tables. It only works in a few cities so far.)

It’s quite satisfying, and several friends are using it and, despite not going out much recently, I’ve been using Foursquare when I do. But I’ve felt a nagging frustration: for a game involving points and leaderboards, there seems to be a weird lack of rules. Surely games have rules, even if not rigidly enforced from a rulebook?

Maybe I’m being weirdly English, or uptight, or just me, but it feels like everyone playing the game has their own idea of what kinds of places you can check in to. Should you check in when you get to work? When you’re at the supermarket? What about at home?

If one person is checking in to every building they enter, while another is only doing so in more sociable places — pubs, restaurants, etc — then the latter is never going to do well. And so they either have to live with the fact they’re a low-scoring loser or stop playing the game.

So I asked my Foursquare-using friends what places they check in to. I wanted to get a sense of what was normal among my crowd. I gave them a list of types of place and asked which ones they check in to. I assumed sociable venues are a given — if there’s any ultimate point to Foursquare then engineering social coincidences must be part of it. I also assumed people check in at work, which seems popular, but in retrospect that may have been assuming too much. Never mind.

I had thirteen responses, and they show the wide variation in how people are playing the game:

Foursquare chart

It’s as if everyone’s standing on a field with a ball, but some are trying to play rugby, some soccer and some American Football. It’s impossible to tell who’s really winning.

Maybe I’m getting too hung up on the scoring thing. But if it’s not important, why is it there? And, as I first thought, it initially feels like just enough incentive to remember to check in, so I can see it’s a useful feature.

But I soon started to feel like a mug for being restrained in the places I chose to check in to, and the whole competing for points thing is starting to feel remarkably un-fun. If Twitter gives you the fluffy, qualitative inkling that others are probably having more fun than you, Foursquare gives you the certain, quantitative assurance that they really are having more fun. Just look at the numbers! Either that or they’re cheating.

So, while I initially thought the points were a good incentive, maybe they’re not helping. Or maybe I’m just odd and don’t like competition being introduced into something that should be friendly and social. It doesn’t feel polite. Or maybe I’d be happier if there were more standard rules and some way — peer pressure alone? — to enforce them.


  • Although to be fair to foursquare (not that you weren't being!) - their help section explains how they see the project - as a starting point, and hoping that the users will shape how it grows and what happens next as we use it. Which is quite a nice way to launch something new.

    The points system is yes unfathomable to me currently, so I pretty much ignore it, but I'm more excited about getting stupid badges on my profile (points seem to be a byproduct of going to new places, etc, not just the more points, the more badges). Because I'm easily distracted by shiny badges.

    For reference, my rules: checking into tube stations & supermarkets is lame, but airports/Eurostar is okay. Other people's offices and homes are definitely okay, your own .. is still a bit murky. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. The general consensus among the people I use it with seems to be, if it's a sociable place where people can join you, like a park or a bar, it's useful to let people know where you are _going to be_ for some unspecified time, so they can come join the fun. So it's a rubbish cliche, but it's more about the taking part than the winning :-) (obligatory groan)

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27 Oct 2009 at Twitter

  • 10:41pm: Just watched first three episodes of 'Flash Forward'. Alternated between utter embarassing tosh and "ooooh". Will try again.
  • 10:49am: @blech Heh, maybe it'll pick up after I level up, get better guns, find vehicles, etc. Still feels a bit "here's how things work" at the mo.
  • 10:26am: @phl Had a 90 min solo go. Loved the graphics but was a bit dull otherwise, so far. Finding money/ammo, shooting a few baddies, no thrill.
  • 9:17am: It sounds like window cleaners rather than the SAS. Either way, I've drawn the curtains to avoid social embarrassment.
  • 9:10am: Either the SAS has landed on the roof, or the abseiling window cleaning is about to commence.

27 Oct 2009 in Links

On this day I was reading