Gamification and the Gaming of Foursquare

GAMIFICATION. I just love that word. Maybe it’s the similarity to the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s song “Californication”. Or maybe it’s the fact that while it isn’t one of the Seven Deadly Sins, it sure sounds like it belongs – especially the way it has become such a part of mainstream business culture today.

Unfortunately, as more and more businesses rely upon gaming models to drive up their user base and increase their revenue potential (leveraging social media, increased social collaboration and the proliferation of mobile devices), there is also a growing risk of these game-based business models being gamed themselves.

Let’s take a look at Foursquare as an example – how does somebody “game” a business model that is essentially built as a game? This question touches on two critical, yet very different, aspects of business gaming: gamification (the creation of a game) to drive business, and the devising of a way to “game” (or cheat) the game. And when I say cheat, we’re talking more than just counting cards in blackjack, a favorite game of mine, we’re talking aces up the sleeve at the poker table.


Foursquare is a social media company designed to help drive consumers (Foursquare users) to merchants (Foursquare business partners). In this way, Foursquare can be considered a social media alternative to mainstream advertising.

To encourage people to use Foursquare (and thus achieve the consumer-merchant connection), the company uses a process called gamification. Gamification is the application of a competitive game-like environment to a non-game business model that is competitive and offers rewards for those who play the game regularly.

“Gamification is a means to an end for a business, but often just a game for its users”

In this case, the Foursquare game is played by users, via a cell phone application, who “check in” to various merchants that they frequent, with the hopes of gaining discounts and special deals from the merchants. To make the game interesting and competitive, Foursquare allows game players to earn badges and points for frequenting both new and previously visited merchants, locate/follow friends, broadcast their own check in locations and boast of achievements to their friends via social media (“I am the Mayor of Starbucks!”).

That is the gamification of Foursquare – leveraging a game-like system as a way for Foursquare, and their merchant partners, to drive business in a “fun” way.


Now to the issue of “gaming” Foursquare. When we talk of “gaming” a game (like Foursquare), we are essentially talking of a way to beat (or cheat) the system. People who “game” Foursquare are looking for ways to “win” without having to actually play the game on a competitive level with other players. The easiest way to do this is through checking in to merchant locations without actually physically being at the merchant location (they currently restrict check-ins to one per day per location, so sitting in a coffee shop and checking in every 5 minutes won’t get you any Foursquare points).

“Gaming the game is nothing more than cheating.”

Checking in to a remote location is fairly easy, especially if the user is using a cell phone with limited geo-location awareness – a critical point since Foursquare uses your cell phone’s “reported” location (a Location Based Service feature), via either GPS or cell-tower triangulation depending upon the phone, to find you and suggest nearby merchants. I stress the word reported since the accuracy of geo-location depends highly on both the cell phone manufacturer (who may restrict GPS usage to save battery life) or the service provider (who may not be able to accurately pinpoint a phone’s exact location due to cell tower locations).

Note: For an interesting take on Location Based Services, check out my friend Ray Wang’s excellent post on why he is checking out of location-based-services based on some serious privacy concerns. You can also check out some amazing statistics that Foursquare has gathered on its user base.

In the early days of Foursquare (yes, 2009 counts as the “early” days when they only had coverage in about a hundred cities), many cell phones had limited or no accurate geo-location system, making gaming the system much easier, since it was more difficult for Foursquare to accurately pinpoint your exact location.

NOTE: On a purely anecdotal note, I have a friend who pointed out that at one point during 2010, the “Mayorship” of their local coffee shop was suddenly dominated by a group of individuals that not only didn’t appear to be frequenting the shop, but based on their profiles appeared to be living in a different country at the time.

It wasn’t until the beginning of 2010 that Foursquare opened up the ability to check in anywhere on the globe and began to actively sign on big-name “partner” merchants (you can even create your own locations if they aren’t already mapped, with certain Foursquare “super users” having the ability to edit locations and self-correct/moderate the system).

“Want to check into a flight? Try Foursquare…”

But back to the “gaming issue: From my own personal experience, Foursquare (through my iPhone app) routinely offers up check in locations from over 20,000 meters away (~12.5 miles), including, interestingly, airline flights (with point credit!) both inside and outside the range of my local airport (I’m thinking “vertical” here?). With a 12.5 mile radius, I can check into almost anywhere in northern Virginia without getting up from my desk, and that is exactly what some people do.

So if you want to get kicked out of Foursquare (and be the Mayor of Nowhere), that is how you “game” the game of Foursquare.


Unfortunately, Foursquare isn’t alone in this situation. As I’ve delved deeper into gamification strategies and ways to leverage gaming to improve business models, I’ve come across some other potential cases of abuse. In one situation, I found what appeared to be a group of individuals collectively “upping their ranking” on a popular “Question & Answer” site – they (as a collective group) seemed to be voting up/down particular users or answers to questions – their own particular way of attempting to ensure that certain individuals “rise to the top” in terms of points, expertise, influence, clout, etc.

In theory, a group of people could create a multitude of alias accounts and very quickly game themselves to the elite list of community members. This would not be that difficult in an open social network where anybody can join and the business model requires that the number of users continues to rise to remain viable or profitable (perhaps an interesting comment on the value of focused or selected user groups?).

Interestingly, I’ve run into more than a few people (especially in the case of Foursquare) who say they aren’t “gaming” the system, they are just pushing the boundaries of the rules (or technical limitations) put in place by Foursquare. Their opinion is that if Foursquare wants to stop this type of abuse, change the system to actually require a person to physically check in (perhaps via Bluetooth?) to a device at the merchant location (while possible, this would be a financial disaster for Foursquare).

“For me, gaming the game to fix it is more fun than the game itself.”

None of this is to say that the use of gaming in business strategies is bad, or that there isn’t phenomenal value to adding a gaming component to areas such as marketing, consumer retention, or even collaborative problem solving (an area of personal interest). But what I do believe is that as we move into this area – fueled by the incredible development of technology and the willingness of consumers/users to participate in social games, we need to be diligent in making sure that the very gamification systems that we deploy aren’t being gamed themselves. That means devising gamification systems in such a way as to anticipate, and preclude (as much as possible), abuse of the system.

If you’ve seen this in your own experience, or have a thought on how to help improve the application of gaming into business models, drop a comment below and share it. Gamification has been around for years (just like the McDonald’s Monopoly Game), and isn’t likely to ever go away. The more we discuss this topic, the better prepared we will all be to leverage it for success.

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I appreciate your feedback, and thanks for reading – Fred.

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    • Fred McClimans

      I’d love to jump into that debate – this market is moving fast, and there is no shortage of either good ideas or new entrants. We should talk offline sometime. – Fred

  • Marjorie Clayman

    It’s a great topic, to be sure. I wonder if some people view Social Media as a gamification of marketing, then try to game the game that way. It’s not a technical game like Foursquare is, nor do you win prizes (per se) like you do when you play McDonalds Monopoly. But…comments are kind of prizes, aren’t they? Followers are prizes. Fans of a Facebook page are prizes. While we don’t like to admit it or talk about it, there are most certainly ways to game that game.

    Great and thoughtful post, Fred!

    • Fred McClimans

      Thanks for the kind words Margie!

      I think your point about people viewing Social Media from a gamification perspective is often (unfortunately) true. Blogs are a great example, where some bloggers compete for site badges, like the “AdAge POWER150″ ranking, or value in the number of comments or tweets they get (yes, I’ve even fallen into that category, although the really important measurement is how many people contact you directly after reading the post, and does your post result in actual “real-world” engagement with the reader or the parting true “value” beyond just comments and tweets).

      Twitter and Facebook are also great examples where friends, follower counts and RT’s (and the ever precious Klout/PeerIndex/Twitalyzer rankings) are valued as pure gold by many users – despite the fact that those metrics are just numbers, and don’t (yet) place a tangible “value” on your interactions with peers in your social graph.

      Thanks Margie – Now I’m looking forward to reading YOUR next post! – Fred

  • KseniaCoffman

    I have a deep (and somewhat irrational) dislike of Foursquare – driven mostly by otherwise rational ppl linking their 4sq and Twitter accounts and posting their entire daily itineraries on Twitter, let alone the silly badges.

    I sincerely hope that enterprising 4sq users game the system into irrelevance! :-)

    Great post, by the way. LinkedIn, Twittter, etc are all game driven. Gamification is the new frontier for B2B marketing – maybe it’s a good future topic for #B2Bchat.

    • Fred McClimans

      Ksenia – I’m glad you are willing to tell me how you REALLY feel about Foursquare! I appreciate both your comments and your candor.

      Regarding B2B and Gamification, yes, they are absolutely becoming increasingly intertwined. Let’s talk about a way to bring that discussion to the forefront – it would be a great topic!


  • Taariq Lewis

    So Fred…what do you think about Shopkick? Are they at risk of being gamed by users? I heard they’re growing like crazy!

    • Fred McClimans

      Hi Taariq – Thanks for the comment and a very good/relevant question. As I mentioned in the post, one of the ways that Foursquare can restrict gaming of their system is by requiring people to actually verify they are on site (the example referenced above mentions using a bluetooth-type system to verify that the cell phone is indeed in the merchant’s store). The downside to this is that there is a cost of installed product at the merchant location. And this is exactly what shopkick has done.

      To eliminate the risk of being gamed, shopkick places a sound transmitter (relatively low-cost and not audible to humans) at each merchant location. The shopkick application installed on your phone acts as the verification that you are, in fact, on-site. They also have integrated a barcode scanning feature into their system (using your phone’s camera) that allows the user to gain points for scanning certain in-store products (perhaps items that the merchant is interesting in pushing?). In this way, they have upped the level of sophistication in their system and helped to eliminate the type of gaming approach that makes Foursquare vulnerable. But there is a cost…

      In order to a merchant to participate, they need to install the local sound-tranmitter device – something that might be an easy sell to large chain stores (American Eagle Outfitters, Best Buy, Crate&Barrel, Macy’s & Target are amongst their bigger clients) but might not be so appealing to smaller, independent merchants. It also (at least today) restricts the fun of the game to retail outlets (checking in to your favorite park and broadcasting your location to friends who might want to meet-up is clearly not part of their game or value proposition).

      Shopkick also appeals to a slightly different type of game-player, allowing you, for example, to donate points that you have accumulated (and the discounts/value that go with them) to charity organizations. While Foursquare is going after everybody in the known universe (even allowing people to create their own check in locations), shopkick is going after a different, more closed, user base.

      In the end, I think there is space for both business models, and perhaps a bit of model-melding to occur.

      Thx – and see you in the stream – Fred

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  • Mathias

    Awesome post, Fred. You really hit the nail on the head, and as someone who’s trying to develop an effective method of gamifying learning for students, the issue of cheating always comes up as a primary concern. I’m sure you’re familiar with Fitocracy, a company who’s gamified fitness and supposedly motivates the hell out of its users (I have the app but I’m not a user myself). However I’ve read reviews of people dominating the leader boards with superhuman workouts which obviously aren’t real. So even in an app that doesn’t offer monetary rewards or discounts, people seem to have an incentive to game the system. Which is strange if you think about it, but I also think its a natural human instinct – at least in competitive games – to want to take shortcuts to achieve higher scores than fellow players. The players who game Fitocracy don’t really have anything to gain but they still do it. What do you think about this? and do you see any remedies short of somehow verifying every bit of information that is entered into the game (which is very difficult)? Thanks, Mathias

    • Fred McClimans

      Mathias, thank you for the kind words. You bring up an interesting point with Fitocracy (aware of it, but don’t use it), and I’m sure there are those that attempt to game it. The ability to game the game is baked in – there is no check mechanism!

      That was/is part of the problem with sites like Foursquare (lack of locational
      validation) that some companies (like Shopkick) have attempted to
      counter with combined mobile/local-device mechanisms or pattern recognition systems.

      Another approach, which might be better for the classroom (or workplace), involves a built in awareness check, much like a Captcha. In the classroom, the goal of the system would be to verify an academic achievement – the proof/captcha of which would be the demonstration of the knowledge (the lack of which would become apparent if the person where to actually have to demonstrate their achievements).

      The flipside, of course, is that you could have a person who simply doesn’t test well, or has poor knowledge retention (such as reads well, but can’t recall details over time), so any knowledge check would have to be built-in.

      In the end, however, the reward has to be the knowledge gained, and not just points on a board. If that metric is rewarded, it will be a constant game of wits (purely based on my own experiences as a student!). In fact, this is one of the reasons why I’m not a huge fan of some of the “reward” systems I’ve seen with my kids in school (read X number of pages for special points and treat…).

      You have an interesting challenge here. Please keep me posted on this.

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