FourSquare Encourages Cheaters

Image courtesy Videogamer22

I read an article yesterday on TechCrunch entitled Foursquare Starts To Enforce The Rules, Cracks Down On Fake Check-Ins. It really bothered me. So much so, that after about 45 mins of my ranting about it (and location aware mobile apps in general) to friends, someone suggested I blog about it.

Oh yeah, I have a blog!

I could go on and on about this, so I’m going to try really hard to keep this focused on my main gripe: a well designed game shouldn’t have to “CRACK DOWN” on players.

Background Info (Skip if you know all about FourSquare).

Let me take it back a sec. For those who don’t know, FourSquare is a mobile app (iPhone, Android, etc) that lets users – or “players” – check in via phone when they arrive at a location (bars, museums, restaurants, etc.). Players are rewarded with badges when they hit certain check in goals – like the Local Badge for checking in at the same place three times in one week. There’s a social element on top of this that means your friends who are also playing can see where you check in, which creates the potential for ad hoc meetups if you both realize you’re downtown, etc.

Sounds kind of fun right? To increase the fun (and create a revenue stream) FourSquare awards the title of “Mayor” to the player who checks in the most at a given location. This title sometimes comes with perks like free beer or half off pizza, so it’s worth competing for, and its in the venue’s best interest to create cool deals so that players vie for the coveted mayorship. The app does a pretty good job of locating players via GPS, but it’s kind of loose, allowowing players to check in at places when they’re not actually there. The system is so loose in fact, that if I really wanted to I could check in anywhere in New York City as I sit in my apartment in San Francisco. You see the potential for cheating?

The Problem

The problem is that as FourSquare continues to become a vehicle for sponsorship (Starbucks now sponsors a Barista Badge) they become increasingly accountable to these venues and corporations to ensure the accuracy of check ins. No one wants to reward a cheater with free Venti Lattes, right?

FourSquare continues to make changes to its “cheater code” to improve the system’s accuracy but it makes me wonder if it’s not the technical exploits of the game that are at fault. Could the problem be conceptual? Maybe even psychological? The game rewards players for checking in as much as possible – but then penalizes this same behavior if it’s done in excess or beyond “the rules”. That’s like sending Monopoly players to jail for buying all the best properties too quickly.

The Solution

If the current system rewards quantity of check ins, and this is encouraging cheating, maybe it’s time to move to a system that rewards quality of check ins. Instead of rewarding mayorships to players for the number of times they check in, they should reward players for the amount of time spent checked in at a venue.

Of course this comes with it’s own opportunity for exploitation, but at least the system would encourage quality check ins and limit users from claiming mayorships all over town by cheating.

Bottom Line

Players will take whatever action is incentivized to the extreme. Understand this, and instead of imposing restrictions, make sure players are encouraged to perform the correct kind of behavior.

What do you think? Flaws in the proposed system? Ever fallen victim to the “cheater code” when you weren’t cheating (I have)? Let me know what you think.

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3 Comments on “FourSquare Encourages Cheaters”

  1. cheryl Says:

    Was victim to this this morning, when I tried to check in in front of the building I wanted I to check in at, and I was not awarded with badges or points because I was considered too far away from the venue. Maybe the GPS was off! I guess I could cheat and check in at every single location I’m at or pass by (they have them for bus stops!) But I prefer to have quality check-ins. I hope they change this from quantity to quality, but I don’t see them doing so anytime soon.

  2. Holt Murray Says:

    Great post – I’ll be retweeting ASAP. You’re right I do think they need to pivot; in the last 5 days, I’ve not been able to check in to a spot for ponits seven times (standing in front of and inside each location attempts were unrewarded).

    I agree quality should rear its subjective head on this one — buty in combination with quantity. Pretty much every smartphone has a camera on it, how about rewarding pictures of establishm,ents from the inside? I know this maybe frought with verification aspects, but being rewarded for length of time is sometimes counter-intuitive to many locations’ business models. Some rely on turnover.

    I tweeted with Dennis Crowley about it, and he said they are allowing a bigger radius, but I don’t think its big enough. He also mentioned that they may not have accounted for phones’ gps ‘sucking’. which is a point too.

    Remember, the gov’t allows gps systems to access their satellites and builds in a margin for error. at least that used to be the case and I think it still is. That margin for error still gets you pretty darn close, but I’ve still been told I’m 175 meters away from a location even when ?I’m standing inside the front door.

  3. Angelica Says:

    What if FourSquare had some sort of physical component (akin to the barcodes that StickyBits sells on the side) that places buy (thereby creating another revenue stream) and you have to bump your iPhone (or however you physically connect) to this thing to validate your presence at a location? So quantity is still being rewarded (although quality is a good idea too).

    Problems: getting stores on board to purchase (I can see a place like Starbucks buying into this, but I don’t know about smaller places), the cost of producing the physical component, and, most importantly, the fact that I am making all this up off the top of my head without actually knowing ANYTHING about FourSquare, how it works, or the technology behind it.


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