Leave it to The Onion to say what we’re all thinking, or should be, about Web 2.0 “social games” like Foursquare.

“Foursquare is a little bit of everythingâ??a friend-finder, a local city guide, an interactive mobile game,” said company cofounder Dennis Crowley, as if reading from the same tired script used by every one of these Web 2.0 or whatever-the-fuck-they’re-called startups. “But more than that, Foursquare is an [endless string of meaningless buzzwords we just couldn’t bring ourselves to transcribe].”

I also appreciated the requisite quote from PhD-holding expert, since I often serve that purpose (although more often, my role is naysayer):

As you’ve no doubt guessed from reading a dozen similar articles in The Washington Post, now’s the part of our “trend piece” where we quote an industry expert like Leonard Steinberg, a Boston University communications professor and specialist in his field who remarks in a rather defeated tone that Foursquare represents a revolutionary new way for businesses and customers to interact.

“Through its competitive elements like badges and points, Foursquare helps generate brand loyalty,” said the Ph.D.-holding individual, whose decades in higher education were basically shit upon by our inane questions about various bits of Foursquare ephemera. “It’s a unique and transformative social networking tool.”

I wrote about Foursquare in a quasi-nuanced way a few months ago, but if pressed, I’d agree with the Onion. It’s bullshit.

published May 20, 2010


  1. dakotareese

    If you decide to venture into the subject again, something I’d love to hear your thoughts on is this seeming trend of gaming meta-activities (check-ins, achievements, etc.) becoming metonyms for, and sometimes even replacing, core game constructs themselves.

    I feel like we’re currently going in a very vapid direction.

  2. Olivier

    So what do you think of the Yelp app then? Is it bullshit too or does it need to add badges for that?

  3. Ian Bogost


    On first blush I’m tempted to agree, many of these services become “game-like” by removing anything resembling gameplay and replacing it with marketer gimmickery.


    I haven’t used the Yelp app. I have visited the website, but mostly what I find there are seemingly ill-informed reactionary reviews of local restaurants.

    I’m increasingly convinced I do not know how to use the internet.

  4. Ernest Adams

    I was a terrible Boy Scout. Learned a lot of interesting things, but spent three or four years in a troop and never got past Tenderfoot. In the end I concluded that while I find learning empowering, I really suck at jumping through hoops that other people set up for me.

    This is why I have never earned a game “achievement” and never will. Telling me that I really ought to want something is a pretty sure-fire way to make me hate it.

  5. Robert Jackson


    I’ve written a little bit on achievements. trophys and points. I think Ian and I share an equal critical stance from them for separate reasons.

    On the one side, you can understand the marketing logic of ‘meta-gaming’ when you merge online technologies with gaming platforms (and vica-versa). The system that carrys it along is the social and individual merit in comparing scores within a community. However what strikes me is how certain games developers have exploited this system to ‘cash-in’ on replay value. Easy or bad games become bearable on account of how notorious the game is for racking up points. In essence, the algorithmic challenge isn’t there anymore.

  6. dakotareese


    As a bit of context, I am decidedly coming at this from the perspective of location-based, mobile game design. So the comparative set of “games” I’m looking at is along the lines of 4Square, Gowalla, and SCVNGR.

    In direct response to your comment, I don’t know if this is a case of certain designers cashing in OR certain designers not being savvy enough to see/attack the core design problem.

    In this space the core design problem, as I see it, is something I refer to as computational quantification of action. Simply put, how do you prove some did something so you can assign value to it within a game construct. Typically, I see two approaches to this problem:

    1. Run Away From It: 4Square & SCVNGR both allow you to check-in at places you aren’t. SCVNGR has “challenges” but the are scored based upon the honor system of you saying you did it. The “game” in these instances simply chooses not to enforce its own rules, making the game pointless at best.

    2. Work Around It: While Gowalla suffers from some of the above, it also attempts to work around the issue by introducing virtual objects that a user/player finds while exploring physical space. The amount of games that take this “AR” approach to design is numerous, but I’ve yet to see it executed in a manner that feels sincere to the environment the game is being played in/at.

    So what I’m looking for, and working on creating, is game construct that enforces it own rules and has a high level of sincerity (for lack of the better term) to the physical environment it is being designed for. It is a hard target to hit, I know, but overall I feel disappointed that so many designers in this space don’t even seem to be aiming for it.

  7. Robert Jackson


    Sounds really interesting stuff – look forward seeing how you expand it! I do think there is a subtle difference in the meta-gaming achievement community and the location-mobile-based design of checking-in companies. With Achievements and Trophies, theres the double edged sword or taking interest away from the game itself, and actually providing legitimate incentives to progress further and deeper within the game. Being a deep-seated nihilist myself, I always focus on the former part, particularly in the way designers weave the difficulty of these “meta-algorithms” into the fabric of commerce.

    I do think creating sincere games attached to their environments is an interesting practice for sure. Like most commercial enterprises, it always seems avant-garde artists get there first!

  8. dakotareese

    I really don’t see a difference Robert.

    We’re both preaching to the choir that the onus of the play experience should be placed upon the core game construct rather than a superficial meta-system.

    This pursuit manifests itself slightly differently in a completely virtual venue vs. a slightly augmented physical environment, but on a higher level it remains the same.