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Persuasive Games: Check-Ins Check Out

What's the point of achievements, and how do they interact with us in the real world? In this in-depth Gamasutra column, game designer and author Ian Bogost contrasts airline mileage programs with Foursquare and Xbox Live Achievements.

Ian Bogost, Blogger

February 10, 2010

10 Min Read

[What's the point of achievements, and how do they interact with us in the real world? In this in-depth Gamasutra column, game designer and author Ian Bogost contrasts airline mileage programs with Foursquare and Xbox Live Achievements.]

I am one of those frequent flyer freaks. I count my elite qualifying miles and plan trips to maximize their accrual. I orchestrate complex bookings based on the class of service available and my ability to upgrade it. I can tell you which seats are optimal on a Delta 767-300 versus a 767-400. I can explain the intricacies of award ticketing on my hometown airline. I wept when Singapore Airlines ended its Delta SkyMiles redemption partnership.

And I'm a lightweight, relatively speaking. Visit the FlyerTalk forums and you'll find a diehard underground community devoted to maximizing promotional earns to get miles at the lowest possible price. You'll find maniacs planning "mileage runs," trips made for no other purpose than to gain frequent flyer mileage or elite qualifying status.

Loyalty Programs

Loyalty programs like these were invented to reward repeat customers. But unlike the coffee card from the local cafe, frequent flyer programs involve considerable complexity to operate effectively.

One has to know, for example, that an M-class ticket earns 50% greater miles and qualifying miles than an K class, but that elite level trumps fare class for upgrades, so a Platinum on a K-fare for a low-volume city pair and date might enjoy a first class upgrade anyway for a lower fare cost, although he'd earn fewer miles than the M-fare Gold back in coach.

This scenario might be further complicated by, say, who buys the ticket. If it's the company's dime, why not buy the M-fare under the guise of flexibility, and get half again as many miles, plus a more likely upgrade? Such is the mindset of the frequent flyer.

A frequent flyer program is not a game, but it is a system of complex rules. For this reason, we often talk about "playing" or "gaming" the system. It's sort of a misnomer: while errors sometimes create exploitable opportunities, loyalty programs are tightly controlled and closely revenue-managed. The game is not so much a process of cheating the system as it is one of exploring its possibility space and interpolating mastery within it. The fact that the rules are opaque and often change makes the process both challenging and gratifying.

The rewards for such mastery include social value (elite status), service value (free upgrades, special queues), and exchange value (flight rewards). Most amateurs focus on flight rewards as the primary motivation for using a frequent flyer program (and they seldom earn enough for those awards).

But experts focus on service value and the social value. Once you fly enough, the benefits of shorter lines and first class upgrades become far more immediately appealing. Besides, business travelers have a hard time finding time to travel for pleasure anyway.

The social value of frequent travel shouldn't be overlooked either. While it might seem silly to the outsider, social standing motivates people in any club. Like the Prada triangle on a carry-on, the Platinum tag confers intangible information about its bearer, for better or worse.


As loyalty programs have evolved, their operators have become more and more aware that the exchange value of points earned in these programs is often a less motivating incentive for loyalty than the social and service value of those same points. When mileage runners plan an end-of-year cross-country expedition to earn or retain an elite level, they do so partly because that accomplishment will yield more bonus miles for award redemption.

But they do so at least as much because having status feels good, impresses others, and offers immediate and repeated benefit at the airport and in the air. People do crazy things for miles.

Few people call Xbox Live Achievements and PSN Trophies "loyalty programs", but that's indeed what they are. They offer players incentives to continue buying and playing titles for one console over another. Developers are required to include Achievements or Trophies in their games, and players can earn them by completing specific tasks, some central to play (reaching a certain level) and others peripheral (completing a time run).

Achievements and Trophies primarily confer social status. They are displayed on a user's profile and communicate something intangible about overall video game adeptness. Some have marveled at the effectiveness of these programs, since the points awarded have no exchange value whatsoever. And to some extent, that astonishment is well-placed. It's indeed not possible to trade-in points from one's Gamerscore for, say, new games, or for Microsoft Points.

But that's not the whole story. Achievements offer a compact way for players to communicate with one another about their accomplishments. They serve an evidentiary function, affirming particular feats and prowess. This service value is similar to social value, but offers more than just status: it gives players a way of verifying their in-game acts during social encounters.


Some games are really just loyalty programs laid bare, like Foursquare and Gowalla. Both are mobile, social applications that allow users to "check-in" at a variety locations and to earn points and rewards based on those check-ins. They also (and perhaps primarily) provide social media services, inviting users to leave and read tips about a location and to find nearby friends.

Both services provide challenges for players to complete to earn rewards in the form of digital emblems. On Foursquare, these take the form of badges, and on Gowalla they are called "trips". Gowalla also offers a more deliberate implementation of location collection (via a passport stamp metaphor), and a kind of virtual geocaching that borrows from the company's Facebook game Pack Rat.

Gowalla's trips are more like tour guides than like missions or challenges. For example, the London Pub Crawl shows the ten destinations required to complete the trip; the player simply must go to them and check-in.

This model is almost identical to Achievements or Trophies. The options are presented upfront, and it's up to the player to choose to complete one. Upon doing so, the game confers a reward that bears currency across a broader context.

Foursquare's badges, by contrast, represent logics that are not always revealed to the player in advance. Some badges are tied to specific locations, and others are extrapolated from the tags with which users describe a location.

For example, three check-ins at metro stops three mornings in a row earns the "Metro" badge, and check-ins at venues tagged with "douchebag" earns the Douchebag badge.

"Playing" Foursquare involves forming hypotheses about what badges might exist based on chance and rumor. Patterns begin to emerge based on the different types of locations and tags, and players also begin to see the spoils won by friends and competitors.

Once these opportunities become apparent, players may seek out particular locations at specific times in order to earn corresponding badges. It's a process more like the expert frequent flyer planning his trips to maximize earnings or to insure a free upgrade, and much less like the Xbox Live player who attempts an optional mission in exchange for extra Achievement points.

Foursquare shows how a game-like loyalty program can take advantage of the process of using a service, making the experience one of revealing and exploiting unseen rules, rather than relying on the occlusion of these rules to drive a bureaucratic exchange program.

Unfortunately, the most foregrounded activities in Foursquare are not the badges, but the check-ins and their associated "mayorships," which are awarded to the user who has checked in more than anyone else at a particular venue.

When seen through the lens of a loyalty program, the fact and frequency of individual gestures is the most meaningless part of the experience. It may be necessary to check in to play Foursquare (and to find friends at or read tips), but so is reloading in Call of Duty or printing a boarding pass to board a plane. Those actions are marked but not celebrated by the Achievements and frequent flyer programs, yet Foursquare insists on pummeling users and non-users alike with Twitter and Facebook notifications for every check-in the player performs.

Imagine if you got a text message every time any of your friends completed a jump in Assassin's Creed. That's Foursquare. The result puts check-ins instead of accomplishment at the center of play. Creator Dennis Crowley confirms the prominence of check ins: the company's ultimate goal, he says, is "to make check-ins synonymous with Foursquare."

Foursquare demonstrates high social value among those who enjoy meeting up with others at bars and cafes and the like. As with Achievements, there is no true exchange value for Foursquare points -- they can't be traded in for beers or espressos or airline tickets. But Foursquare destroys its own potential service value by hiding the game of diving and earning badges under the enormous detritus of actions people perform in the pursuit of social benefit.

Loyalty to What?

Frequent flyer programs encourage repeat patronage of an airline by offering social status, improved service and benefits, and free trips over time. Achievements encourage purchases of more Xbox games more frequently by offering a record of accomplishments and a way to share and validate them among friends and competitors.

If a game like Foursquare operates like a loyalty program, what target does it serve? To what lord does Foursquare pledge fealty?

Some argue that social media services like Foursquare and Gowalla turn ordinary life itself into a game, so everyday practice itself must be the system the loyalty program serves. But I'm unconvinced. Loyalty demands choice, and so do games.

Instead, Foursquare and Gowalla are self-referential loyalty programs. They encourage loyalty to themselves.

They compete for user's allegiance to their very implementations of the idea of wrapping playful collection rules around their everyday experiences. And the differences between the services will inevitably decide whose program evokes more auto-fealty.

From the perspective of social value, Foursquare and Gowalla seem to be used among slightly different communities. The former skews toward younger stateside urban hipsters, while the latter has expanded into a broader international community.

It seems clear that the social value of participation is more readymade among Foursquare's audience, since they are more likely to be concerned with building social status around going out in the first place. Just as Williamsburg hipsters are unlikely to be impressed by my Delta Medallion status, so I am unlikely to care about their Foursquare accomplishments.

From the perspective of service value, Foursquare provides something approaching a game, one with rules and accomplishments that require non-trivial effort. But the mayorship concept severely limits the service's ability to construct a sense of usable loyalty. Imagine if each airport offered only one flyer good service. The fact is, a regular at a bar is more likely to get a free pour thanks to being a regular, not on account of her make-believe Foursquare status.

What's happened is clear. Foursquare has confused two targets of its users' loyalty: that extended to the establishments that serve as locations in the service, and that extended to the service itself. Instead of check-ins and mayorship, features like user tips and badges are more credible grounds for loyalty.

And of those, only badges offer the designed experience that service value really requires; tips are crowdsourced from user contributions. That's not all bad, but it's a strange bet to place on product whose only value comes from its ability to offer interestingly coherent slices through the urban landscape. It makes Foursquare feel like a venture-funded experiment in the lifestyle of aggregation.

Perhaps Foursquare and Gowalla represent signals for the future of game-based loyalty programs rather than cultural forces of their own. Any business or industry can learn something from Foursquare's effort to make the discovery of the permutations of a commercial ecosystem the point of an experience, rather than the obstacles that stand in its way.

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About the Author(s)

Ian Bogost


Dr. Ian Bogost is an award-winning videogame designer and media philosopher. He is Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC (which makes games about social and political issues), and an award-winning independent developer (Cow Clicker, A Slow Year). Find him online at http://bogost.com.

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