Accountability FTW: an open letter to FourSquare

What makes a game a game?

The world — and by “world” I of course mean “everybody who’s at SXSW right now” — is all a-twitter about FourSquare, a website aiming to turn your social life into an adventure game complete with experience points and trophies (they call ‘em badges), and the self-proclaimed sequel to the ill-fated Dodgeball.  While I am definitely #notatsxsw, the flood of SXSW tweets about #foursquare got me more than a little curious.

So I signed up, and of course my four bigshot social media maven friends (who are NOT #notatsxsw) were already on there.  I poke around a bit, getting a feel for what would be the “action” of this game.  The site is brand spanking new, so while the mechanics are largely in place, the content is not. 

It takes me 2 minutes to realize you could rack up a ton of points just clicking “sure I done that” on lots of random tasks.  My immediate reaction: this is a web-based button-masher.  So of course, since my brash editorial brain craves a global audience, I took it right to Twitter:

nthmost: #foursquare isn’t a fun game because there’s no accountability. It’s a web-based button-masher. iPhone app doubly so.
about a day ago
MyFriendTim: #foursquare maybe scoring is not so revolutionary. # of friends on FB or followers here is already real world score
about a day ago
nthmost: @MyFriendTim true, but that’s the #twitter game. #foursquare should be better at being the game it’s trying to be. :)
about a day ago
MyFriendTim: hmm don’t have #foursquare but I got the idea that it effectively scored stupid acts not that it stupidly scored effective acts
about a day ago
nthmost: @MyFriendTim I just signed up an hour ago to check out #foursquare . I already have 5 pts b/c I found stuff I could click “yeah me too” on.
about a day ago
MyFriendTim: re #foursquare ugh. Stupid scores for stupid acts
about a day ago
nthmost: People make a lot of tasks like “go to We Be Sushi on Valencia and get the Early Bird Special”. Uh, yup. check. done it. #foursquare
about a day ago
nthmost: But okay, maybe it’s yet another form of lifestreaming, similar to how the stuff you click “favorite” in YouTube can show in your FriendFeed
about a day ago
nthmost: But in that case #foursquare != game. If they don’t want to be a game, that’s cool too. Someone else could make the game I’m wanting here.
about a day ago
nthmost: @MyFriendTim Tasks don’t have to be stupid. They’re player-created / controlled. Which of course means >95% stupid. #foursquare
about a day ago
MyFriendTim: I’ll check it out but I am with you. I don’t want amplifiers of current status games but want more interesting markers #foursquare
about a day ago
nthmost: #foursquare Tasks could be interesting in aggregate. Could help suggest what to do in strange cities, help ppl find others who do cool stuff
about a day ago

As it happened, @foursquare was tracking mentions of #foursquare, and caught me in the act of my loudmouth editorializing.  [will clean up all Twitter copy-pasting later]

@nthmost Sorry you hate foursquare (and fun. & puppies). I hope we can still be friends. :) JK – we got tons of stuff to fix. Bear w/ us!  4:56 PM Mar 14th from web

@foursquare I kid because I love. I just submitted a nice fat suggestion for you. (I do hate fun though. >:-|  5:02 PM Mar 14th from TweetDeck in reply to foursquare

@foursquare I actually just spent a lot of time looking at your site hoping to see a list of “what’s coming”… didn’t find it  5:04 PM Mar 14th from TweetDeck

@nthmost. Ha. We love you too. And no list of what’s “coming soon” because we ran out of time (I was fixing bugs at airport!). Soon tho!  5:10 PM Mar 14th from web


I honestly do love what they’re setting out to do.  I just think it could be a much better game, if a game is what they want to be, by incorporating some really basic principles of what makes any game fun and addictive.  Of course I briefly considered “well I’ll just make my OWN douchebag game!”, but that lasted all of 10 seconds as I realized I had no interest in starting a website defined as successful by having ever-increasing overhead and no income.

Hence, I headed over to the FourSquare suggestion box and wrote the following, complete with lovingly hand-crafted HTML for best readability (this is straight copy-paste):

More Fun with a Little Accountability

Accountability may not sound like Fun, but a little goes a long way in making a game more fun and addictive. How about sparking creativity by letting players optionally create simple tests to “prove” the task was done?


  • amount of the bill at the restaurant after ordering a specific meal
  • color of the person’s hair that the player was supposed to meet
  • name of the guy who owns that little hole-in-the-wall cafe
  • second word in the last paragraph on page 31 of the King’s Quest III manual

In other words, tiny bits of data that would be really easy to get if you’re there doing it, and either impossible to get otherwise, or just a silly pain in the butt to remember to look up on the web just to get the points.

Format could be similar to a captcha. Task-creators should have the option of showing to the player that there will be a validation required, otherwise people might later click “I’ve done this” and find they’re missing the data they need, possibly being unable to get it again.

Certain badges could be comprised only of tasks that require proof. Since proofs would be totally optional, a feature like this would add a layer to the game rather than change the way the whole game works.

–Naomi Most, March 14, 2009

Tangential thoughts: This experience has caused me to evaluate my “voice” on Twitter and around the net.  I’m happy with all of the above interactions. “People love a loose cannon”, as a family member once quipped at me over 12 years ago.  But I have some thinking to do as to how best to capitalize upon this persona’s comfort with having strong, somewhat abrasive opinions.

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