🦘 Go-go-gadget Gowalla

I’ve been test-driving both Foursquare and Gowalla from a game perspective for a few weeks now. Both are location based services that allow you to virtually ‘check in’ at locations. To cut to the chase: I prefer Gowalla. It’s more akin to a game (for lack of a better word) than Foursquare currently is, but it’s not exactly saying much. Both services seem to lack clout at the moment.

First there’s Foursquare. The idea behind the service is chiefly to track check-ins at various locations. Checking in the most at a spot earns you the title of mayor. Secondly, there’s Gowalla. The idea behind this service is still to check in at various locations and, sure enough, it also tracks whoever checks in the most at a spot. But instead of earning titles, you earn virtual items.

Gowalla hands out these items randomly upon checking in. You can then trade them at any location. Browse the stuff stuff available at a spot, pick one you like and trade it for an item from your own stash. So while Foursquare’s mechanic is about measuring check-ins and playing the numbers game, Gowalla goes for collecting useless stuff. OK, so there’s not really that much game to begin with.

Still, Foursquare is kind of passive in its use. You can track your friends and earn badges (the same as Achievements, Trophies, etc.), but Gowalla quickly turns into a small economy. Whether you like it or not, Gowalla’s items quickly attain a value and start to influence how you trade.

The most obvious value is its intrinsic worth. As a game freak a Tabletop Arcade sounds awesome to me, while a Bratwurst is infinitely less attractive. Just the name of the item is probably enough to evoke a similar or opposite reaction from you. Combine that with the icon of the item and there’s an immediate value.

Slightly less obvious value is its rarity. As I use public transport on a daily basis, it became painfully obvious that Luggage Tags are a hopelessly common item. Each train station is littered with them. A bit less common are the Toy Trains, you can still encounter them regularly, but the Luggage Tags outnumber them. Lastly there’s just about everything else: a Sound Board and a Tabletop Arcade were pretty much unique.

Then there’s the most contrived value: numerical. Each item has an issued number, telling you how many of that particular item exist. This creates the unusual side-effect that lower numbered items feel a bit more weighty than high numbered items. After all, you feel a bit more special having picked up the 4,823th item, rather than the 36,221st one.

Those three values create a simple economy, but there’s another element I still left out. Each item also tracks who has owned it. So it happened that at work I found an item that travelled from the south of the country to Amsterdam, only to be picked up by a colleague and dropped at the office for me to pick up. Once you discover that feature, your trades become more ‘strategic’ and you start to pick up and drop items to create enticing propositions, in the hope that people take item along and add to its ‘travel log’. It’s somewhat thrilling to check an item and discover its long trek around the country and beyond.

Foursquare simply can’t compete with that at the moment. Though it’s far easier to engage with it’s also more shallow as a result. Nevertheless it’s easier to understand as even Gowalla seems to be confused by their own dormant game system. For instance, in Gowalla you can also store items in your collection, but why you would ever want to is a mystery. Doing so removes the item from the trading pool and pretty much erases a travel log from the game. The same one that was pretty much your ‘reward’ for trading in the first place.

Likewise completing your collection means earning all available items in the game. All of them! Segmenting it into subsets would make hunting for items a bit more tangible and manageable. Anybody who has tradedPanini-stickers, can tell you that getting all stickers in the album might the ultimate goal, but being able to complete an entire page or a single six-sticker image was a small achievement in itself. Gowalla lacks this.

So while Foursquare isn’t trying to be a plaything, Gowalla seems to somewhat miss the point of its own generated virtual economy. Yet, they could both be actual games. For now, both services seem to be more interested in indexing and providing some kind of search tool for locations. Which is all fine and dandy, but – going out on an anecdotal limb here – I fear that most users do it for the titles/items in the same way that Achievements and Trophies are now almost mandatory for game systems.

And just to give you an idea about how long such ‘games’ can stick around…

I still own that Panini-album.