I enjoyed the Badgeville CEO's takedown of Foursquare on Techcrunch this morning. Here is a fascinating quote:
Badgeville Co-founder and CEO Kris Duggan pulls no punches when it comes to one of the most visible and early adopters of gamification, the check-in king: Foursquare. The CEO says that Foursquare was early in its attempts at gamification, but that its incentivization models remain fundamentally flawed.
Duggan points to the “Mayorship” system within Foursquare: “You have literally hundreds of people and only one mutually-exclusive point of recognition, the Mayor. What happens to the other hundreds of people? Not only are they not engaged, but you don’t take into consideration different types of users.” Duggan believes you need to engage not only the heavy user, but medium and light users as well. Rather than a one-size-fits-all methodology, you can appeal to each user type and incent them accordingly.
I have a slightly different take. Just as there's not really a tablet market, only an iPad market, I don't think Gamification exists. I think Foursquare exists, and I think it's excellent. But besides Foursquare, has "gamification" ever meaningfully advanced a product?
I surveyed the community services I frequent - Metafilter, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Flickr, Mlkshk, Mixel. These services do present goals to their users and they have crafted a user experience that nudges them towards those goals - but they do it without points, ranks and the other mechanisms and patterns advertised in the Techcrunch post above. I also browsed the success stories and case studies of the companies linked from Techcrunch, and I couldn't find a single hit.
People love to share their favorite restaurants, bars and hangouts with their friends, and Foursquare built a fantastic engineering and product culture around that idea while creating real value for the venues & partners who pay the bills. As usual, the truth is simpler than it appears, and at some point people are going to wake up to the fact that the gamification industry is a scam. "Mayorship" was (and is) a fun conversation point, but it's never been what keeps people returning to Foursquare.
And as you've probably guessed, I don't think Gamification was a meaningful factor in Foursquare's success either. Foursquare made community outreach a priority both for the most active users of the mobile app and the merchants and restaurant owners who pay to see the other end of the Foursquare experience. Most businesses go to potential customers asking for a chance to demonstrate how they can create value, Foursquare walked in the door knowing as much or more about a restaurant's best customers than they did themselves — what specials are the most effective at bringing in new people, who are the best customers, where else they like to go, and so on.