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With Swarm, Foursquare goes full circle with its gamification mechanics

May 11, 2015 • gal

swarm enterprise gamificationSwarm, a mobile app that continues the original Foursquare application of past fame, is a social check-in app. Foursquare was well known for its pioneering use of gamification, yet the initial launch of swarm omitted most of the gamification elements that had made Foursquare famous in the first place. Now, the new release of Swarm brings back a lot of the gamification fun that the original Foursquare once had. As I wrote several months ago, Foursquare is a great case study to try and understand what works and what doesn’t in enterprise gamification design, and to understand the strengths and weaknesses of points, badges and leaderboards.

When Foursquare started out in 2009, gamification was a big part of its success. Users could get points for checking in some location, earn badges, and even achieve mayor status if they checked into a certain venue on more days than anyone else in the past 60 days. With time, social networks caught up with location based check-ins and Foursquare’s popularity began to decline.

At a certain point Foursqaure even stopped using its famous points and badges system, which made it so popular in the first place. Foursquare explained this by saying that the game mechanics that worked when they had 50,000 users a day were not effective anymore once they grew to their current 50,000,000 users a day. People don’t want to compete against a mass of other people, and everyone that isn’t at the top of the leaderboard gets de-motivated quickly. As I mentioned in my previous post, what we can learn about gamification from Foursquare’s story is that gamification mechanics are powerful and can drive user behavior; yet they can’t work in a void. The gamified behavior has to contain an intrinsic value that is not tied to the game mechanics. Otherwise, the novelty will wear off. In other words, gamification isn’t an end in itself, but a design choice intended to drive real value for the user. The fact that Swarm has now decided to bring back gamification features, gives us the opportunity to reflect on what works and why: the modifications they made are telling and applicable to enterprise gamification.


Leaderboards can be tricky. On the one hand, everyone likes to win and leaderboards tend to drive engagement. On the other hand, leaderboards are set up in a “winner takes all” manner that drives away everyone except the select few that are vying for the top spot. This is important – since coaching helps the middle 60%, not the top or bottom performers, and good enterprise gamification is a lot like coaching, since it implies the next best action.

To make gamification work best, everyone has to have the feeling that they count. If not, you’ll find your users giving up early on and not engaging. It seems like the guys from Swarm have taken notice of this insight while avoiding leaderboards with too many participants.

Swarm has the option to create a small leaderboard between friends as well as a one player game within the world of stickers. These smaller leaderboards may have a higher chance of working for several reasons. Firstly, the smaller number of participants enlarges the chance of finding yourself at the top of the board. Secondly, these small leaderboards leave room for the creation of a feeling of a “team” between a group of friends, whereas anonymous leaderboards create alienation instead of connection. In addition, the option for a single player game enables users to experience their progress in relation to themselves. The user becomes the hero of their game which creates a lot more engagement with the gamification mechanism (Swarm in this case) and much more enjoyment for the user.

Collecting badges and stickers

People have been collecting things as a hobby for centuries. Stamps, cards, memorabilia; Badges and stickers are the digital evolution of this habit. Users tell us that they feel that their badges and stickers are a great way to express something unique about themselves that enriches their online profile and presence. Although we emphasize the importance of encouraging intrinsic motivation, this method (which in essence is a form of extrinsic motivation) can be a good supplement to intrinsic motivators.  Users can send a message about their achievements, and in the case of Swarm, of the places they frequent and favor. Research also shows that the scarcity of an item (as in the case of the badges and stickers in swarm) enlarges its desirability.

It will be interesting to see how Swarm’s return to gamification mechanics affects their popularity and how it assists them in returning to the engagement level that was enjoyed in the past by Foursquare. We’ll be watching, so check out the blog for updates!

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